Self-Compassion for Shame and Eating Disorder Recovery

A girl's hands offer fruitShame is one of the most powerful emotions. Individuals entering therapy for an eating disorder often report shame about weight, shape, and the physical act of eating. In my practice, I also often hear about a type of shame that goes beyond body and food: the shame of existence. This kind of shame is not about actions one may have taken, but about the mere fact one exists.

The shame of existence may lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts, deep disconnection from others, and harmful behaviors such as restricting food, binging on food, purging food, or exercising to the point of injury.

The Root of Shame

Shame occurs when what we hold as the ideal of what we should be differs from how we perceive ourselves. This gap can produce shame and guilt about our existence. Experiences in childhood that were not nurturing, or things that happen in adulthood that deeply affect our sense of self and well-being, such as traumatic or abusive situations, can also contribute to feelings of shame.

Shame is something we have all experienced in moments of failed connection, social rejection, or when we have made a terrible mistake. People who experience the shame of existence may feel this as a violent, overwhelming feeling or heaviness pressing down on one’s body, mind, and soul.

Self-hatred and shame are two words people I work with often use to describe their internal world. Some describe it as a feeling they have had since a young age—perhaps as young as 5—like they didn’t belong, weren’t quite right, didn’t fit in, were fat, or unlovable as a result of both their personality and the body in which they lived.

The Power of Self-Compassion

When we feel the intensity of shame, messages about loving ourselves can feel superficial, especially in the throes of When positive affirmations and messages about self-love fall short and shame seems to be winning out, self-compassion can offer hope.an eating disorder. It may feel as if positive affirmations don’t quite reduce the level of emotional distress experienced. When positive affirmations and messages about self-love fall short and shame seems to be winning out, self-compassion can offer hope.

Self-compassion means you direct the loving kindness you would show to someone else toward yourself. In her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Dr. Kristin Neff says self-compassion is the practice of being kind and understanding when faced with personal shortcomings or something you don’t like about yourself.

5 Self-Compassion Practices for Eating Disorder Recovery

If you are curious what might happen if you enlist self-compassion in service of your commitment to recovery from an eating disorder, I want to offer you five tips:

  1. Develop a regular eating routine: This is a foundational aspect of eating disorder recovery and also an act of self-compassion in meeting the body’s need for food to sustain life. Eating regularly and working with a registered dietitian can be a great act of self-compassion.
  2. Use positive language toward yourself: Your inner critic can be powerful and loud with judgment and blame. Practice stopping and thinking whether you would say those words to a loved one, close friend, or yourself as a young child. If you wouldn’t, how can you transform that sentence into something loving and kind?
  3. Write a compassionate letter to yourself: This is similar to a journaling exercise where you imagine that you are a loving friend and write a letter to yourself. What would this friend say to you about recovery? How would your friend express compassion toward you?
  4. Create a mantra of self-compassion: Think of a statement of self-compassion for yourself and write it on a card you can carry in your pocket. When you are struggling with completing a meal or experiencing negative body image, use it to remind yourself of your ability to observe this struggle from a place of mindfulness instead of reactivity. Your mantra could be, “May I be kind to myself when I am hungry,” or, “May I be kind to myself when I am full.”
  5. Take a breath and ask for help: Mindfulness and meditation are key practices for self-compassion. When you are feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to breathe. Taking three deep breaths to calm and center yourself is important. The next step is to ask for help. You don’t have to do this alone. Whether it be a professional or a trusted love one, it is an important act of self-compassion to allow others to help you through this difficult time.

References:

  1. Germer, C. K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. Guilford Press: New York.
  2. Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind. New Harbinger Publications: California.
  3. Kornfield, J. (1993). A Path with Heart: A Guide Through The Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. Bantam: New York.
  4. Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. William Morrow: New York.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nikki Rollo, PhD, LMFT, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Benjamin

    Benjamin

    March 2nd, 2016 at 8:06 AM

    I will tell you that at one point things got so bad for me that I would do nothing but go to work every day because I was afraid of what I would have to eat if I had to go out with friends or what they would think that I looked like. It was bad, and it is still something that I have to work through pretty much daily, day by day, because there is no quick or magic fix.

  • Regina

    Regina

    March 3rd, 2016 at 12:37 PM

    I’m not really sure where my actions spring from but I do know that there is a shame that I feel now every time I binge and purge. Although I like the way that I have lost tons of weight doing it there is a part of me who knows that I have also lost a part of myself because of it too.

  • michelle r

    michelle r

    March 4th, 2016 at 7:27 AM

    There will come a time in all of our lives that we have to learn to forgive ourselves. There is no need to hang onto the past so fiercely, for as we have all probably seen time and again there is nothing to gain form that instead of constant beating oneself up about the things that cannot be changed. I think that once we have that real awareness that we want to be a different person but that this does not have to involve continually living in the past, I think that we could all come to live a much happier and fuller life.

  • Lea

    Lea

    March 5th, 2016 at 7:37 AM

    This is an issue that I have been dealing with so long that I think that I wouldn’t know how to live without it having a stunning impact over every single thing that I eat and do.

    It would be weird to not have to think about food and exercise in the way that I do now, and yet also so freeing being able to just eat and behave like I want without ever feeling the personal repercussions.

  • Allie

    Allie

    March 7th, 2016 at 6:49 AM

    You have to make positive affirmations as habitual in your life as the negativity has become. It is not always easy to start that process, but I think that the more you try to add these into your daily meditations the easier that this will become. I think that eventually you will start to see just like others do that the good in you is far more important than and more significant than the bad.

  • margie

    margie

    March 8th, 2016 at 8:36 AM

    asking for help I guess is not in my DNA

  • Robert

    Robert

    March 9th, 2016 at 11:33 AM

    It is important to understand that this is not something that most people can overcome on their own. Just like with any other ailment for many people this is going to take years of intensive work and therapy to fight this battle with food addiction or eating disorders. And not only that you have to work on rebuilding all that this kind of disorder takes away from you as well.

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