The impact of shame in eating disorders

by Health

Shame invades so many areas of our lives, particularly for those struggling with disordered eating patterns and behaviours. It’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg” scenario – while shame can heavily contribute to the development of eating disorders for many reasons, it can also be pervasive and all-consuming for those stuck in the throes of an eating disorder, making it difficult to break free of disordered patterns and seek support.

Let’s explore the intricate relationship between shame and eating disorders more closely.

What is shame?

Shame can be defined in many ways, but it all comes down to feelings of low self-esteem or self-respect, or feeling unworthy in yourself or your actions. Shame can be humiliating, debilitating, consuming. 

The source of shame can be both external, defined as shame around your perceptions of how others view you such as messages from the media or your parents about your body as you were growing up. Or shame can be internal, driven by how you see or judge yourself, seen in feelings of self-loathing or being unable to live up to your own perfectionist expectations of yourself.

While both types of shame have been found to influence your likelihood of developing disordered eating patterns, studies have found externalised shame is closely linked to the development of anorexia, while internalised shame is more associated with bulimia.

Whatever the cause, shame is a common experience amongst many people suffering from all different forms of eating disorders, and must be dealt with to achieve full recovery.

Shame often contributes to disordered eating

On one side of the coin, you have shame which strongly contributes to the development of eating disorders or disordered patterns. In this scenario, shame becomes part of your identity, and the “shame narrative” you create around yourself is repeated and repeated, until you truly believe it to be true. You begin to look at yourself and your life with a perspective tainted by shame, in which you can never be “good enough”. These feelings of inadequacy make you much more vulnerable to eating disorder behaviours, as these seem to offer almost a respite from the shame you’re experiencing.

Body shame and shame around your eating patterns are also common drivers of eating disorder behaviours. These can be both externalised and internalised fears, about your beliefs of how yourself or others view your body and eating. Studies have found these types of shame to be even bigger contributors to disordered behaviours than general shame.

In a way, the obsession and focus on food, exercise and health that comes with eating disorders takes up so much of your brain space, it “relieves” those feelings of shame, by leaving you with little ability to focus on anything other than your routines and rigid rules around food and eating. But in reality, this might not be the solution you’re seeking…

Shame as the result of experiencing eating disorders

On the other side of the coin, we have those who experience deep shame as a result of their eating disorder and associated behaviours.

Many people suffering with eating disorders believe they’ll feel happier and more confident if they just lose a certain amount of weight, or their body looks a certain way. This belief feeds into the idea that your worthiness is determined by your appearance and your body. So naturally, when you reach your “goal weight” and you don’t feel any happier or more satisfied with your body and instead look to lose even more weight, this feels like failure. It breeds even more shame as a result.

Many people who struggle with eating disorders also experience shame when they compare themselves to others. Looking at other people with healthier, more positive relationships with their body or food can lead to intense feelings of envy… and this breeds yet more shame.

Similarly, many people in the depths of an eating disorder come to feel “special” or “disciplined” when they resist intense hunger pains, or adhere to their strict rules around food and eating. While the consuming thoughts around food can numb your emotions towards other things in your life, this is often accompanied by shame around the disordered behaviours you’re exhibiting. Thoughts like “Why am I like this?” and “Why can’t I have a positive relationship with food like other people?” and “Why do I have to have an eating disorder to look the way I want to look?” are all too common, and lead to deeper experiences of shame. There’s no escape.

This also means many people are reluctant or ashamed to seek help, convincing themselves they chose their eating disorder, and they aren’t sick enough or don’t deserve help or support. The continuing stigma against mental illness doesn’t help here either – it still makes many people less likely or able to ask for help, or recognise their need for it.

It’s important to recognise the influence shame is having on your ability and willingness to seek help on your eating disorder recovery journey. You do not have to do this alone. Eating disorders thrive on keeping you isolated and alone. But remember this: you did not choose to have an eating disorder. It simply offered you a coping strategy in a time which you needed one, and that’s not something to be ashamed of. You are worthy and deserving of support and full recovery. Feeling loved and supported is critical in the recovery process, and overcoming the shame you feel is an essential step to be able to experience both of these.

Need some support working through feelings of shame, or progressing on your journey to full recovery? Join us in Recovery Club today! You’ll be supported by like-minded recovery warriors, and provided with all the tools and strategies you need to reclaim your life once and for all!

Ready To Improve Your Relationship with Food and Get Your Period Back?

Sarah King is an Exercise Physiologist and Health Coach specialising in helping women reconnect with their bodies and improve their relationship with food and exercise.

Through her 1:1 Health Coaching Sessions clients learn to nourish their bodies without guilt, move for joy, improve body image and self worth, plus recover from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and get their period pack if it’s gone missing.

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Sarah King

Sarah King

Hi future friends, I’m Sarah King, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and health coach.

Science, not trends is the foundation of my approach. By nourishing the body and mind with scientific facts we can build foundations for a life of realness, not just wellness.