Eating and Living Without Shame

Beginning the Journey to Eating (and Living) Without Shame

January 5, 2022

Eating and Living Without Shame: What Is Shame?

Shame. It’s a popular topic in the blogging world right now. We’ve all heard of it. There’s talk of body shame, fat-shaming, and shame spirals. But what is shame, exactly? Is it an emotion? An action? A thought? And can it really impact our eating behavior?

In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection,” mental health researcher Brené Brown defines shame as, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

That means that while shame is an inner experience, it relates to our concern about whether or not others will accept us and find us worthy. About whether or not we’d still be loveable if others knew our weaknesses.

Eating And Living Without Shame

For many of us, our deepest sense of feeling flawed comes from our weight or physical appearance. During his first therapy session, Evan [1] admitted that he had been trying to lose weight for the past 10 years. He had a year-long stretch where he had met his goal weight, was exercising regularly, and felt good.

Unfortunately, something knocked him off course, and by the time he reached my office, he had regained all of the weight he had lost, plus more. Make no mistake: Evan was an impressive guy. He had completed his MBA and was a successful businessman. He wore suits and ties. He had a happy marriage and a nice house in the suburbs. He went to the gym a few times a week.

He packed healthy items for his weekday lunches and ate sensible portions at meals with his family and friends. On the surface, his life seemed ideal.

But behind closed doors, Evan was struggling. “Every time I step on the scale, I’m so ashamed,” he said. “I’ve been successful in all other areas, but I can’t lose this weight.” No one in Evan’s life understood the depth of his struggle. Not even his doctor, who had gone over Evan’s food logs and told him his eating habits seemed on track.

The truth is, Evan was, in his own words, “a closet eater.”

A Closet Eater

Closets are places that we associate with things we would prefer to keep out of sight. Evan’s relationship with food and his body had become so shame-filled that he could no longer enjoy eating unless he was alone.

Otherwise, he would feel the eyes of those around him watching and passing their judgment. But the more he ate in secret, the worse he felt about himself. And the worse he felt about himself, the more he wanted to eat, so the better he got at hiding.

He would go through a drive-thru on the way home from work and discard the wrappers before arriving at his house. He kept a bag of candy hidden in his desk drawer underneath some paper files. He only ate a cookie from the break room when no one was around.

And he was careful not to actually write any of those things down in his food log. The minute he finished eating, he tried to forget that it had ever happened.

The food helped numb his feelings of hopelessness for a brief moment, but ultimately, it made him feel disgusted with himself.

Like Evan’s experience with eating, the feeling of shame is what makes us hide parts of ourselves from others. Our fear of being judged, disliked or seen as unworthy drives us underground. According to Brown, “Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.”

Thus, it stands to reason that one of the first ways to combat feelings of shame is to talk about them. Don’t keep them a secret any longer.

Acknowledging The Struggle

Evan had already taken a step towards acknowledging his struggle by coming to therapy. Even still, I certainly did not recommend that Evan go back to his doctor with a revised food log containing everything he had eaten in the past month. I didn’t even recommend that he tell his wife about the fast-food restaurants.

Those actions were only likely to earn him more external judgment. What I did suggest was that he reach out to someone he trusted, and take a small risk of vulnerability.

I suggested this because our secrets and our shame lose their power when they are spoken out loud. This works best if spoken to the right person, who will love and accept us through it. That’s the key part of taking this risk: The other person has to be someone we trust to withhold judgment and to validate our feelings. Evan chose his cousin Lynn, with whom he had been close since childhood.

For Evan, the experience he needed to have might have gone something like this:

Evan: “I’ve been really struggling with my eating lately. This is so unbelievably embarrassing, but I need someone to talk to about it. You’ve always been there for me in the past. Can I trust you not to judge me?”

Lynn: “Absolutely. You’re the closest thing to a brother that I’ve got!”

Evan: “Okay. Well, sometimes on the way home from work, especially if it’s been a really stressful day, I stop at McDonald’s and get a burger, sometimes two. I don’t tell Sandi. Then I go home and eat dinner…again. I don’t know why I keep doing this to myself. I’m such a failure.”

Lynn: “I wish I weren’t saying this, but I’ve done that same thing myself! There’s something comforting about fresh, hot French fries after a grueling day. I know it’s weird and embarrassing, and I feel gross afterward. But this doesn’t make us bad people.”

My guess is that, as compared to this conversation, many folks’ lives have been filled with the opposite types of exchanges: Doctors who tell us at every visit that we need to lose weight, fitness coaches who tell us we aren’t exercising enough, relatives who think they are “helping” when they make comments about our appearance, and strangers in the grocery store who give us rude looks.

All of these experiences reinforce the message that our mind is already primed to believe: if we don’t look a certain way or conform to a societal standard, we are not worthy. We do not have value. We are invisible.

This is also why, when other people comment on our eating behaviors, even if they are coming from a place of concern (or we have asked them to keep us accountable) it almost always backfires. Their comments don’t end up motivating us towards healthy change; instead, they add fuel to the fire of shame that is already burning deep inside us, and we may react with defensiveness, anger, or avoidance. Sometimes our food choices are a small outward reflection of our inner struggle to just feel okay.

Before we can truly combat feelings of shame, we have to acknowledge that they exist.

Spend some time in self-reflection to identify where your feelings come from and what they are. Next, make a connection with someone you trust. Start small. Share something mildly vulnerable, with the safest person you can find.

For example, you may choose to begin with your therapist in a confidential counseling session, in a support group of like-minded individuals, or with a peer mentor or sponsor. If you can preface the conversation with your expectations (e.g., “I’m not looking for advice or judgment, and sharing this is hard for me”), all the better.

Seek Out Confidence

If you can’t identify a person in your life with whom you feel like you could share, now is a great time to seek out the confidence of a therapist, who is specially trained to be supportive and nonjudgmental. Many agencies are now offering telehealth appointments, which may be safer, more convenient, and feel less threatening than going in person.  

Finally, meditate on the notion that we can bend over backward to earn the respect and approval of others, but if we do not first respect and approve of ourselves, any outside validation will ultimately be impossible to believe. It may feel scary to take that first step, but the payoff is likely worth the risk.

Eating and Living Without Shame: References

[1] Evan: Not his real name, and not a real client, exactly, but a composite of many clients I have treated.

Christina Rowan is a clinical psychologist in the Weight Management Institute at Summa Health

Eating and Living Without Shame


Christina Rowan is a clinical psychologist in the Weight Management Institute at Summa Health. She received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at The University of Akron and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in health psychology with a specialization in bariatrics at Cleveland Clinic. She provides individual and group counseling, assessment, and support services to patients struggling with weight or eating-related concerns.
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