Shame and Bulimia

Contributor: W. Travis Stewart, LPC, Revision Recovery Coaching

mental illnessIt was not the first time a client sat in my office feeling overwhelmed by shame and hiding her face.

“I can’t believe I binged and purged on my way to our appointment. I feel so stupid. I’m such a failure. I can’t even do therapy right.”

When I asked her to tell me more about the binge, she squirmed in her seat and looked at the floor. “It’s so embarrassing.”

“It’s OK. I won’t judge you.”

“Well, I was on my way here and feeling nervous about our session. I realized I was driving by a grocery store and suddenly found myself pulling into the parking lot.”

She paused. “I feel so gross.”

She continued, “I bought some stuff and ate it.”

“What did you buy? How much did you eat?” I could tell she was uncomfortable with the specificity of the questions.

“Some cookies. I ate a bag of Oreos.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Yes. I also ate three chocolate bars. That’s it.”

“What happened then?”

“I felt horrible” she said as she looked out of my office window.

“Where did you go to throw up?” More squirming in her seat.

“I drove to a gas station and threw up in the bathroom.” She paused, then continued, “I can’t believe I did that. It’s disgusting. I just hate myself.”

I responded, “Thanks for trusting me. I know those are tough questions. I’m not ashamed of you. I’m glad you are letting me into your struggle.”

Understanding Shame and Eating Disorders

Group of young people during psychotherapyShame is a key element of bulimia and not only leads to behaviors, but follows them. Self-hatred is not far behind. To overcome bulimia those in recovery will need to learn to courageously face shame head-on.

Family therapist Merle Fossum states that shame is the feeling “that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, unworthy, or not fully valid as a human being.”1

Feeling Less than Others

External shame is the result of feeling less than others. This real or perceived lower status results in feeling worthless and thinking you don’t have anything of value to offer the world.

Internal shame results when we believe we have not lived up to our own standards or expectations. This is a deep rending of the soul that causes us to exclaim, “Why did I do that? I don’t have any self-control.”

The Correlation with Bulimia

External shame was more strongly related to anorexia nervosa symptoms. Internalized shame was more predictive of bulimia2.

Either way, shame is possibly the most uncomfortable human emotion we can experience. A recent study at the University of Amsterdam concluded that humiliation (another word for shame) registered more intense emotional cues in the body and brain than even happiness or anger3.

Shame and Self-hatred

Woman with a Backpack in a WoodIf this isn’t bad enough, shame seems to always have the traveling companion of self-hatred. Charlie Chaplin’s character, in the early Hollywood movie, The Lamplighter, says, “The trouble with the whole world is that we despise ourselves4.”

Psychologist Dan Allender suggests that if shame is the feeling of being naked and exposed, then hate is the clothing we use to dress ourselves5. This explains why, after an individual uses bulimic behaviors and the fog of compulsion lifts, she so often proclaims, “I’m a gross, disgusting idiot.” We cannot stand to see our flaws (real or perceived) exposed and we quickly cover up with self-contempt.

The Way Out

You may have wondered why I asked such pointed questions of my client in the opening story. It may have seemed like I was punishing her or trying to make her uncomfortable. Quite the opposite is true. I was leading her to freedom. Fortunately she trusted me. This is because the only way out of shame is through it.

When feeling intense shame we want to hide. We want to omit facts or blatantly lie. We think this will minimize the shame but, it actually makes it worse. When we hide, we maintain our secrets and continue to think, “I can’t tell anyone. If they knew, they would feel the same disgust for me that I feel for myself.”

To find freedom we must talk about that which shames us as honestly as possible. We must reveal our hearts, our thoughts, our behaviors, “warts and all.”

Accepting Shame

iStock_000020290937LargeC.S. Lewis, in his fictional book about heaven, The Great Divorce writes, “Don’t you remember on earth—there were things too hot to touch with your finger but you could drink them all right? Shame is like that. If you will accept it—if you will drink the cup to the bottom—you will find it very nourishing; but try to do anything else and it scalds.”

How can facing our shame “nourish” us? When we allow ourselves to be known, especially at our worst, we experience true acceptance and intimacy. Shame is grounded on the belief that if we are fully known we will not be accepted. Only by being fully known and accepted will we defeat shame.

Trusting Others

This does not mean broadcasting your struggles to every living person or on your social media account. It means trusting a few safe people with who you really are and what you really struggle with. This is especially true if you are working with a therapist or support group.

To find more freedom from shame, consider:

  • Telling your therapist about your “worst day” of bingeing and purging.
  • Sharing with your support group how you sometimes fantasize about your next binge while you are in group.
  • Challenge the self-hatred you feel after using behaviors. Stay out of the shame cycle.
  • Speak truth about your behaviors, but with understanding, not self-condemnation, “I just binged on a whole bunch of junk food. This does not mean I’m a failure. It does mean that I need to learn better coping skills.”
  • Reach out for support before using behaviors and when you have urges. Don’t just tell on yourself after the fact.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What tools have you utilized in order to move through shame and onto healing and forgiveness of yourself? Who have chosen to confide in, a therapist, a loved one? What has worked well for you in overcoming shame in your recovery process?

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 28th, 2015
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