How do you Heal SHAME?

How do you Heal SHAME?

Hi, I’m Shelley Treacher from the Stress and Anxiety Podcast.

Today I’m going to be talking about shame.

Now that the podcast is gathering momentum, I’ll be taking and answering questions in the podcast as a regular feature. So please, if you have anything related that you want to know the answer to, email me and I would love to have you on the podcast in some form or another.  I guarantee that any questions you ask aren’t useless or strange and will most likely resonate with and help so many people. So please do get involved.

And if you’ve got a burning question, I would love to answer it. Please know that your contribution will always be anonymous and confidential unless you give me explicit instructions to use it publicly.


Understanding Binge-Eater’s Shame

Now let’s start talking about shame and binge eating. As we think about coming out of lockdown, I hear so many fears and nervousness about returning to society. For some of us, that’s the mistrust of the government and fear of not being physically safe regarding the virus.

But on a deeper exploration, many of us are also afraid of returning to society. We fear coming out of our comfort zones to face the world again. We wonder whether it’s safe enough to open up and connect, on a psychological level as well as the physical level.

The main reason we are nervous is that we fear losing the peace, the freedom from triggering, and the relative lack of demands. We imagine life will be full and overwhelming again.

I talked about how to start saying no to so many demands in the last podcast, but this time I’m talking about shame because one of the other fears about returning to being with so many people again is being seen. The first thing on so many of my clients’ minds is the fear of being judged for being overweight.


How Binge-Eaters Feel Shame

  • Today I’m going to share with you firstly what shame or embarrassment are for the overeater, and what’s behind it
  • Then I’m going to explain how shame and embarrassment play out for the binge eater
  • Lastly, I’ll show you how you can start to deal with shame

The feeling of shame after a binge is something that people come to me with, but shame is just one part of a very vicious cycle. Because shame may be the reason why you eat in the first place.

When I asked my group if they experienced shame, they said things like,

“Yes, all day, every day.”

They quoted their shameful voice as saying things like,

“Can I ever break this habit?”

“You’ve blown it”

“You’ve put on weight again”

“You’re so silly”

“You have no control”

“You’ve let yourself go”

“You can’t be trusted”

Can you relate to any of these thoughts?

I’m sure everyone listening to this has some version of this, and that’s what led you here, that critical voice. So I’d love to hear your comments on that if you want to let me know.

The thing is, though, that often people will use something which makes them feel more shame to get away from the thing that caused them shame in the first place.

This is the same for any compulsive behaviour. You might also use alcohol or know people who use alcohol, video gaming, TV series, binge-watching, mindless internet surfing, or even toxic relationships. You might turn to someone you know for affection or sex, even though you know that that person isn’t right for you. Often any of these compulsive behaviours come with regret or shame after the fact.

Joan Borisenko * says that shame is, “The poisonous plant of emotions”

What this means is that you only try it once before the aversion is firmly set in your nervous system.

So, for example, you might tell a joke, (this happens to me all the time) that you think is funny, but nobody else laughs! It’s unlikely that you would be excited about telling that joke again. You might be a bit nervous about it.

A tiny piece of shame may keep you quiet for years, in many cases for the rest of your life. Shame most obviously kicks in for the binge eater, (or any other compulsive behaviour) straight after the binge.

But what is less obvious is that it’s often shame that causes the binge.


Why Do I Feel Shame?

Shame often comes when we feel we are doing, or want to do something, that might lead to rejection. Rejection, in this case, is the poison that we only try once.

So, for example, you might feel emotional or angry, but in the past, your emotions weren’t received very well by your primary caregivers, so you learnt to keep them to yourself. This is how you start to learn shame. Expressing your emotions is the poisonous plant that you only taste once.

Now you might project this belief that it’s not OK for you to express how you feel, in all your relationships. You might think that being emotional or angry will be received badly. This might even be true of some of your relationships.

You might feel shame for your emotions or your anger. And so keep it hidden. In this case, with food.

Shame, here, as it often does, has a protective function. So it deserves compassion and understanding. It keeps you safe from potential rejection. You shut up because you don’t want the other person not to like you.

This is a primal survival need. Ancestrally, we needed to be accepted by the community to survive. So shame makes you think you can make something better by agreeing with it. Shame says things like,

“I’ll shut up now because he doesn’t like it when I talk about how I feel”

And then it soon becomes,

“You stupid cow, why don’t you just keep quiet?”

I’ve talked about your self-criticism before in a previous podcast. It’s that part of you that unconsciously puts you down with often repeated phrases like, “Nobody wants to listen to you” or, “You’re embarrassing” or, “You never do anything right”

The voice of your self-critic and your shame work together, to protect you from rejection.


How do you Shame Yourself?

Can you get a hint of what your critic says to stop you from doing something that others might not approve of? Can you see how this shows up for you? Again, please tell me, I would love to hear your comments.

I’ve also spoken about your inner child in one of my previous podcasts. This is the part of you that feels something in response to your critic. Your inner child believes your critic.

