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What’s Shame and Guilt Got to Do with It?

September 8, 2019

Have you ever felt bad after eating? Not the kind where your belly feels full, but the kind that shows up when you CAN. NOT. EVEN. believe how much you just ate,.

A lot of times this happens when you go out with the girls. Or crush a bread basket at the dinner table. Or when you “break down” and eat everything in the fridge. 

If you answered, “nope”, I’ve never experienced that – stop reading and go celebrate because you’re in the minority. You’re luckily not plagued with the incessant chatter about what to eat and what not to eat and the pain, suffering, and negative self-talk tidal wave that comes after crushing some food.

If you said, “too many damn times to count”…I’m with you! And I totally get how painful it can feel. The shame and guilt that comes with overeating are unbearable.

And the thing is, shame and guilt can wreak havoc without you even realizing what’s going on. These two little buggers combined with all their hate talk in your mind can take you captive for decades. They can make you cry, feel regret, angry, anxious, bitter, frustrated, and consistently underperforming in life; at work, in your marriage, parenting, with your health (mental and physical) and with your social life.

According to Brene Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection “The difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences between, I am bad and I did something bad.”

Guilt  = I did something bad 

Shame = I am bad

What most of us experience after eating “too much” is shame and not guilt. We think we are bad people because of the amount or type of food we ate. 

And this shame is damaging. It keeps us on a cycle of the same destructive behavior for weeks, months, sometimes a lifetime.

This cycle is typically labeled as the diet/binge cycle. 

But to be more specific, it’s actually the: Try not to eat. Then you eat and feel terribly ashamed, so you try not to eat to “punish” or make up for what you did eat and then you hit the peanut butter jar again to soothe or take the edge off.

So, what keeps this cycle fueled? And is it just with eating? … Nope. It comes in many forms.

Drinking alcohol is a great one. How often have you started drinking to “just take the edge off” only to find yourself drunk and hungover the next day wishing you hadn’t? But what do you do? You do it again and again and again.

This cycle perpetuates itself because you’re trying to numb or take away the emotions you’d rather not feel. Emotions of guilt, sadness, boredom, stress, loneliness and so on. These emotions come from shame.

And what adds fuel to this shame cycle fire? You don’t want to acknowledge these feelings. You don’t want to be vulnerable. 

Vulnerability is brutal. It’s owning our stories, saying how we really feel and facing some pretty shitty facts. And even worse, it’s showing others who we are. This is something we claim we’re fine with but we’re really not. If we were, would we go the drive-through secretly? Would we shove the fast-food bag in the garbage and cover it up? Would there be any such thing as a “closet smoker”? Would there be affairs? Would we lie? 

Most of us stay in this cycle because we can’t settle with a heartfelt apology to our self and our souls for doing something unhealthy. Instead, we harbor shame around it. We don’t feel the sting of a little guilt then apologize to ourselves or others and then move on. 

Instead, we feel like a bad person for what we’ve done. 

I spent most of my life feeling shame for what I ate in secret. I felt shame for how I looked. I felt out of control and shameful for my inability to eat healthily. My overall mindset was shame.

Brene’s definition of shame says, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable – its the total opposite of owning our story and feeling worthy. Shame keeps worthiness away by convincing us that owning our stories will lead to people thinking less of us. Shame is all about fear.”

Whenever I would eat and then feel bad, all sorts of stuff would go through my head. I would tell myself I was weak. I would shout at myself and say ugly things. Basically, I took shit from my mind that I would never take from anyone else.

At the time, I didn’t think about this as a fear of being unloved. I just thought I was a bad eater and afraid of getting fat.

But if we dig deeper, it’s not just fear of getting fat.

It was….You won’t fit in…You won’t find a husband..Nobody will find you attractive..Your pants won’t fit…You’ll feel uncomfortable…And ultimately, you won’t be accepted or loved.

The fear is of being unloved is what drives the fear of gaining and the shame around eating.

It can’t be anything else other than shame. In today’s world, we have more access to information on how to be healthy than we can shake a stick at. I mean, google diet and you get a result of 1,340,000,000  that you can comb through (no joke, I just did it and this is what came up). Google health and wellness and 846,000,000 pieces of information come up. So information sure isn’t the problem!

The United States has approximately 38,477 gyms. There were a total of 36,180 health clubs in the United States in 2015, an increase of over 5,500 on the figure from 2012. This means that the United States has more fitness centers than any other country in the world.

So, access to gyms and whatever else we want or need to be healthy is available.

So, what is it then? It’s the shame cycle that keeps us kicking the diet/binge can down the road.

Brene explains, “Because we don’t talk about the things that get in the way of doing what we know is best for us. We don’t talk about what keeps us eating until we’re sick, busy beyond human scale, desperate to numb and take the edge off, and full of so much anxiety and self-doubt that we can’t act on what we know is best for us. We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We want a quick and dirty “how-to” list for happiness. If we really want to live a joyful, connected, and meaningful life, we must talk about things that get in the way”.

For years I never let it out of the bag that on the outside I looked fit, healthy, and happy but on the inside I had a non-stop chatter about what to eat, when to eat it, how to eat it, how much of it to eat, will it be too many calories, Oh no! Someone brought cupcakes into the office, why did I eat so much, my diet is blown, I gained 2 pounds in one day…….This chatter went on and on and on and on, all day – every day. 

Talk about exhausting!!!

And the worst part, I didn’t really tell anyone this. I never talked about it. I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable and shake my shame. I hid in the guise of “look at me, I’m healthy and happy”. When in reality, I was usually miserable trying to stick to my latest and greatest game plan to finally get that six-pack I yearned for, which would make me worthy. 

Brene says,The greatest challenge for most of us is believing that we are worthy now, right this minute. Incongruent living is exhausting. Loving and accepting ourselves are the ultimate acts of courage.”

I couldn’t agree more. Unconditional love for who we are and being vulnerable is ultimately what will shed the shame and end the cycle of doing bad and thinking we’re bad. And it’s not to say we won’t ever feel guilty, but shame is what we need to shed.

If we feel guilty, a simple vulnerable moment with a close friend or advisor will help. Or an apology for what we’ve done. And yes, we can say sorry to our own selves, our own souls. In fact, comforting your own soul will take away the power of the mind of beating everyone up and perpetuating the shame. 

We can do this because we’re not bad people if we eat badly. We’re not bad if we’re fat. We’re not bad for wanting to numb. Quite simply, we might be doing something that’s incongruent of what we want for ourselves. It doesn’t make us a bad person or unworthy of love and acceptance, especially from ourselves. 

If you’re harboring shame, tell someone. Ask for help. Do anything other than keep it to yourself. Keeping quiet is the fuel that shame is banking on. 

Be vulnerable, shed the shame, and shed the cycle of living an incongruent life for what your soul is yearning. 


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