Compulsive Overeaters feel ashamed because they’re overweight.
Many believe that if they lose that weight they’ll turn their shame into pride. Presto, Chango, their feelings about themselves and their whole lives will become better.
But, here’s the thing. Their shame was there before they gained weight. And while they may feel somewhat better about themselves if they lose weight, in the long run the shame that created their compulsive overeating will make them regain all the weight they lost and then some.
Yes, you heard that right. Compulsive overeaters believe their fat creates their shame. I’m here to tell you that their shame creates the compulsive overeating which makes them overweight.
I am reversing the causal arrow. Instead of fat leads to shame it’s actually: shame leads to fat.
So, you ask, where does this shame come from?
Shame is a universal human emotion. Scientists say all humans have it, except psychopaths. So, feeling some shame is a good thing, because it means you have a moral compass.
For people with healthy shame, shame is more like humility. It is an admission that they are limited human beings, with warts and flaws like everyone else. That they are not a superwoman, God, or enlightened.
But some people grow up in a family which induces toxic shame.
For these people, they may feel inappropriate shame in significant areas of their lives, such as body image, work or relationships. This can become paralyzing at times. They frequently feel bad about themselves, worthless, or not enough.
People who suffer from toxic shame find a place to dump it, something to make it go away. This might be through drugs or alcohol, compulsive gambling or sex, becoming codependent with another person, or through compulsive overeating.
Rather than feel their shame, compulsive overeaters eat their feelings away. Stuffing down foods rich in fats and carbohydrates can create a sense of contentment, calm and fullness, to compensate for not ever feeling like they are enough.
Compulsive overeaters eat away feelings other than shame, like fear or anger, but often shame is the biggie. Feeling like you a worthless human being, the scum of the earth, is so painful that many people will do anything to avoid it.
So, how can compulsive overeaters deal with their shame in other ways?
It has been said of shame, “The only way out is through.” This means that the first step in treating toxic shame is to identify when you are feeling it and call it by its name.
The next step is to understand that it is a feeling, not a fact. Just because you feel worthless doesn’t mean you are worthless. One of the best ways to recognize this is to share the feeling with a compassionate listener. Hearing them say, “I feel like that sometimes, too,” can do an amazing amount to reduce toxic shame to healthy humility.
In therapy, I work with clients to identify the sources of shame from their childhoods. Compulsive overeaters can blame themselves for situations which were outside of their control. Examples of extreme shame-inducing events include abuse, neglect, and ruptures in important relationships when growing up.
Other compulsive overeaters had what many would refer to as an uneventful childhood. Their shame comes not so much from ruptures in relationships as from ways they didn’t perform at the level that was expected of them. They, too, took in the message, “I’m not good enough.”
I help emotional overeaters identify times when their past shame is triggered in the present, bringing up deep-seated feelings of insecurity. Some of these present day triggers are so subtle that they are difficult to recognize. It can take time and patience to notice when feelings of shame surface and work to identify the long-ago roots of these difficult feelings.