Most of us develop our judgement from our original families. Here it’s not necessarily about how judgmental the family was, although they may have been, but more about how you interpreted what they said. So your parents or your caregivers might have been too involved in their own emotions or their traumas and their reactions to know what to do when you cried or screamed. But you may have interpreted that, as most of us would, as not loving you, as rejection.

So here, there is more shame piled on more shame. In a vicious cycle, shame debilitates the ability to change.

  • What judgments did you perceive in your family?
  • What kind of things did your family say to judge you?
  • In what ways did your parents act that you may have interpreted as rejection?
  • Can you see anything that might have led to you keeping a part of yourself hidden?


How is Shame Held in the Body?

The shame response in the body is physiologically very similar to the trauma response, where we might have a fight, flight or freeze response to the originally perceived rejection. This is a fear of survival developed because you were so young. Being rejected threatened your need for acceptance and being looked after by your family and community.

The original shame response gets recycled repeatedly when we perceive the same circumstances as the original rejection. This can get triggered so easily in life. We recycle that shame so that we will keep quiet and therefore survive. It’s all unconscious.

To add to that complexity, shame also develops in response to trauma. Often, shame is an internalisation of the blame for something that another person did wrong. Particularly as children, we can’t think of adults, the ones we rely on for survival, as wrong. We can’t acknowledge that we might be alone and unsupported. So we assume that there must be something wrong with us instead.

The sad thing here is that all that person wanted was love. So this becomes something to feel ashamed of too!


What are some Shame Triggers?

Body Shame Culture

Now I’ll talk a bit more about how shame shows up. On a more societal scale, you can see that there is much shame for being overweight in our culture, even though it is the majority of people who are overweight.

I hear endless stories of people who are told to lose weight as an antidote for anything from polycystic ovaries to moods and depression. This isn’t the cause in many cases, it’s a symptom.

This is the only medical condition in our culture where the cause of the problem is not even acknowledged. It’s assumed that exercise and stopping eating is something that we can exert will over.

But why are we so ashamed of being overweight in this culture?

Being out of control may be the threat. There is so much shame around not being able to control ourselves and our emotions in this culture. By this culture, I’m talking about Western society. Somehow, we think we ought to be able to do this (control our emotions)

This is one of the first things that you often say to me when you first come to see me; that you’re frustrated with yourself for not being able to exert control over what you eat. My clients are often nervous about going out in case they get ridiculed or judged. Many are severely limited in what they wear, where they go and what they do. Some people won’t even go out at all unless they have to.

This has become specifically sensitive right now, now that we’ve been socially isolating for the better part of a year. We’ve been in our comfort zones.

  • Is this you?
  • Are you restricted societally by the way you talk to yourself about your weight?
  • Can you see how your society might have influenced you on this one?
  • What does your shame voice say?

Please let me know.

Shame makes you avoid things like going out and socialising. But ultimately, shame makes you avoid yourself. Shame is self-rejection and the feeling that there is something wrong with you.


Shame Leads to Shutting Down

In many cultures, including our own, it’s thought of as shameful to feel good about yourself. Feeling shame is wanting to be invisible. Physiologically, it leads to shutdown. So you might get shouted at as a child and then shut down or freeze. If a parent screams at you, you can’t run away or fight back, so you freeze or shut down. This is the same with shame. You shut down. It’s too much for the nervous system to cope with.

This is also the same as when you eat. It’s the same experience. It’s when you become immobilised that you eat. You hear the voice of your critic and you shut down.

You know, this is the same kind of shutdown your body goes through if it’s being cut open! Total dissociation.

Shame is so strong that some people can faint from feeling it. I’ve had several clients whose anxiety and shame made them dizzy and faint in certain situations. This is all a fear of rejection and what that means for us being human.


Shame in Relationships

Another way that shame can show itself is an apology.

  • Are you always apologising?
  • What do you apologise for?
  • How often?

Can you comment here or send me a message about that?

If you consider how we behave when we’re dating, you can see how shame guides how we behave. We show our best selves to our first dates. Our secrets don’t come out immediately because we’re afraid they’ll put the person off.

We’re constantly monitoring rejection. Then once we’re already in an attachment, it’s harder to be rejected. Our human foibles are more likely to be accepted.

In relationships, shaming can be used so easily to control and to express dissatisfaction. I’m not just talking about abusive relationships here. Often, if something threatens us, we automatically, and unconsciously use shaming language to point it out. When your family point out to you that you are eating a little bit too much, or you’re putting on weight and that they’re worried about you, this is what might be happening  They ARE worried and they’re showing their stress levels.

They might even be feeling inadequate and out of control because they can’t help you. They probably haven’t had the education you have in diplomatic communication or in understanding their reactions. So they use shame and you feel ashamed.

  • What feelings of shame can you identify?
  • What shaming language can you identify both in yourself and other people?


How do you Heal Shame?

The best way to break shame is to engage with it. That might sound counterintuitive, but just like any other emotion, it has a function, so it is trying to tell you something. You will understand yourself better and what you need by exploring it. You might need to understand what the shame is there for; what you feel ashamed about underneath the binge, starting with the shame you feel having overeaten.

