On Shame and Eating Disorders

"The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself."
-Anna Quindlen

In honor of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I wanted to share some thoughts on the intersectionality of shame, disordered eating, and body image.

Shame is a big player in eating disorders. Understanding shame starts with becoming aware of what it feels like, what triggers it, and building enough tolerance for it so that you can learn where these voices actually come from (chances are, they didn’t start with you). Shame is often a trigger for a food or exercise binge, or for the forceful power that perpetuates self-disgust and restriction. It’s that lead blanket that keeps you in bed for days on end. It’s the feeling that keeps you from spending time with your friends, because you’re afraid that whatever you say will expose you as being worth rejecting. It’s the part of you that thinks: If I eat this, I am bad. Since I ate this, I am bad. If I don’t run today, I am bad. It may be hard to hear me talk about these feelings, so let me add: While these feelings are real, and they come from messages you’ve internalized throughout your life, they are absolutely not the truth.

When we talk about shame, we are also talking about our capacity to love and to be connected. Sometimes, being connected hurts. We have no power over other people’s minds, feelings, opinions, or behavior- but throughout our lives, we are dependent on others to help us survive. From the moment we are infants needing nurturance, holding, food, love, and warmth, we depend on an “other” to care for us, since we can’t do it for ourselves. Gradually the understanding emerges of an “other” whom we totally depend on but cannot control. Babies will use their gaze, coos and cries, and smiles to influence the caretaking of another person, which develops into how we negotiate relationships as adults.

When we don’t get what we need from this very powerful “other,”  it stresses our bodies out- we go into one of the fight-flight-freeze-appease modes, depending on what we learned works in tough situations. This raises the stress chemicals in our bodies, shifts our hormones, and allows us to “cut off” psychologically and emotionally the part of our self that has needs. This, unfortunately, is the perfect environment in which to cultivate an eating disorder: Cut off and push away the parts of yourself that tell you what you need, because they are too painful to feel without having the power to tend to them.

In recovery and with therapy, you can learn how to reconnect to those parts of yourself that have needs, wishes, desires, beauty, wants, envy, pain, terror, and joy. It can be difficult and painful, much like having your leg fall asleep and then beginning to feel the pins and needles of reawakening. But it's a path to aliveness- of discovering yourself, and discovering what you really love. And, eventually, discovering- through the help of other people- how you have power and agency when it comes to your relationship with your needs and your heart.

And, oh! To really love! And feel the way loving and being loved gets into your bones! What a beautiful feeling. don't let being afraid stop you from loving yourself.

Because, as an adult, you actually can learn to identify, take care of, and celebrate your own needs and dreams. But none of us can love ourselves and be loved in a vacuum. As activist Virgie Tovar tweeted, “Envision the life you want. Find the people who will help you live that life. Love them unconditionally. Repeat."

Your body is your business. Your health is your business. Nobody but you can decide what is right for you. But how can you make real decisions about what is right for you without having access to all parts of you? Learn how to listen to your body, how to listen to what you need, even if it hurts. Because we are all connected, and learning how to let people in who love you and can help you begin to realize how to be wholly, powerfully you. Because you are worth listening to- always.

Reach out to me at 510-594-4035 or therapy at mollymerson dot com if you would like more information about how to learn to listen to your needs, and navigate these overwhelming and distressing feelings.

(And check out this video from NEDA to learn more about how to enjoy media and culture while staying aware of its impact on your well-being.)