The Power of Shame and Guilt

Shame and guilt are fairly powerful emotions. Just this past week I was watching news coverage (or was it an episode of the Colbert Report? It all runs together… *cough* …) about strategies used in the Presidential election and it was revealed that campaigns actually used shame/guilt as tools to get voters to go to the polls. The person being interviewed said that they would actually send letters or make phone calls telling individuals how many of their neighbors had voted in recent elections, compared to the person’s own voter record. This would hopefully guilt the slacker to vote because they wouldn’t want any of their neighbors to find out that they don’t vote. I’m sure it was a lot more complicated and statistical than I am making it sound, but it is just another example of how these emotions can affect a person’s actions.

Now in the case of convincing someone to vote, maybe the results are good. I mean, people should vote…it’s a right that not everyone in this world has and we should all be happy to have it. What about if you are ashamed of how dirty your apartment is or feeling guilty you haven’t picked up the phone to call a friend? Acting based on shame or guilt might also be considered a good thing. I mean, if you are ashamed of your mess, you clean it up and then yay, you have a clean apartment. Or you call that friend and have a great chat and your friendship becomes stronger than ever. Another really positive outcome.

I’m making shame and guilt sound pretty awesome, no?

But what about when the affects of shame/guilt aren’t so grand?

Making fun of someone for how they dress or look isn’t so hot. Being ashamed that you can’t afford nicer, better clothes or that you have big ears because it runs in your Dad’s side of the family is pretty crappy. And being made to experience this shame on a constant basis would probably cause some pretty distressed emotions. Or what about a woman choosing to put her child in daycare? It’s something she needs to do to meet her family’s needs, but what if she is made to feel guilty for not taking care of her child? If constantly there was something making her feel like she was a failure or a bad mother because she needs to make certain choices? That kind of guilt could be devastating.

In my life, I suffer extreme bouts of shame and guilt over food.

I know it sounds ridiculous, right?

It’s just food.

But not to me it isn’t.

I don’t know precisely when the feelings of shame and guilt in regards to food started, aside from knowing that I started to feel anxious about food as a child. I can think of several moments as a kid where a big deal was made about what I was eating, my weight and what constituted a “good” or a “bad” food.

* The huge hissy fit over making me drink diet coke instead of regular.

* My Mom making a big deal over whether or not I was “allowed” to take my candy bag from Halloween to school. She told me that I could have two pieces in my lunch box, but I couldn’t take the bag. The problem was that my whole class always brought their candy to school to trade, so if I didn’t bring mine, I felt left out.

* The instance when I went with friends to the corner store to buy candy after school without permission and my mom found out and made a big deal about it. I at the time didn’t understand whether she was upset about the junk food or the fact that I didn’t come straight home. I just knew she was upset.

* My grandmother insisting on nonfat everything.

* Coming home from a trip to 7-11 with my mother when I was a teenager and watching her stuff all of the candy bars she had just bought in an out of the way kitchen drawer. I asked what she was doing and she responded that she didn’t want my stepfather to see them. I asked why, baffled about why a grown woman would have to hide candy. She just shut the drawer and said that she didn’t want him to know and walked away.

* My parents being on constant diets and being surrounded by Weight Watchers/Jenny Craig/Fasting Shakes/etc all of the time. My Dad used to let me have Weight Watchers fudgesicles or desserts when I visited him and no one ever made a stink when I ate diet sweets….just when I ate the real ones. The Weight Watchers ones were actually pretty tasty though. At least I remember them that way.

Now I’m not saying I would let my kid eat their entire Halloween haul in one night. Nor would I want them drinking tons of soda and I would absolutely be upset about them being an unreasonable weight at 8 years old. The problem is that no one ever discussed why any of these things were good or bad. No one ever talked about proper nutrition, why we should eat the right things, why my doctor was concerned…nothing. I was just told “NO!” a lot. I’m not blaming my parents, which I am sure is what it sounds like. Almost everyone in my family is a disordered eater and it is absolutely ridiculous to assume that they could have taught me anything other than what they did. I guess I just look at moments like the above and wonder if they had been handled differently, would I look at food the same way. I mean, I can look back and see what behaviors I currently have that stemmed from the above events.

Every single time I eat a food, no matter how hard I fight it, I think this food is bad, or this food is good. And knowing that it is bad doesn’t stop me from eating it. I eat it, and then I am ashamed for the fact that I did it. I tell myself that I am a horrible person, I have no will power, I am a loser, I will never be able to fix anything and I am unworthy. I feel guilty that I ruined an entire day of good eats. I feel worried that my friends will think poorly of me for eating. They will be disgusted by the fact that I ate bagel. They won’t want to be around me anymore. The individual I am dating won’t love me anymore.

And yes, I get that all from eating a few cookies, a bagel or some ice cream. Heavy, right?

Also resulting from the panic attack of, “OMGz I am awful!”, instead of not buying/eating the junk food, I start to hide it. Maybe I only eat it at home. Or if I am in a period of logging my food on a social site like SparkPeople, Eat Different or the Fitbit site, I will not log those foods. I will hide it like those candy bars in a drawer, those secret trips out with friends so I wouldn’t get yelled at or that entire bag of Halloween candy smuggled out in my backpack so I wouldn’t feel left out.

And then I become ashamed and/or guilty about hiding it. Vicious cycle.

I know full and well that there is no such thing as good or bad food. Food is just food. It neither determines your worth nor are your food choices what make people love and respect you.

Knowing that is important….but I won’t lie about it. Remembering is a constant struggle.

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