Recently, while working with a client, a huge light bulb went off for me.
She was describing her current pattern at work that she felt helpless to stop. She would try and try to exercise willpower, but at a certain point in the day, she would preorder cookies from the store below her job and then sneak down, grab them, and eat them in private in her office with the door closed.
When we dug in, we could see she was trying to quell stress but then we went a level deeper. She recognized her stress was stemming from the fear of not being enough at work and she was feeling regularly triggered by expectations she thought people were putting on her that they actually weren’t. At least once a day, she would have some sort of interaction that left her with a very specific sensation in her body. When we explored that sensation, it was one that she had experienced many times in her life and it was her body’s way of reacting to the following beliefs:
There is something broken/wrong with me.
I don’t matter.
Nothing I do matters.
I am unworthy of being here.
She was experiencing the very real and palpable sensation of shame, and it was no surprise that when she got those cookies, she was also engaging in shamefully eating them (in secret, paying ahead of time, eyes averted, under the radar).
Every time she took a bite, the message she was telling herself was:
There is something wrong with what you are doing and something wrong with you.
You are unworthy of food based pleasure so you better get this in while you can.
In the book, “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Brene Brown describes her own experience of shame.
“First–I know my physical symptoms of shame–the dry mouth, time slowing down, tunnel vision, time slowing down, hot face, racing heart. I know that playing the painful slow motion reel over and over again in my head is a warning sign.”
She defines shame as the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
She goes on to differentiate between guilt and shame.
Guilt is “I did something wrong”
Shame is “I am innately wrong.”
Guilt can be a helpful emotion as it points to our potential regrets. Regrets can help us notice where we were out of alignment with who we want to be, and we can then choose differently next time.
Shame just creates more shame swirling and self-judgment, which often leads to addictive numbing behaviors.
After reading all of this, I had the sudden realization of the shame/food connection in my own life. When I was emotionally eating, stuffing or numbing, there was usually an element of shame involved. I thought of the time I ran to an ice cream truck after I bombed an audition or binge eating cereal after I got out of a call with my agent, drinking too much after feeling attacked by a friend, running to the bagel shop after an idol called me out on a big business “no no.” The feeling was not that I “messed up” and could learn from it but that “I WAS messed up.”
The common denominator was a feeling of being found out, of being flawed/wrong and therefore broken. I started to also see the common denominators with my clients; someone bingeing on cake after feeling inadequate at the beach or crashing down with booze after being replaced in a role.
Brene Brown (who researches shame) asserts that shame is universal. Every person experiences shame on some level but most people are very resistant to talking about it because it makes them uncomfortable. The less we talk about it, the more it has control over our lives (including things like emotional eating).
Life circumstances can reopen the wound, but the infection of shame lives underneath regardless.
We tend to think it is about “fixing” those areas of our lives by changing jobs, our relationships, our bodies (which can sometimes help), instead of recognizing our deeper beliefs about our loveability and belonging and starting to heal THOSE first. The kicker is that healing those wounds leads to healthier careers, relationships and bodies.
The more we believe we aren’t enough, the more we “hustle for our worthiness” through external sources of power (like using our bodies as currency, through our bank accounts, social status, through amplifying personality traits we believe will get us approval). This may buy us validation blitzes but no amount of hustling can buy our belonging (which is independent of these things). The more we focus on hustling to fit in, the less connected to ourselves we become, the more dissonance we experience between our internal selves and the external world and the more depressed we become. Belonging has everything to do with trusting our unconditional loveability and showing up to the world as we are, honestly, truthfully and vulnerably. .
Shame and the hopelessness that accompanies it are some of the MOST vulnerable and difficult emotions we can face, so it makes total sense that it would be closely linked with numbing behavior. The key isn’t necessarily to “make shame go away” but rather to understand it and recognize it when it is in the room with us, especially once we see the patterns of how it tends to drive our behavior, especially with our numbing agents. And for many people food is the most convenient numbing agent around.
So, how can we recognize when shame arises?
Brown emphasizes the importance of “naming shame” when it arises and recognizing it as such (knowing that it tends to have power on even the most well-adjusting and enlightened people we know). First, we need to get acquainted to the feelings of shame. What happens in your body when you are triggered and believe there is something innately wrong with you? What are the combination of physical sensations? It helps to investigate what it looks and feels like, where it lives in your body, and how it moves through your specific body.
Once you have a clearer idea of what it FEELS like, you can notice it as it is arising, you can say “I am experiencing shame right now” and separate that from it’s less insidious relatives like humiliation, embarrassment or guilt.
Next, we must start to track our patterns or look to our past (to see how we interact with it).
Who do you become when you are backed into a shame corner?
How do you interact with the world? Do you lash out or hide?
How do you interact with potential numbing agents?
Once we see our patterns, we must start to practice shame resilience in order to lift ourselves out of it. We can take action in very specific ways to help lessen the effect shame can potentially have on us in certain situations.
Those who practice shame resilience are able to:
Understand shame and recognize the messages and expectations that trigger shame for them.
Practice critical awareness by reality-checking the messages that tell us being imperfect means being inadequate.
And this part is really important and something you can do to disrupt the shame cycle.
- Reach out and share when you have been triggered. Share your story with someone who has earned your trust as an empathetic and helpful listener.
2. Use the word “shame” as you share and ask for what you need from that person.
The key is to treat shame with the respect it commands–it’s powerful stuff. Don’t treat it casually as it can be the gateway to all numbing behaviors and eventually addiction.
As any addict will tell you it’s not the action itself (like binge eating) that keeps them sick, it is the shame and secrecy (that accompanies it) that keeps them sick. Shame thrives on secrecy and emotional repression, so the bravest and most effective means of taking away its power is to open up about it.
So, next time you notice some dis-empowering numbing behaviors brewing (around food or other), take a moment to reflect on how this time in your life or the people around you may be triggering shame for you, what you need to do to investigate it, name it, and share your experiences with others (before giving into numbing).
Rock On & Be Well,