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How to overcome shame in eating disorder recovery

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Shame is extremely common among people struggling with eating disorders, and it often contributes to the cyclical nature of an eating disorder by worsening symptoms.

Someone with an eating disorder may feel shame after binge eating or binging and purging, or even shame about eating small amounts of food or any food at all. That same person may then cope with that shame by repeatedly engaging in those behaviors. These restrictions then set a person up for further bingeing and/or further restriction, depending on the natural course of their eating disorder symptomatology.

During recovery from an eating disorder, it can be difficult to overcome both body shame and shame around eating, but doing so is vital in helping recovering individuals heal and begin to trust and open up to others and open up to their well deserved need to eat and even enjoy and embrace their relationship with food.

Last updated on 
November 4, 2021
March 15, 2023
How to overcome shame in eating disorder recovery
In this article

The powerful influence of shame

Several studies have revealed that shame is an important predictor in eating disorder pathology or symptoms, such as binge eating, purging, unhealthy dieting practices, and other unhealthy weight control behaviors. (1) This means that overcoming shame is a vital part of the healing process that can help improve eating disorder outcomes and lower the relapse rate in the future.

But overcoming shame sounds easier said than done, right? After all, shame is a powerful force that can keep us stuck in old patterns and behaviors. Shame ensures that we view ourselves in a negative light. It is different from guilt because guilt is related to a specific action, whereas shame reflects our view of who we are in the world. These feelings of shame can be extremely painful and distressing, and they put people at risk for other psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. (2)

How can we expect to heal from the self-hatred associated with an eating disorder when the pressure of shame bears down on us? 

How to begin the process of overcoming shame

One of the major ways of overcoming shame during eating disorder recovery is to practice self-compassion. There is significant evidence that self-compassion may be a protective factor against eating disorder symptoms and shame. For instance, a few studies found that people who were higher in self-compassion reported less anxiety about their bodies, engaged in less compulsive exercise practices, and exercises for more positive reasons, such as enjoyment. (1) 

Moreover, self-compassion has been associated with: (1)

  • Less weight and body preoccupation
  • Less binge eating episodes
  • Less guilt around eating

While self-compassion may sound like a foreign concept, it becomes easier with time and practice. Here are some tips for practicing self-compassion:

  • Treat yourself how you’d treat a friend
  • Remember it’s okay to make mistakes
  • Utilize positive self-talk
  • Use “releasing statements” that turn a negative statement into a validating sentiment
  • Embrace your shortcomings
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation to connect to yourself
  • Avoid judging yourself
  • Embrace a present-focused attitude instead of berating yourself for the past
  • Forgive yourself 
  • Express gratitude
  • Spend time doing things you love
  • Pay attention to what you are most passionate about

Sharing with others

Another way to help heal from the shame associated with an eating disorder is to open up to others. Sharing with other people, whether it’s a therapist in an individual session or in the setting of group therapy, is an important part of healing. It is vital to connect with others who understand your journey and can provide compassion and humane feedback regarding the deep pain associated with shame.

Speaking to someone else can help a recovering individual realize that they aren’t alone and allow them the opportunity to begin to heal. It also gives them the chance to receive validation for their feelings, fears, worries, guilt, and more. Chances are, many of the people in group therapy for eating disorder recovery understand and empathize with each other’s struggles. This sense of community and understanding can greatly help reduce shame and promote healing.

Community & mutual support at Within Health

At Within Health, we offer a modern and radical approach to eating disorder recovery. The entire program is virtual, which means individuals seeking treatment can begin on the road to recovery no matter where they live and travel. 

An important feature of our program is the sense of community we cultivate. We understand that healing requires mutual support, empowerment, and encouragement from others. That’s why every patient’s treatment plan includes plenty of opportunities for connecting with others and forming lasting relationships, from group therapy and group meals to mentorship and weekly alumni meetings for those who have completed the program. 

Recovery from an eating disorder is possible with the support of others. Within Health is here to help you overcome your shame, and form healthy, healing relationships.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Kelly, A.C., Carter, J.C., and Borairi, S. (2013). Are Improvements in Shame and Self-Compassion Early in Eating Disorders Treatment Associated with Better Patient Outcomes? International Journal of Eating Disorders.
  2. Kammerer. A. (2019). The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame. Scientific American.

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