We have all experienced shame before: the feeling that we are not enough, the feeling that we do not live up to certain standards or ideals. But what happens when this shame spirals out of control? What happens when it overtakes our life, and affects the way we think, talk and behave?
In this week’s blog and podcast, I speak with Megan Bruneau, a therapist and registered counselor who specializes in crisis support, compassion-based therapy and executive coaching, about the problem of shame, learning how to love yourself despite your imperfections, how to heal disordered eating patterns, the danger of medicalizing normal human emotions and why positive affirmations often fail.
Megan has been featured on national television programs like Good Morning America and The T.D. Jakes Show, and is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, MindBodyGreen and Forbes. Using both her personal and professional experience, her goal is to teach people to learn to live with their imperfections and be kinder to themselves. As Megan says, we are all a journey, and we are all worthy of being loved; there is room for both joy and sorrow in life. You don’t have to wait till you feel happy, look a certain way or succeed at something to feel like you belong and that you matter, because you are worthy, right here, right now.
In many cases, learning how to love yourself means coming face to face with your imperfections. You can’t just sweep uncomfortable thoughts and feelings “under the rug”, as I have said many times before, or cover them up with positive affirmations, because what we resist persists. Negative emotions do not just go away, and ignoring them will only make you feel worse.
In fact, positive affirmations tend to create more shame by perpetuating the notion that you need to feel a certain way or be happy all the time. But you are only human; difficult emotions are part of the human condition. Positive affirmations tend to invalidate this human experience by telling you that you should cover up your pain, sorrow and anger with phrases like “be grateful” or “try be positive”. This often feels inauthentic, and makes you feel ashamed for experiencing everyday emotions.
Unfortunately, the happiness industry loves positive affirmations. Like the diet industry, it wants to sell you something that it wants you to believe will make your life better. It is designed to make you feel deficient and inadequate unless you get “this thing” or achieve “this goal”. As a result, sorrow and other perplexing emotions are medicalized and pathologized, while the elusive goal of happiness is thought to be the be-all and end-all.
The happiness industry only exacerbates our sense of shame and dissatisfaction, making us feel like we need to hide our humanness and vulnerability. This further disconnects us from the people in our lives, making us even more unhappy and dissatisfied. No wonder so many people go through their lives feeling like they are broken or unloved, and that if they just get or do this one thing then maybe they will experience happiness! We are constantly bombarded with messages telling us that we are not enough.
Unfortunately, in many cases this dissatisfaction can lead to unhealthy behaviors like disordered eating patterns, which Megan herself experienced growing up. She used food to supress her shame and what she felt were “weak” emotions, and came to see the way she looked and how much she weighed as a measurement of her self-worth. Her disordered eating pattern became a way of numbing her pain, which left her stuck in a shame spiral.
However, when her boyfriend dumped her, Megan came to the realization that she has been following a lie this whole time. She was thin, she was pretty, but her boyfriend still didn’t want to be with her. This was the trigger that forced her to re-evaluate her beliefs; she now had no choice but to face her fears and deal with her discomfort. She began practicing mindfulness, learning how to deal with her difficult thoughts and feelings, and started listening to her critical inner voice. She recognized that she had been way too hard on herself; she needed to learn how to love herself despite her imperfections. This was the start of her healing process.
As Megan herself says, this journey was a long one, and it wasn’t always easy, but throughout the process she recognized the importance of:
1. Becoming self-aware: The first step in overcoming an negative eating pattern is to acknowledge it, and get to the root of the behavior.
Don’t know where to start? My new app SWITCH is a great tool for helping people deal with the root of their issues and overcome negative thought patterns and behaviors through the mental process of reconceptualization, that is facing and dealing with what is causing them pain and unease, before it takes over their lives.
2. Being easy on yourself: Some days will be better than other days, and you will fail at times, but the important thing is to be compassionate and kind towards yourself and learn to love who you are with all your imperfections.
Most importantly, you should change the relationship you have with yourself. It may help to see your body as something that is more functional than ornamental: be thankful that you can move, eat, sleep, walk and live. Don’t let patriarchal notions of female beauty determine your own self-worth; you don’t have to look like what our society defines as “thin” or “beautiful” to be worthy of love and adoration. You are not a decoration; you are a person.
Of course, there will be times when you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see, and that is totally normal! Talk to yourself and tell yourself that you are worthy. Recovery will take time, and that is perfectly okay.
3. Making that choice: Although a certain person or event may trigger your desire to change, remember that true change doesn’t happen overnight. You have to keep making that choice, and keep on keeping on. It takes around 63 days to change a mental habit; so go easy on yourself. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day!
4. Being in a community:
Having a support system in place and being integrated in a community can really help you through the healing process. Social events often involve eating, for instance, and can help you learn how to heal your relationship to food in a safe and friendly setting.
It also helps having someone you can turn to when you feel down, worthless or when you fail. Being open and vulnerable with someone, and seeing the they still love you, can really help you recognize that your imperfections do not define your self-worth. You are worthy, just the way you are.
5. Being desperate to change:
Change is not sustainable unless you really want to change. Part of Megan’s own healing process was the realization that her disordered way of eating came at a great cost: to keep up her lifestyle she had to sacrifice the relationships and experiences that make her life meaningful. This cost was too high; she realized she was a slave to food. And, as soon as she started recognizing this, she became desperate to change; she no longer wanted to live this kind of half-life. She came to the realization that she couldn’t have both a meaningful life and continue with her disordered way of eating. She had to make a choice.
6. Finding meaning and purpose:
If you don’t know who you want to be or what you want to do, the world will try tell you how to live your life. This is why finding purpose and meaning is an essential part of the healing process. It makes you feel alive and motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and deal with life’s challenges. It adds value to your existence and helps you recognize that you are worthy, no matter what the world says about you. You matter!
As you do this, you will find that, like Megan, you can transfer all the energy you used to give to your disordered way of eating into something that adds meaning to your life. You will find that instead of feeling trapped, you will feel empowered to make the changes you want to make; you will become a force to be reckoned with!
For more help on finding your unique purpose and identity and why this is the first step in the healing journey, see my book The Perfect You, my online program The Perfectly You and this video from my 2019 Mental Health Summit on the importance of mental health and identity.
For more information on shame, perfectionism, eating disorders and self-compassion, listen to my podcast with Megan (episode #132), check out her website, her Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, and my Think and Eat Yourself Smart book and online program.
Podcast Time Highlights:
3:00 Megan’s background and her personal battle with perfectionism and shame
5:30 Why positive affirmations don’t work
10:18 Why the happiness industry is dangerous
12:43 Why we need to deal with difficult emotions
20:00 What are some of the major issues we face today?
25:00 How to heal eating disorders
54:45 The importance of self-compassion and purpose
If you would like to learn more about how to deal with negative behaviors like disordered eating patterns and improve your mental health, join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summit in Dallas, TX December 3-5, 2020! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click. Early bird special pricing end 3/31!
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