Dealing with feelings of guilt and shame

Guilt and shame are common feelings in eating disorders and can lead to complicated emotions and thought patterns.

Guilt can be described as a feeling of remorse or sadness over a past action. Guilt is experienced when we think we’ve caused harm or violated our moral code. Although guilt can be seen as a useful emotion in that it helps us to conform to social and ethical norms, many people can carry irrational guilt, either because they violate their own unreasonably high standards or those of others. When this happens, the guilt stops being useful and can turn neurotic.

Most people with an eating disorder will experience strong feelings of guilt when it comes to eating. Useful interventions for this can include identifying buried or hidden guilt that we’re holding onto about other things besides food and eating. If you think you’re struggling with guilt, you might want to ask yourself, “is there anything else I’m feeling guilty about?” What is that? How can I make amends?”. You might also want to make a note of when you feel the most guilty, and if you can identify a pattern emerging. Most importantly though, practising self compassion and self forgiveness exercises can help us to observe rather than engage with guilt and respond with self-soothing as opposed to self-deprecating behaviour. 

Professor, researcher and author, Brené Brown, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” In simple terms, guilt could be summed up as “I’ve done something bad”, whereas shame could be summed up as “I am bad”.

Brené Brown goes on to differentiate shame and guilt by saying “I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behaviour than the solution or cure.” The fear of shame and stigmatisation is often one of the factors which prevent people from seeking help for their disorder and contribute to beliefs of undeservedness of treatment or recovery.

There also exists “secondary shame”, which is the shame that one might feel as a result of feeling other primary emotions deemed to be negative such as anger, fear or sadness. Shame is often said to thrive in secrecy. Disclosing eating disordered behaviour to other people is therefore often thought to be the first step towards recovery and the start of a release from shame. In talking to others, the secrecy is lifted and a sense of validation or normalisation may take its place. Talk ED offers 1:1 support calls with our peer support team who have first hand experience of recovering from or supporting someone recovering from an eating disorder. Participating in support groups to connect with others going through something similar, or talking with loved ones or healthcare professionals can also help to reduce shame.

Aside from sharing with others, when you feel the urge to turn to eating disorder behaviour because you want to get rid of guilt and shame, you might want to start journaling instead. This involves writing down what you feel and where you think the feelings come from, and any other thoughts and feelings that seem overwhelming. You might also want to think about and note down where in the body these emotions present themselves so that you can gain more awareness and objectivity when these feelings occur. Preparing some self-care activities to put in place when you start to feel uncomfortable feelings can also be a useful way to recover from guilt and shame episodes. In the long run, finding ways to develop and increase our sense of self worth will serve as a protection against feelings of shame, worthlessness and guilt.  

For extra reading:
I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”, by Brené Brown.

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