Today we will be talking about yet another psychology-related issue – shame. And we will attempt to relate it to poor body image. Shame plays a big role in the emotions associated with eating habits and food. Therefore it stands to reason that learning about shame and dealing with it is essential in treating eating disorders.
If there is a young woman in your family with an eating disorder, it is very common her family members will not understand what is driving her behaviours. They might be questioning why someone as smart, talented and attractive as her struggle with weight issues, or even pay more attention to her weight more than anything else.
While it is difficult to give a direct and concise answer, part of it will involve the interplay between the strong emotion of shame and how it relates to our self-image. Before we explore this complex relationship, we have to first understand what self-image really is.
Although many definitions exist, it can be generally defined as a set of beliefs about oneself which is formed with time with repetition and reinforcement with emotions. Generally, people trust their instinct enough to allow these beliefs to thrive, and over time they can guide our choices and actions. Furthermore, the more intense the emotional connections are, the less time and repetition it takes to forge the belief as a value. That is, in fact, the basis for the saying “once bitten, twice shy”.
In cases where the emotion is not as strong, belief is shaped more by repetition. One glowing example of this is the way advertising can slowly brainwash people into having particular thoughts and values. Perhaps it also includes the rhetoric that the media and government continually expose us to, but let’s not go there – I was merely giving an example.
Now that we have established that, let’s explore the emotion of shame. Unlike other emotions, shame is associated with being defeated in some way, and knowing it. Unbeknownst to many of us, it holds such emotional strength because it can determine life and death in some situations. For example, prisoners-of-war would have felt the shame of being captured, but they are still alive, aren’t they?
Now let’s put the two together. In reality the link between shame and any perception of body fat or weight gain can be unconsciously learnt and developed to the point that they intertwine, resulting in a poor body image. It might be complex to understand at first, but give it time and it all snaps into place.
Unsurprisingly, in a world where a person’s confidence is based on several factors, one of which is the way they are perceived physically by others, it is hardly surprising that shame and body image are intertwined. And since we know how much of an effect the media has, an oversized body is almost like an open invitation for public shaming and ridicule.
However, things can get a bit more complex than that. Individuals with eating disorders often link shame with certain occurrences in their lives. They often report “feeling fat” as soon as they experience a disappointment, rejection, or any other social force that is stressful to them. They feel this way even if they have lost weight.
In the world of psychology and psychiatry, professionals have acknowledged that there is a genetic or biological factor when it comes to depression, anxiety and the predisposition to associate shame with other facets of their life, including the amount of body fat they may carry.
Research has found that beliefs regarding self-image cannot be instantly relinquished by giving the patient medication. Instead, it requires a treatment approach that addresses the emotional origins as well as the factors that reinforces such beliefs. Professionals should focus their attention on techniques that can manage such emotions.
In a nutshell, the conclusions drawn by this series of articles is that the treatment of body image disorders will probably be ineffective unless the mental health professional takes adequate steps to understanding it at its roots, and this includes finding out what lies behind the patient’s emotions, one of which is shame.
Alrighty, this is a heavy academic article, isn’t it? I hope it does give you some insight and understanding into how mental health professionals think and deal with issues.
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