Binge Eating: When Shame and Secrecy Hold Too Much Power

Why do people binge when they feel shame? Because shame feels terrible! Shame is sometimes described as a "punch in the gut" or a heart-wrenching feeling — and bingeing works to temporarily take away these negative feelings. Early childhood memories of feeling shamed about the way your body looks or your relationship to food can trigger ongoing shame in adulthood. This could perhaps also lead to eating disorder behaviors.

By Laura Lange, LCSW

Binge eating lives in a shameful place and thrives on secrecy. Food shame is

  • Binge eating on the couch at home while watching TV alone
  • Hiding food or food wrappers in the house so other family members won’t see
  • Buying binge food online to avoid facing grocery store employees or restaurant staff

These are all examples of eating disorder behaviors driven by the intense feeling of shame.

Shame is perhaps one of the most painful and uncomfortable feelings to tolerate. When people are feeling shame, they don’t just think, “I have done something wrong;” shame feels like “I am wrong” or “I am unlovable” or even “I am broken.”

Shame typically lives inside of someone — it is unseen and invisible and makes it very difficult for family/friends to reach out or even know how to help their loved one. 

What is shame?

Brené Brown defines shame as,“an intensely painful feeling or experience that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

Brown talks about the difference between shame and guilt, saying that guilt is, “I did something wrong” versus shame, which is,“I am wrong.” 

Shame is an emotion that feels powerful and ingrained. It feels terrible to feel shame because shame means that not only have you done something wrong — you ARE wrong as a person.

Shame and childhood memories

Our early memories can trigger powerful emotions of shame. Can you think of a time that you did something wrong as a child or were punished in front of others? Did you feel “shamed” for making a mistake or letting caregivers down? Can you still feel that awful gut-wrenching feeling of shame?

Shame is so powerful that it can make a child feel fearful of repeating their mistakes. This encourages secrecy and avoidance of mistakes. Perfectionistic families lacking the language of self-compassion and forgiveness, especially, are places where shame can thrive.

Have you ever:

  • Experienced body shame at a young age?
  • Been told you were not good enough in the body you lived in?
  • Been disapproved of for looking a certain way, wearing a certain type of clothing or living in a higher-weight body?
  • Been told that certain foods were “wrong” or “bad”?

Early childhood memories of feeling shamed about the way your body looks or your relationship to food can trigger ongoing shame in adulthood. This could perhaps also lead to eating disorder behaviors.

All of these experiences can trigger ongoing shame in adulthood; they can also trigger strong feelings of shame when certain food items (sometimes called “trigger foods”) are eaten. Many of my patients say that they have never been able to eat their unique trigger foods in public due to the shame and guilt they feel when they consume these foods in front of others.

Shame can be triggered by many factors. The problem with bingeing as a way to control shame is that binge eating actually perpetuates the cycle of shame.

What is shame eating?

Why do people binge when they feel shame? Because shame feels terrible! Shame is sometimes described as a “punch in the gut” or a heart-wrenching feeling — and bingeing works to temporarily take away these negative feelings. 

Being shamed early in life, whether from being rejected, abused, bullied or insulted is associated with more severe binge eating symptomology. My patients often tell me that the feeling of shame is a large driver of their eating disorder behavior before a binge. Then, they feel shame after a binge. This perpetuates their eating disorder — ultimately leading to more binge behavior or, in some cases, other compensatory behaviors such as purging or over-exercising. 

Some people believe that binge eating helps them avoid or escape negative memories or feelings of shame but binge eating actually does the opposite. Binge eating increases feelings of shame and increases feelings of distress — perpetuating the cycle of shame.

Does shame work to get us to change our behaviors?

Many people believe they should associate food and shame. Many people that I talk to say that they need to “beat themselves up” to get themselves to make a positive change in their lives. They say that if they just talk to themselves more negatively it will motivate them to work out harder, lift more weights or eat cleaner. 

The question is – does this really work? Most likely, the answer is no — not for the long term, at least. 

Shame does not tend to be a long-term motivator; shaming yourself or others typically might work in the short term due to fear and guilt but long-term shaming ourselves just leads to secrecy, guilt, fear and long-term dissatisfaction with self and others.

Confront shame with self-compassion

As Brené Brown says, “the anecdote to shame is empathy.” Adopting an empathic approach to yourself, your body and others will prevent shame from taking over. 

One of the best ways to handle feelings of shame is to adopt a self-compassion practice towards yourself, your body and your eating disorder. This is not easy, and it will probably not feel natural. This practice might even feel inauthentic, silly or pointless. 

The goal is to begin to change your pattern of self-talk that has been perpetuating the shame in your life.

Here are some ways you can practice channeling your inner self-talk into a more self-compassionate and neutral voice: 

  • Instead of judging your body and other people’s bodies, take a neutral stance to your body and notice how your body works, how it functions and what it does for you. Do this without judgment, even if you feel now that you do not like your body. Taking the time to neutrally describe your body is one step towards changing the self-shaming and self-deprecating way you talk to yourself and your body. 
  • Ask yourself: how would you speak to a friend? We typically speak to ourselves in a manner that is harsh, mean and in a way that we would never speak to our friends or family. Try to watch how you talk to yourself daily.
  • Use mindfulness. Simply be mindful of where your thoughts tend to go. Choose to be non-judgmental about your thoughts — knowing that they are just thoughts and patterns that have been created because of your experiences.
  • With the help of a therapist, you can practice techniques to slowly start separating your thoughts from your beliefs which can decrease the intensity of any painful feelings associated with shame.
  • Break the cycle of shame using exposures. Do the opposite of what your “shame” wants you to do by really challenging it. If your “shame” is telling you to isolate and hide because you aren’t good enough, do the opposite and make plans with friends. If you have previously only eaten your trigger foods in bed or in your car by yourself, do the opposite to challenge this shame and consume your trigger foods in a public space with friends or family. Buy your trigger foods in public and challenge the anxiety of feeling perceived judgement. 


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