Can We Talk About Shame?
By Kendra Coleman
I want to talk about something we don’t discuss enough. I want to talk about shame.
Shame. It’s definitely not the most pleasant sounding word is it?
If shame were an image, what would it look like? Dose it conjure a specific picture for you? A memory of a past experience? Perhaps, it conjures nothing. Any and all reactions to shame (seeing it, hearing it, feeling it) are normal, because shame elicits various responses across different situations from different people. I know that shame causes me discomfort, and it has been my experience that talking about shame is so important when we are struggling with an eating disorder or moving toward recovery. It is always important. Because of this, I think it is especially important to discuss it here.
So here we go. Let’s talk about shame.
To start us off, It’s important that we talk about what shame is and is not. First of all, shame is not synonymous with guilt. Guilt requires action. Guilt is feeling, in the aftermath of an action, that we have done something bad. It is action based. Shame on the other hand goes a bit deeper. It is feeling that we are bad. Shame is not about our explicit actions. It informs of us of our value. Because of this, shame can be extremely debilitating, especially when we are struggling. Without being resolved, it chips away at our self worth. It can make us feel inferior to others, and feel unworthy of help, health and recovery. Shame fosters helplessness, a feeling that we already so often feel when we are struggling with an eating disorder.
Having set a common point of reference, it’s important to understand the feedback loop involved in feeling and coping with this emotion. As I have learned in my own life, the shame cycle is unavoidable. Shame begets shame. Shame drives secrecy, and secrets keep us sick.
As I have learned in my own life, the shame cycle is unavoidable. Shame begets shame. Shame drives secrecy, and secrets keep us sick.
Let’s look at the shame cycle and it’s consequences:
When we engage in eating disorder behaviours, we feel horrible about ourselves. We’re bombarded with thoughts that make us feel unworthy, bad and inferior. Rather than talk about these uncomfortable emotions, we hide them because it seems to be the only viable option. We do this to preserve our dignity, and our secrets. Because exposing our shame, and the negative thoughts we’re experiencing seems impossible. We do not want other people to think of us differently. We don’t believe that we will be accepted if we speak openly about our struggle. So, we hide our feelings, keeping our thoughts to ourselves, and the shame we feel increases. Our shame builds and drives us back to eating disorder behaviours to cope…. and the cycle of shame and engaging continues.
Now, let’s think of an alternative scenario to this shame cycle. Instead of closing ourselves off and hiding our shame, what would happen if we talked about it? How would this scene play out if we were to reach out to just one person? At the very least, it would delay engaging again. Best-case scenario, it would provide us with a sense of comfort, and understanding. It would diminish our shame.
Through my own experience and guidance from others, I found the counterpart to shame: exposure. Certainly, the idea of revealing our fears, thoughts and behaviours is a daunting prospect. It is especially difficult when so much of an eating disorder is shrouded in secrecy. But it is so essential to open up, seek comfort and have our self worth validated. What we need in moments of shame most is to know that we are valued, and deserving of love, kindness and recovery. Exposure serves as proof that, even in our darkest moments, we are understood and valued. We are worthy of being heard and held. It provides us with an alternative to engaging. It helps to separate us, and our feelings from the eating disorder.
My personal experience with overcoming shame came in the form of owning my story. My primary source of shame was my eating disorder itself. I felt shameful about how much I was struggling. I felt I should be able to recover on my own. It took a very long time for me to realize that not talking about my thoughts and feelings was impeding my recovery. This is why I write this today, in hopes that I can share my experience and provide both concrete reasons to open up to others as well as proof that talking about shame helps.
My eating disorder was a very private and secret part of my life. Only through continual exposure, and reminders from friends, members in my community and family was I able to distinguish myself from my eating disorder, the truth about my value from my shame. I exposed the shame I felt about my struggle repeatedly and, while at first it was painful, it was absolutely worth it. Exposing my shame, owning my story and standing in my truth was a crucial component in my recovery. Now, I continue to confront my shame in recovery by talking about my experience with others and reaching out when I need support. It is an ongoing process, and a really important step toward health.
Of course, difficult emotions are inevitable in life and in the recovery process, however learning to embrace and tolerate these emotions is key. Shame is one of the more tricky ones, because the necessary outlet is the exact opposite of what we want to do. It requires us to be courageous, reach out, and speak openly about what we are trying most to keep hidden.
So, here are a few tips for embracing, and tolerating shame:
- Identify the source: It is important to understand why we feel shame, so that we can express it and have our worth validated. There may be multiple sources. There may be just one, but it must be identified. Therapy can be extremely helpful in this respect as oftentimes we simply may not know the source of our shame. We may just feel it. Here, It can be extremely beneficial to reach out to a professional in the community.
- Expose it: This is a difficult step to take, so let’s break it down a bit:
- Start with journaling. If the idea of opening up to someone is too overwhelming, break out the old pen and paper. I was extremely skeptical about journaling in my own life, and it proved to be an invaluable asset when I feared the vulnerability required of me to be completely honest about my illness and experiences with others. Your journal is a neutral, non-judgmental outlet. Getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper in a safe space is a great preliminary step toward vocalizing your needs and feelings.
-Find someone to talk to. While journaling is a great step, ultimately shame requires comfort and validation. It requires us to be vulnerable with others. It requires a response. It demands knowing that we are accepted, understood and valued. Only though this process, can we truly begin to know that the things we feel shameful about do not define us. That shame is just an emotion, not a truth, because we are valued. We are good people.
-You may have just one or a few key people in your life in which you confide. If so, this would be a great place to start. If not, it is time to find someone! It may be a sibling, friend, or other family member. It may be your therapist, a teacher or other trusted member in your community. It could be an online peer support. We need people in our corner. We need people on our team with whom we feel safe and supported.
-It is completely normal to feel uncomfortable. Exposing, and talking about shame is extremely challenging. It is one of the hardest things I have had to do in my own life. It still is. It requires courage, trust and motivation. Courage to open up to others. Trust in the ability of others to both listen and validate your experiences. And motivation to do it over and over again, to continue talking about the shame we feel.
- Know that you are not alone in your shame. Shame is a universal emotion, and there is a reason that everyone feels it at some point or another. Through vulnerability and intimacy it drives us toward authentic connection. We only reveal shame and seek understanding from those who are closest to us. In this way, shame and its counterpart, exposure, can also be beautiful and intimate. But it takes a brave leap to get there.
- Practice, practice, practice! While shame will never feel comfortable to expose and talk about, opening up to others becomes easier over time. This is where motivation is crucial. We have to be motivated to reduce our shame in order to continue to engage in a process that is inherently uncomfortable. We have to believe that someone is there on the other side of it with a kind, listening ear. It may be helpful to have an ongoing friend, sibling, parent or therapist check in with you about certain issues that cause you to feel shame. With practice we learn to recognize when we feel shame and, equipped with this knowledge, we can proceed to seek out the counterpart of shame: exposure and vulnerability.
This journey of acknowledging, accepting and exposing our shame can be a scary one. However, it it is though discomfort that we grow. We must trust that others want and will be there for us. And even if we’re uncomfortable, the destination is worth the journey. Take the first step with me.
Kendra is currently completing her BA in psychology at the University of British Columbia, and is a research assistant with the UBC Sexual Health Laboratory. She is a past resident of the Looking Glass Residence and is passionate about sharing her insight and experience with others. Now in recovery, Kendra is open about her struggle battling anorexia and bulimia. She hopes to be a support and ally to those who are suffering while also working to reduce the stigma around mental illness. Her passions include violin, spin class, academics, beach walks with her dog, and chatting over coffee with close friends.