This might be fat shame, hangover shame, sex shame, having binged on TV shame, your favourite game shame, cat videos shame, booze shame, or just from having been pulled into contacting a toxic friend or lover shame. Trace back in your mind what happened to lead up to it.

  • What critical words or thoughts did you hear or can you hear on reflection?
  • What thoughts, what feelings, what words, or what behaviour were you trying to suppress in yourself before you used that substance that suppresses you?


  1. Observe. You’re used to automatically accepting and believing the critical shaming voice. So start by identifying, observing and understanding this voice. The voice is scared to let go or to let you feel good about yourself, just in case you get rejected. So step out, get some space and observe what’s going on. Be curious about it. Ask it questions and be compassionate.
  2. Ask. You can ask yourself what you are afraid will happen if you don’t stop yourself from behaving in a certain way.
  3. Use Humour. You can also use humour to explore it by gently ridiculing or exaggerating it, or you can treat it as you would a child that you would care for. Here, it’s your response that matters. This is the thing that can change shame into love.
  4. Mobilise. You may also simply need to move. Remember I talked about shame coming from a place of freeze in your body? A place of withdrawal and disengagement. Here your body becomes inert, so any movement can help to shake you out of it. Breathe, stand up, go out of the room, or press the wall to feel your muscles working. Touch your hands or your face, or pat yourself all over. Any of this might help your body to switch out of a stress response. You could experiment by just trying this next time you feel a binge urge coming on. You might be surprised.
  5. Connect. Another thing to try is maintaining eye contact or engagement with somebody. Feeling cut off is where the depression or the problem lies. Engagement produces oxytocin and feel-good chemicals.
  6. Challenge. And then you can start to challenge that voice. Is it true that you’re defective? Why would you assume that? Especially when your parents, your partner, your friend, and your boss, are probably just doing their own thing. Perhaps even acting out from their shame and fear of rejection. Is it true that you’ll get rejected if you behave that way? Or say those things you want to say? If it is true that some people might not like what you say or do, are there people you can find who wouldn’t reject what you do or say?

The Most Effective Way to Break the Cycle of Shame

There are plenty of online groups, especially now, where compassion is the focus. My groups and I certainly wouldn’t reject you or judge you. I’m seeing that through the pandemic, compassion is kind of a movement in our culture.

Joining a compassionate group can be a good practice ground for a new authenticity about yourself. Not rejecting yourself for saying those things or behaving that way is where you need to get to. The more you practice opening up and being honest about yourself, the more your nervous system will heal from this fear of rejection.

The problem comes from feeling disconnected or from not wanting to be seen in the first place. We all feel different or misunderstood and disconnected at times. And we all have a desire to connect. With shame, we recoil and withdraw from connection. So the solution is to reconnect.

Ask yourself what you imagined the other person felt when the disconnection happened. We often imagine that we are the only one who is flawed or feels disconnected and that isn’t true. The critic is the voice of suffering, not the voice of truth. It’s not easy to understand what’s going on when we feel disconnected or conflict with someone, but developing empathy is going to help. Because we are doing our best, all of us.

I know that for the binge-eaters, compassion can induce feelings of disgust. This is another form of shame, so it needs understanding and healing. Joining a group is a big deal if you feel shame. Being in a place where you can talk openly and hear others’ experiences, and recognise that you’re not the only one who feels these things.

Another way to look at shame is that you might even feel shame that you betrayed your core values after a binge. At least part of that may be disappointment that you disconnected when you value and need to feel connected.

In a group or partnership, you can start to change on a neurobiological level.

We are affected by each other’s states. In a safe grouping, you can experience the safety of it being okay to speak and act your truth. In shame or any trauma experience, you need someone to reach out to you. In a group, this starts to happen and you feel expanded. You develop an ability to hold something so difficult to hold before.


Final words on Healing Shame

The idea is to understand your shame well enough that you can create a structure for dealing with it. Naming it is the first step.

Here, it’s important to acknowledge that this is a difficult subject for you. The experience of feeling fundamentally flawed is so uncomfortable, but it’s something that’s waiting to be triggered in the unconscious.

Learning to tolerate your stress level is the work of recovery. This leads to acting out or binging less and feeling more able to be yourself.

In what I’ve talked about today, eating is the surface thing that you may feel shame for. This is the presenting problem. This is what people come to me with. But it’s also shame that can make you eat. It’s the underlying thing that you eat to squash, that can be the real instigator of overeating.

We all have embarrassment, shame, guilt and disappointment with ourselves. That’s just part of living. But you deserve to move on from that. And use it as the positive information that it holds for you. It shows you that you are a passionate person who wants to connect.

That’s the end of the podcast today, but please don’t forget if you have anything you want to say, any comments or questions, I would love to hear about it. So please email me . If you’re considering joining my introductory program, the five-week program, it is now full for March, but the sooner you contact me, the sooner the next one will run.

Thank you so much for listening today. I’ll see you next time when I’ll talk about anger. Is anger something that you struggle with? Let me know.



*Some ideas here were inspired by a Nicabm training on working with shame. You can buy your full training programme here.


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