Skip Sub-navigation

The Role of Shame in Eating Disorders

by Jane Shure

What is Shame?

Shame is that feeling of being inherently flawed, damaged, and defective. It dampens spontaneity, drains life energy, and keeps us prisoners of self-doubt. Shame has many faces and shows up with different voices, but they all say that the person we present to the world is deficient, that we won’t amount to much, and that we should keep ourselves hidden.

Feelings of shame live in the body and get stored there over time. Shame can evoke strong urges to shrink ourselves and disappear from sight in an attempt to avoid perceived interpersonal humiliation. It can produce agitation, suspiciousness, resentment, irritability, a tendency to blame others, and even terror. Shame leaves us wanting to flee rather than be present. It makes us want to block out emotions because we don’t know how to soothe hurts or manage pain.

People often confuse shame with guilt, but there are important differences that distinguish them. Guilt focuses on an action that we have done or failed to do. With guilt, we feel bad about our behavior, while with shame, the feeling isn’t that we have done something bad, but that we are bad.

Shame causes feelings to get converted into beliefs, and with time these beliefs come to be thought of as truths. For instance, "I feel stupid" becomes "I am stupid;" "I don’t feel loved" becomes "I’m not lovable;" "I’m unhappy in this situation" becomes "It’s all my fault." Shame supports name-calling, accuses self-blame despite innocence, and holds us responsible for others’ shortcomings. All these things create fertile ground for ongoing self-criticism.

Individuals who live with high degrees of shame tend to tell themselves: "I’m weak. I’m disgusting. I’m pitiful. I’m damaged. I’m inadequate. I deserve to be put in my place." They frequently assume that others view them in the same negative ways that they view themselves. They anticipate humiliation and disdain from others and feel undeserving of kindness and praise.

This high degree of shame can become so basic to a person’s inner life that therapists often call this spiraling cycle of self-degradation as being "shame-based." While everyone encounters moments of shame, people who are shame-based get stuck in their shame. Others have the resilience to recover and reclaim feeling good about themselves, but those who are shame-based find such recovery difficult—at times it may seem nearly impossible.

How Families Promote Shame

In the normal course of development, all children feel inadequate to certain tasks. They may feel less capable than an older sibling, frustrated in the course of skill mastery, or somehow "different" from those around them. Good parenting helps children struggle with and manage these challenging feelings. When parents coach their children to accept feelings and frustrations, it helps build self-esteem. When parents convey compassion towards their children’s vulnerable feelings, they teach soothing techniques and build the capacity for their children to tolerate frustration and imperfection.

When opportunities for compassion and understanding are missed, children may not develop sufficient skills for managing the normal feelings of shame that arise, and they may become deficient in the skills of self-comfort and calming.

Children who grow up in shame-based families learn to please others in order to avoid experiencing shame and disapproval. In families where blaming, humiliation, and critical parenting styles are dominant, children’s self-worth erodes and they develop fewer healthy defenses for coping with emotional stress. Seeking ways to feel good, they develop radar for discerning how to please the people in their lives. They organize themselves to figure out "who should I be?" rather than the healthier stances of "how do I feel and what do I want to do about it?" These children are most at risk for developing self-destructive defenses and are therefore at greater risk for becoming perfectionistic about their actions and appearance.

Parent Styles that Influence Self- and Body-Esteem

Promotes Low EsteemPromotes High Esteem
ControllingUnderstanding
JudgmentalAccepting of differences
AvoidantAttentive
IndirectDirect
Behaves like a victimDemonstrates caring for self
Expects child to pleaseRecognizes child as separate
Angry/disapprovingTolerates emotions/sets boundaries
Encourages perfectionismRealistic, healthy standards
Compares and competesDoesn’t compare/compete
DefensiveAccountable
Diets/body dissatisfactionHealthy eating/body satisfaction
Depression/anxietyBalanced in mood
Under/over exerciseEnjoys moderate exercise

Shame, Dissociation, and Eating Disorders

Shame—as well as hurt, sadness, anger, and fear—gets under the skin and is incorporated in the body. The body becomes a container for negative thoughts, painful feelings, and distorted perceptions. Coping with these emotions and thoughts becomes an enormous challenge. Limited in their repertoire of choices, shame-based individuals instinctively search for ways to get rid of distressing feelings. Sometimes the mind dissociates, which is the process of cutting off awareness to what is going on. Instead of experiencing these feelings, it will block out those that might feel too overwhelming. Dissociating from unacceptable thoughts and feelings allows people to live "as if" their thoughts, feelings, and life situations do not exist.

In all forms, eating disorders offer a form of adaptive dissociation. Eating disorder symptoms—restricting, purging, compulsively overeating, always feeling fat—provide a way of distracting attention away from one’s original sources of shame. They direct the mind to criticize the body and obsess about food. Thoughts get conceptualized in "either/or" terms: there is good and bad, right and wrong, thin and fat, and nothing in between. "I feel so fat" draws attention toward weight loss rather than an exploration of distressing feelings.

While eating disorder behaviors are attempts to diminish the harmful effects of shame, they end up strengthening and maintaining it. After months or years of living with an eating disorder, women and men often have no idea that their disorder is related to childhood experiences, shame-based patterns, or forgotten trauma. Over time they come to believe that they are just bad for having their symptoms.

Guidelines for Healing the Wounds of Shame

Compassion is the antidote to shame because it resists judgment and seeks understanding. It allows for imperfection and mistakes and sees life as a journey of experimentation, discovery, and learning. As we experience compassion, our inner critic loses power and we become able to treat ourselves with the kindness that we believe our loved ones deserve. Remember that it takes patience, hard work, and much practice to change habits of condemnation and disapproval.

What You Can Do:

  1. Become aware of how you talk to yourself and what your inner critic says. Noticing and becoming aware is the first step in any change process.
  2. Replace words of shame and criticism with words of compassion and understanding. Notice how much harder it is to speak to yourself in nonjudgmental language. If it would be mean to say something to a loved one, then don’t say it to yourself. Practice journal writing with words that tolerate imperfection and promote self-acceptance.
  3. Accept that you are a human being with a range of feelings and experiences, not an inanimate object that is meant to be controlled. Learn to focus your attention on thoughts of respect and awe for what your body does for you rather than getting annoyed by what it doesn’t do for you.
  4. Surround yourself with people who treat you well and stay away from those who cause you to feel bad about yourself.
  5. Acknowledge any experiences of being shamed. When we talk with people we trust, we can begin to heal our shame.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.