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Shame. The soul-eating emotion

We can never touch the depth of vulnerability when shame and guilt are present. Most people with eating issues are driven by this devastating feeling of shame.

After a couple mindful eating sessions, one of my patients whispered to me that she gulps down her food without swallowing. It was not because she liked the experience of eating in this way (few people do) but she thought she could trick her mind with eating fastly as if she hasn’t eaten anything (forbidden).

Almost all my clients tell me that they eat certain foods secretly and hastily when nobody is around. For most of them this pattern exists for many years and is often repeated on a daily basis. Not only these eating habits have become a conditioned pattern, also the underlying feelings of shame and the anxiety of being “discovered” are non-stop present. Imagine living with this hidden secret of “not being good enough” and how energy-consuming this must be…

After doing a bit of research on the differences between shame and guilt, what cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict says is quite clarifying, “Shame arises when one’s ‘defects’ are exposed to others, and results from the negative evaluation of others (whether real or imagined); guilt, on the other hand, comes from one’s own negative evaluation of oneself”. Psychoanalyst Helen Lewis added that, “The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus.”

Simply put, a person who feels guilty about certain eating behavior would say “I did something bad.”, while someone who feels shame is saying “I am bad”. Brené Brown states : “I’m pro-guilt. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behavior. It occurs when we compare something we’ve done – or failed to do – with our personal values”. Shame on the other hand corrodes courage and it makes us believe we are not capable of change.

In mindful eating sessions I spend quite some time on exploring ‘shame’ Participants learn to identify this affect/cognition and how it is expressed in many different ways within themselves. Sometimes shame shows itself as ‘the inner critic (or self-blamer)’ or ‘the pusher (for who it is never good enough)’.

Hidden shame

The roots of the word shame are thought to derive from an older word meaning “to cover”. Covering oneself (downward cast eyes, lowered head, unstable posture) is a natural expression of shame. Other physical sensations which occur with shame are warmth or heat and blushing.

It is clear that the feelings of shame have huge consequences for our wellbeing.

Gershen Kaufman summed up many of the consequences of shame in one paragraph of his book on the psychology of shame (Kaufman, Gershen, Shame: The Power of Caring, Rochester, 1992). “…shame is important because no other affect is more disturbing to the self, none more central for the sense of identity. In the context of normal development, shame is the source of low self-esteem and deficient body-image. In the context of pathological development, shame is central to the emergence of alienation, loneliness and perfectionism”.

The art of surrendering to vulnerability

It is definitely true that many eating disorders are largely disorders of shame. When our participants abuse food (or their bodies), shame and guilt can get in the way of finding support and thus moving forward. I believe that mindful eating teachers have a responsibility to create a safe and holding environment for vulnerability. When feelings of shame are embraced without any judgements, something shifts how we relate to ourselves. If our participants can share their story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can never survive. Often they mention this as one of the most transformative experiences in the mindful eating program.

Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen.  So it is our duty to acknowledge over and over again that it takes courage to expose the hidden stories and all the imperfections to the light because it is much easier to hide in the dark.

Brené Brown says : “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Caroline Baerten, Belgium

What are your experiences with shame and guilt in a mindful eating course? How do you address these affects/cognitions with your patients and participants?


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