I’m going to work to commit every Thursday evening to writing about self-care – what it is, how you can achieve it, and how we can become better together. As this series progresses, feel free to chime in with your thoughts, questions and concerns. Read part 1 here. View part 2. View part 3. View part 4. View part 5. You are now viewing part 6.
Right in that moment, I needed compassion. I needed to know I wasn’t to blame. I needed to know that my intentions were good, and those intentions meant something. I needed to hear that I wasn’t a horrible, lazy person, that this wasn’t permanent – that my hard work all these years wasn’t for naught, and that this was just an opportunity for learning, much like any other experience that challenges your recovery.
The truth of the matter is, I am to blame, here. Or, rather, that blame isn’t quite the right word for the situation. “Blame” has an accusatory tone in it, an implied sense of responsibility for a transgression. With emotional eating, you’re fighting a natural response that is ingrained in your very psyche – you’re fighting your natural, learned reaction to solve unpleasant feelings in this way. Sometimes, the unpleasant feelings are so overwhelming and powerful, that you don’t have the energy to fight. Sometimes, you are too drained to fight both the world, and yourself. It’s not necessarily a blame situation, no, but that won’t stop you from feeling a healthy amount of guilt about it.
In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown talks a lot about the difference between guilt and shame. She speaks kindly about how, whereas shame is silencing, a tactic designed to isolate you and make you feel like you deserve to be repeatedly whacked over the nose with the newspaper; guilt can be transformative. To quote her directly, “Guilt = I did something bad. Shame = I am bad.”
In fact, her example makes it quite clear:
Let’s say that you forgot that you made plans to meet a friend at noon for lunch. At 12:15, your friend calls from the restaurant to make sure you’re okay. If your self-talk is “I’m such an idiot. I’m a terrible friend and a total loser,” that’s shame. If, on the other hand, your self-talk is “I can’t believe I did that. What a crappy thing to do,” that’s guilt.” (pp. 81-82)
What makes shame isolating and restricting – at least, for the emotional eater – is that the natural response is one of two options: either to retreat and continue to wallow in a cycle that results in more emotional eating, or to go on the attack. It’s everyone’s fault/responsibility/problem except yours. Shame distances you from your ability to look inward, because it makes you fear what you’ll see… hence, “I am bad.”
Guilt, however, is transformative because it puts the focus squarely on the action. It’s what you did that’s the problem, not you, and it allows you to assess what happened, its cause, the way the negative effects made you feel, and take steps to preventing it from happening again. As Brown puts it, “the psychological discomfort […] is what motivates meaningful change.”
The beautiful thing about Greatly is the fact that she actually acknowledges the role that shame plays in the development of addiction (which, in my mind, feels like another point in proving that all addictions are the same because the addiction and its causes and effects are what matter, not the vice of choice.) Because of the isolative properties of shame, it makes sense to run to an outside source of comfort. One that doesn’t talk to you. One that doesn’t anger you or sadden you or say words at all. All it does… is make you feel better about how horribly you feel about yourself, even if only temporarily.
A hallmark of guilt is the ability to apologize. When we need to apologize for what we’ve done to others, we put the focus specifically on how we’ve wronged them, we express empathy for how we’ve made them feel, and we speak of steps to ensure that we do better next time. “I’m so sorry that I was late! I can’t imagine how that made you feel,” combined with a simple “Yeah, honestly? The time just got away from me. I’ve got to do a better job of keeping track of my appointments.” and maybe a “Let’s make lunch my treat, ok?” can make everything okay.
But with emotional eating, the person you’ve wronged… is yourself. What do you do then?
The exact same thing.
“I’m so sorry that I’ve done this to myself. This hurts so much, to know that I’ve done this and made such a terrible mistake.”
The most important part?
“I cannot grieve like this. I’ve got to look for healthier ways to grieve.”
When I mourned Sala’s death on my twitter account, a friend mentioned that he’d wished he’d bought his kids a dog when they were younger, so that they could learn how to grieve. He shared that his son had lost a dear friend, and he was emotionally going through it.
It made me take a second look at Mini-me, and how she was handling it all. She allowed herself to be sad, she cried, but she eventually got to the point where life went on. That was something I’d never had as a child. I mean, I’d had my beloved grandmother pass away when I was 9, but I couldn’t grieve because every adult around me was too busy sobbing in corners on their own. It’d make sense that someone like me never learned to grieve. I was never taught it, and it’s not something you think to instinctively teach. But, allowing Mini-me to experience the loss, to cry through it, and in the end remember that life goes on – and allowing her to learn how to do it all sans food – meant she was light years ahead of her mother… and that’s great. If anything, that means there is hope for her mother – at least she understands enough to be able to teach it to her child, and can eventually teach herself. By she, I mean me.
With my apology came forgiveness, and at the root of that forgiveness was compassion and understanding. I know what allowed the relapse to happen, and overcoming that is a process that takes time and effort, even after years of being relapse-free. I also know that I’ve now discovered a new set of emotions that I hadn’t experienced before, and I have to create a game plan for handling those, as well. The “game plan,” essentially, is what gives us permission to heal. And, if it’s one thing I know from years of being nose deep in this progress, it’s that healing is the restorative part. Healing is what makes you feel whole again. It’s where things change forever.
Next week: We’ll discuss healing in-depth.