Shame

I’ve been tiptoe-ing around this post for a while. It was really cathartic to write a few months ago, but I’ve been afraid to post it. Normally if I am afraid of something, that tells me that it is worth doing. Perhaps it will be a post that will slip away unnoticed, as I am half-hoping it will, but perhaps it will help one of you. For that, it is worth it.

For a while now I’ve been coming to face with deep emotional issues from growing up, particularly in late high school and early college, when I battled depression. A lot of it came from the diet I had. But a lot of the deep fears that I still have now, fears that I hold onto in the form of unhealthy habits like self-berating & discipline, focusing too much on “willpower”, sneaking food or not mindfully eating, stem from shame. All those unhealthy habits, and difficulty creating new healthy ones, come from a place of panic. I tried to control my body so I wouldn’t go back to that deeply emotional place of shame. Now that I’ve discovered a new way of eating and my purpose in life – helping others and creating a sustainable relationship with the environment – my spirit is no longer muffled. When I was living in a place of shame – in secrecy, in silence, in my own judgment – my spirit was muffled. My joy was stifled. My happiness was something I had to struggle very hard to achieve, and could only maintain for limited periods of time. Being happy wasn’t my natural state.

I never thought I was ashamed of myself. The proud woman that was always inside me, but perhaps stifled again by unfaced emotions, refused to admit, intellectually, that I carried the deep weight of shame for many years. But after watching Brené Brown’s two epic TEDtalks on YouTube, she made an analogy that I simple could not deny. She said, “Shame is saying I AM a mistake. Guilt is saying I made a mistake”. And that’s the way I felt: everything I did was wrong; at my core I was a mistake. I couldn’t help it. I was depressed. For all that my feminist-intellectual-self rejected the idea that “I wasn’t good enough” (Preposterous!), my eating behaviours and depression indicated otherwise. I felt, perceived that I wasn’t good enough. I thought that I was all wrong inside. Then I heard someone else say the words, “You Deserve It.” Not even to me directly, but to an overweight teenage girl on Oprah (I wish I was making this up, but I’m not). In that moment, things snapped back into place. I realized it wasn’t my fault. I was not to blame. The threads of connection between my brain, body, and heart slowly started to repair themselves. It was the turning point in my journey to self-love and healthy habits, one that is happier and healthier today but far from over.

The first threads of reconnection came with eating a whole foods diet, slowly releasing my panicked mind-hold on sugar, and discovering food allergies. But change my diet all I wanted, I was still shoving old behaviour patterns into a shiny new label of PCOS-friendly, primal eating. You can still eat emotionally, overeat, undereat, restrict yourself, and, worst of all, beat yourself up over it, even if the food is the most optimized diet for you. This is why I believe you must address your relationship with yourself, especially emotional and psychological issues, as part of the first step towards healing your body. It’s crucial as well to approach body image from a place of what is healthy rather than what you might think is an ideal body, focusing on your health over your ego.

I don’t always have healthy habits, even though I eat healthy food. I’m still recovering from those years of being ashamed of who I was, even though I know I had all sorts of good qualities inside, all along. Brene Brown says shame lives in secrecy, silence, and judgment. I ate in secrecy – being “good” in public then going home to binge on sweets where no one would see me do it. I lived in fear of others’ judgment. ‘Oh she is a size 14 (like how would they know that anyway?!), what is she doing eating dessert?’. I judged myself too harshly, putting my own fears into the supposed voice of others. My friends loved me all along. My family loved me all along. But I didn’t tell anyone. I stayed silent. I kept my problems to myself, my shame to myself, my punishing mental regimes to myself. I didn’t love myself.

Once my body began it’s healing process, it gave me more energy and the courage to share my thoughts and emotions. Once I started to open up and speak from the heart, a process that is still ongoing, I found it so much easier to continue healing. I found that the “hard truths” I thought I was telling myself were really just one perspective out of many on my situation. These “truths” were things like ‘people will judge you if you eat sweets when you are this fat.’ ‘You just need to have more WILLPOWER and then you will get skinnier’ (because of course being skinny, not healthy, was the most important thing.) ‘If you don’t get rid of these “bad habits” then you can never expect to get in shape.’ Essentially – ‘you are not good enough.’ I was the biggest bully in the world, but only through my own self-dialogue. I am absolutely amazed at the complete and overwhelmingly cruelty with which I spoke to and treated myself. Never in my life would I speak to or treat anyone else in such a way. Why did I deserve any differently?

I was afraid of other people’s judgment, but it was really my own judgment that kept me locked up inside. My silence kept me from reaching out and finding ways to connect with others, and thereby learn to heal and trust my body. It takes a lot of courage to reach out and tell others you are struggling, but I believe in Brené Brown’s assertion that courage is telling your story with your whole heart. I want to be a whole-hearted, authentic person, and I’ve never had a negative consequence from reaching out and talking to my closest friends and family about what has been going on. In fact, I’ve never been closer or more communicative with the important people in my life then I am now.

While I no longer keep my feelings secret, I still hold onto habits of secret eating. I still stand in my kitchen sometimes, eating coconut butter or chicken too quickly, unmindfully, carelessly, perhaps panicking because I think addressing my emotions will take me back somehow to those years of shame. So I eat instead of facing them. There is still some sort of niggling bit of shame hidden somewhere, and I have yet to find a way to describe it or exorcise it. But I know the way to get there: forgiveness, trust, and a sense of self-worth. For me, these are the three most important components for me to practice good habits. Forgiving myself when I make a mistake or beat myself up. Trusting my body to heal itself and not analyzing or obsessing too much with my brain. Knowing that I am good enough and I have nothing to be ashamed of. Loving the body I’m in, right now, even if it isn’t ideal. It’s the only body we’ve got. It’s the only life we’ve got. Let’s not squander it by being ashamed of who we are, by saying “I AM a mistake.” Shame has been linked to depression, disordered eating, addiction, and a whole host of problems. We MAKE mistakes, but we are not a mistake. Believe me, listen to me, feel me: It is NOT your fault. You are NOT to blame. You are a wonderful, beautiful person and you make the world around you better for being exactly who you are. You are good enough right now. You have the potential to be whatever it is you desire to be. It is your choice, and you DESERVE it. Whatever you want out of life – you can have it and you deserve it. Have the courage to explore your emotions, because if you share, look for support, and expose your vulnerability to others – you won’t go back to that place of shame. I know that now. If you practice self-love, if you get away from addicting foods, if you honor your well-being, you will empower yourself to do amazing things in life – to experience the extraordinary.

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Since I wrote this in August, I’ve made even more progress with my emotional eating. Much of it is because of the fact that I started a healing journal, asked some family members and friends to be part of a specific healing support network, and also do to the immensely useful Food & Love! Hack Friday tips from Paleo for Women. I encourage men and women to check out Stefani’s thoughts on self-love-spiration, as they are straightforward, honest, and direct tips on how to love, trust, and forgive yourself. 

I have to thank some tremendously influential and talented people who are role models and sources of inspiration for me. Much of the ideas outlined in this post come from them: Stefani Ruper of Paleo for Women, Liz Wolfe of Cave Girl Eats, Stacy Toth of Paleo Parents, Sarah Ballantyne of The Paleo Mom, and Brené Brown, Ph.D. I also need to thank my healing team, Joe and Kendall, for being a constant source of support & encouragement. You guys are priceless.