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What Are You Really Ashamed About?

I was talking with a client last month about her history with multiple aspects of shame regarding eating and weight. She’d initially thought that what she felt most strongly was shame about being fat, but it turned out that her feelings were more complicated (they usually are!). I bet there’s more to your story of shame as well.

For those of you who as children were fat or average weight but made to feel fat by family members, there’s a long trail of shame behind you—being different, lacking acceptance, suffering exclusion, not understanding what’s wrong with carrying around extra pounds, and feeling powerlessness to change your body. Being teased, shamed, bullied, degraded, or humiliated leaves lasting psychological scars. You weren’t, as your parents may have insisted (for their own reasons), being “too” sensitive about your size.

Growing up with non-body-based shame can haunt you as well. Maybe you were shamed for expressing honest feelings or unique interests or for not being like other family members. Or you were the fall guy or gal for family transgressions and undeservedly internalized a sense of badness and defectiveness about yourself. Now, as an overweight person, all that shame of falling short of expectations and being the butt of harsh judgments is right under the surface and gets triggered in a heartbeat. Then there’s the shame of being out of control around food, the self-hate for all the times you’ve tried your hardest to diet and lose weight, the disappointment when the pounds creep back on, the defeat of giving up trying to eat sensibly, the sting of failure and of your inability to do this one thing you’ve wanted to do all your life—eat “normally.” Of course, the worse your relationship with food is, the more shame you feel.

All of the above shame gets funneled into and projected onto your weight right now. You forget that the major hurt you suffered was being mistreated as a child when you couldn’t defend yourself or understand others’ motives. You fail to consider that you grew up in a shame-based household with dysfunctional parents who blamed you for their failings so that you came to believe there’s something wrong and unfixable about yourself. You feel shame for all the times you were frightened and helpless in the past, but could do nothing to empower yourself (but maybe eat?). All this is what keeps you ashamed, not being overweight. You may not recognize that the largest shame in your present life is not really your body. Rather than focus on weight hatred, explore your broader and deeper feelings regarding shame, including where they come from and, of course, how you can let them go.