When I was in early elementary school—maybe first or second grade—I went to a classmate’s house to play. I didn’t know this girl very well, but our mothers thought we’d get along. Our mothers were wrong. My new playmate was really mean to me, and I lacked the skills to stand up for myself. So as I left to go home, my one little act of self-assertion was to grab a little rubber finger puppet from her room and slip it into my jacket pocket.

Well, I felt terrible about myself for stealing (for the record, the first and only time,) worse than I felt being bullied by the mean girl. I couldn’t very well return the toy to her in school (it would be obvious that I had taken it,) so it sat on my desk in my room, just looking at me, accusingly. Finally, when my sense of guilt was so great that I could not bear it, I rode my bike by her house, pretended to stop and look at the front wheel, and oh-so-subtly tossed that little rubber finger puppet onto her family’s lawn. That rather half-hearted act of making amends only slightly relieved my shame (I don’t know if it ever found its way back into her room) but it was the best my six-or-seven-year-old self could manage. And even though it was a very minor event in my life, it has loomed large in my memories, probably because it wasn’t fully resolved. For years I was still haunted by a twinge of shame for my six-or-seven-year-old self.

It has occurred to me to discuss that story now, because “shame” is a current topic of discussion in matters relating to some types of eating disorders. Shame, in fact, was one of the themes in Oprah’s special, “Shame, Blame and the Weight Loss Revolution.” Yet while most people feel like they know what shame is, many would be hard-pressed to describe how shame works. And it’s the “how shame works” part that can be useful when it comes to healing deep- seated issues, like those stemming from food and eating.

Shame and Its Triggers

The most obvious way to describe shame is as that haunting, internal voice that whispers that we’re inadequate and flawed. Among other triggers, shame can rear its ugly head by focusing on perceived shortcomings that stem from body image, eating habits, or failure to live up to diet-culture/beauty-culture standards of size and appearance. Shame is often conflated with guilt, but while the two have elements in common, they are different.

The Cycle of Guilt

Let’s back up a moment and discuss guilt first, because shame cannot exist without an underlying sense of guilt. Guilt happens when we violate a positive ideal standard we hold for ourselves. It works in a kind of cycle, like this:

Let’s discuss guilt using a non-food-related example. Say Amy’s ideal standard is that, to be a good person, one shouldn’t yell at one’s mother. But it happens that sometimes Amy does yell at her mom. But didn’t we just say that Amy believes that good people don’t yell at their moms? Does this mean Amy should admit she’s a bad person for yelling at her mom?

Enter Guilt

Well, there is a way out of Amy seeing herself as a bad person. She can punish herself instead.

Consider this: If she punishes herself, then she can still keep her “good person self- image” by not letting herself get away with doing this bad yelling-at-her-mom thing.

So by making herself feel guilty, she is punishing herself.

The cycle of guilt works like this: If Amy feels bad about herself after yelling at her mom, then it’s ok for her to yell at her mom, since a good person who yells at her mom can still feel good about herself, as long as she is then punished (the punishment being that she feels terrible about it.)

Hopefully, this makes sense to you, because if you understand the guilt cycle you can understand how to break it.

Breaking the Cycle of Guilt

The way that Amy might stop feeling guilty is to either change her behavior (stop yelling at her mother) or adjust her ideal standard (maybe decide that sometimes good people do yell at their mothers.) The best way to alleviate feelings of guilt is to allow ourselves some flexible thinking. (For more of my thoughts on the importance of flexibility, check out this, this, and this.)

How Shame Is Different From Guilt

So far, we’ve discussed how the cycle of guilt works, and we’ve discussed how to break that cycle: we either have to change an unwanted behavior or to change our ideal standard that an unwanted behavior violates.

But what about shame?

While guilt arises from actions, shame has us feeling trapped in a condition of negative self-perception. To stop feeling guilty, we can either change the action that is making us feel guilty, or our opinion about that action. But if we feel powerless or unable to change our actions or situation, feelings of shame emerge. Shame is the harsh inner critic that sits on our souls like a dead weight and denies us the self-compassion we all deserve.

To make things worse, there is often a connection between shame and secrecy. It’s no mystery why someone who feels deep shame about some aspect of herself or her life would try to hide and keep things secret, whether it’s an aspect of identity, past trauma, personal struggles, or perceived shortcomings. Secrecy can be a form of self-preservation. Since shame strikes at the core of how we view ourselves, it can feel unbearable to allow others to see those parts of us that trigger shame. Keeping it all locked away can seem like the only way to avoid being judged or rejected by others, which would confirm our feelings of defectiveness. Of course, this secrecy reinforces and breeds more shame. Shame grows stronger when it remains unspoken and secretive.

But there is a way out: by starting to share our shameful stories—by speaking the unspeakable—we may take the first step towards deflating shame’s toxic power over us.

In Two Weeks: What’s Shame Got to Do With It? Part 2