Mindful

A common expression of shame is eating certain foods secretly and fast when nobody is around. This habit may continue for many years, not because we like the experience of eating in this way (few do), but because it lets us fool ourselves into believing that we have not eaten anything “forbidden.” Often, these eating habits become a conditioned pattern, with underlying feelings of shame—and the anxiety of being discovered—present all the time.

Often, these eating habits become a conditioned pattern, with underlying feelings of shame—and the anxiety of being discovered—present all the time.

The first thing that we can acknowledge is that this hidden secret of “not being or doing enough” is extremely energy consuming. Becoming aware of the ways that shame plays out in our own experience is the first step toward learning to treat ourselves more gently.

What types of awareness are helpful?

  1. Becoming aware of repetitive thoughts that go through the mind when life becomes difficult. Often, they are lingering self-doubts, such as “I’m unlovable,” “I’m helpless,” “I’m inadequate,” “I’m a failure.” “I’m basically alone,” or “I don’t belong.”
  2. Learning to identify the different manifestations of shame. Sometimes shame shows itself as “the inner critic” (or self-blamer) or “the pusher” (for whom nothing is ever enough).
  3. Being mindful of shame in the body. Downcast eyes, lowered head, and unstable posture are all natural expressions of shame. Other physical sensations that occur with shame include warmth, or heat and blushing.

How can we work with shame and build more shame resilience?

The first step is to keep shame from growing. Secrecy (taboos), silence, and judgment are three fuels that help shame to grow exponentially. Breaking the silence and challenging taboo thoughts about eating are essential parts of the healing process.

The second step is to focus on our common humanity. Human beings are born with the wish to be loved, and we need each other to survive. Therefore, we all seek approval and feel social shame when we perceive that we do not fit in. When you understand that we are all struggling with the same feelings and fears, you can connect with our common humanity.

Breaking the silence and challenging taboo thoughts about eating are essential parts of the healing process.

The third step is allowing the discomfort to be present. It takes courage to expose your hidden stories to the light because it is much easier to hide in the dark. Mindfulness addresses each moment-to-moment experience with curiosity and openness, no matter if there are negative core beliefs or shameful experiences.

Additionally, bringing compassion and kindness to the situation can ease the suffering that results after self-criticism. Consciously breathing or softening into the tensed areas can increase your tolerance for these painful situations.

Finally, you can offer yourself words of care and kindness for being in a difficult situation. Talk to yourself as you would talk to someone you love, such as your child or partner. What would a very compassionate friend say to you in this situation? Compassionate and soothing gestures can support you in finding inner warmth as an antidote for the harsh and cold words of shame.

Caroline Baerten

Caroline Baerten, RD, is a mindfulness-based registered dietitian, a qualified chef, and an integrative psychotherapist specializing in work with disordered eating behaviors, weight issues, and sustainability. She is a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) trainee with the Center for Mindfulness, UMass Medical School. She serves on the board for The Center For Mindful Eating, and you can learn more about mindful eating on their website.

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