Yesterday we discussed anger as a masking emotion for a range of other emotions. Along with anger, shame and guilt are the driving emotions underpinning your relationship with food. Shame is defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour” or “make (someone) feel ashamed”. So there are two aspects of shame that underpin eating as an emotional control.
As a child, we learn to feel ashamed by the reaction of others to an event. For example, my mother and aunts constantly talked about my marriage prospects and then dismissed my chances with the comment – she has a brain. I was made to feel ashamed of myself by some unknown wrong-doing that I had committed (not being pretty enough) because I was an overweight child. My husband is very tall 6’ 4”. When he went to school at age 5 he was the tallest in his class and every year at primary school his teacher measured the smallest and tallest child in the class. He was very conscious of being tall, and felt singled out for being different. Actually he felt humiliated by it.
This kind of experience can lead a child to feel that there is something wrong with them and may start the thought process that they are always wrong. They think that things are their fault as a person, rather than the thing that happened to them being wrong and the responsibility of others. You are blamed for being yourself – a victim of others. Once this mentality becomes set into the mind, it is likely that they will think they get hurt because of their weakness rather than because someone else bullied them; that they fail because they are stupid or undisciplined rather than because they have poor teachers or inadequate support; or that they are treated coldly because they are doing something wrong rather than because their friends, partners, or parents are jealous, get into moods, or simply lack the capacity to care for another.
Shame has been called the “master emotion” because so much of our experience is filtered through this lens. In addition, it warps and confounds our understanding of ourselves and others in a way that makes sustainable resolutions extremely difficult if not impossible.
Another example of shaming occurs when a person looks in the mirror (or steps on a scale, or puts on some clothes) and doesn’t like what they see. “My arms are flabby,” “My belly rolls in on itself,” “My thighs are too big,” This shirt looks terrible on me.” In fact, a study found that 97% of women are “cruel to their bodies” every day. These criticisms are a self-assault—they have the capacity to hurt, to injure, but they do not shame. However, another part of the person, an internalized voice, says, “You are lazy;” “Why did you eat that ice cream last night?” How come you can’t stay on a diet?” “You eat too much comfort food,” “Can’t you deal with your psychological problems and lose more weight?” This internalized voice, ignores that there was a self-assault, demonstrates no compassion for the pain, and blames the person (the victim) for their suffering. Making matters worse, many people, especially girls, perceive themselves to be overweight even when they are not! (e.g. a study found that 50 to 70 percent of normal-weight girls think they are overweight.
Imagine several women were paraded across a stage in front of dozens of people, two at a time, while someone sat there saying “You look pretty, attractive, beautiful,” to the first woman and saying to the second one, “You look fat and unattractive—why can’t you look like her?” referring to the first woman. This is the kind of inner criticism and comparison that is happening inside these women and in some of the audience members’ minds. Would you sympathise/empathise with the second woman? Would you be able to defend her? If you could speak to that judge, what would you say? How would you challenge or educate them? Would you let people speak to a friend like that?
If you would sympathise with the second woman, and if you could defend her, then you already know how to bring healing to a shaming event, and you have the capacity to bring healing to yourself. Further, if you are willing to speak up to yourself then people will be less likely to think there is something wrong with you. And when you don’t think there something is wrong with you: you are less likely to use eating as a form of emotional control.