Food addiction is an illness that thrives in isolation. We struggle with it behind closed doors. Bingeing in secret is one of the most common and unmistakable symptoms of food addiction. I can’t remember ever bingeing in public. I was far too ashamed of my inability to control my eating. Most addictive eaters seem to share this experience. This shame prevents us from seeking help.
Why are we so ashamed of our addictive eating? And what is shame?
Shame is an emotion that is very self-conscious in nature and lets us know that we have an internal sense of not being enough, not being worthy, feeling disconnected. We experience shame as a deeply negative state. Other people or situations can trigger shame in us, but we can also trigger shame in ourselves when we feel that we are not living up to our own standards. As shame leads to feeling inherently flawed, it activates in us the desire to isolate. So that’s why we hide when we eat addictively. To begin with, shame about ourselves might trigger the overeating. And then we are so ashamed of having ‘done it again’, we keep ourselves in isolation. We’re mired in a shame spiral.
Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is an emotion we might experience when we think we’ve done something wrong and feel bad about our behaviour. We are more likely to want to admit our guilt and talk to others about it to make amends, often motivated by a deep desire to belong and be liked and accepted. Guilt is a useful emotion in the sense that it motivates social beings to uphold morals and values that help the collective in sticking together. Guilt is a lot more related to a behaviour that we feel guilty about. Shame is a lot more insidious and toxic, because we equate our whole person with being faulty and inadequate. My favourite researcher on shame is Dr Brené Brown. She 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’.
Nowadays, I’m not ashamed of having food addiction anymore because I know it’s a treatable illness. The more information and education I received, the less ashamed I felt. I asked myself if I would be ashamed about a diagnosis of another chronic illness, for example cancer, asthma or diabetes? And the answer was NO! And then I asked myself, if I faced with such a diagnosis, would I isolate and try and get well on my own? Again, the answer was NO.
I hope that the more education gets out there about food addiction, the more it empowers others to come forward and seek help. I can see that this has happened with other health conditions. Just think of depression and anxiety, for example. These are now much more widely accepted than they were a few years ago. I hope this will be similar with food addiction as our society learns that it’s a common issue and that there’s no need to be ashamed.