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Spirit of Life

Shame is a lie you tell yourself

Updated April 15, 2023
A line drawing of a woman with her hands over her face against a turquoise background.

Towards the end of last year, I went back to therapy. My kid had emerged properly and deeply into the teen years, and I suddenly found myself triggered as fuck. Seemingly overnight, I was living under the same roof as someone who was unknowingly bringing out all my unresolved teenage trauma. Riddled with uncertainty about how to accompany a young person across terrain that I felt both terrifically activated by and deeply incompetent in, I booked myself a therapy appointment.

Context: I had a very chaotic childhood. The cleanest example I can point to is this: between the ages of 5 and 13, my family moved 5 times across 4 provinces. A family culture of instability, un-safety and profound emotional dysregulation was my daily background while I was growing up.

When I finished high school, fuelled by a combination of insecurity and boldness, I left home and got a job as a dishwasher at a resort three provinces away. There, fully in control of my food for the first time, I dove into my first proper diet: Slim Fast meal replacement powder (combined with punishing sessions on my roommate’s stationary bike).

What I didn’t know then is that my turn to dieting was a trauma response, an attempt to soothe anxiety and secure control in a world that felt out of control.

When we understand dieting as a trauma response, we can see it is just like any other addiction: a tool one turns to in an effort to cope, which provides relief in the short term but produces a lot of problems over the long term. It is a strategy of resilience, one that is used to try to close the gap between you and what you are really seeking: peace, love, respect, acceptance, self-acceptance, etc. (If you are familiar with the work of Gabor Maté, this might ring a bell).

I have no recollection if the Slim Fast did prompt any temporary weight loss; it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because my belief about my own hideousness was far too deeply ingrained in my psyche for a little weight loss to make any difference. 

While still working at the resort, some friends and I went into town one night to see Wayne’s World. In the movie theatre washroom afterwards, I looked up at my and my friend’s reflection in the mirror. I was shocked by what I saw: my friend’s hips were wider than mine. I was completely astonished. I was supposed to be the bigger one. So what could possibly be going on here? How could my girth not actually exceed hers?

I did not know what to do with this information. I looked at her hips. I looked at mine. I looked back at hers. I could not take in what I was seeing with my own eyes because it was in complete contravention of the only reality I knew: she was gorgeous, I was hideous; she was shapely, I was ugh; her body was approved and approvable by men, and I was a virgin who seemed attractive only to men I found repulsive.

None of this was actually true. But shame is a lie we tell ourselves about ourselves.

I know it’s a lie for the same reasons you know it’s a lie: the photographic evidence. You have undoubtedly already experienced this yourself, more times than you can count. You examine the record of the times you felt yourself to be monstrous, and of course, you see a gorgeous young woman. This crushing realization is followed by the desire to go back, pull up next to yourself and be like, listen! Babe! You are the shit!!!

For some of us, this is then followed by the longing to go up to your your child, or the child you feel closest to, and be like MY GOD, THE LIMITLESS BEAUTY OF THIS FACE! I COULD HONESTLY JUST GAZE AT THE CURVE OF YOUR NOSTRIL ALL DAY AND BE SUSTAINED FOR A WEEK.

Oh, yes, back to my kid—the one who was/is blossoming as a teenager in the context of a safe and stable family home, one in which emotional regulation, a general sense of safety and fairly good boundaries is the norm. Given the stark contrast of our contexts, witnessing this was what did my head in, enough to drive me back to therapy. 

Without having dieting and manipulating my body as a coping strategy, I had to get real with myself about what was going on.

I do sometimes miss my old, maladaptive, destructive coping tool, in the same way I still miss my other old addictions.

Then I remember I’m breaking generational cycles, have a way better set of coping tools, and am worth the pain of facing the shame.