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