Shame, Empowerment, and Step One

Judy wrote this article in October 1992, many months after we had submitted our final manuscript for the Addictionary, but a little before it was actually published. We hope some of these issues have improved since then, but perhaps these ideas will help you to deal with them.

Difficult is the journey of recovery from a food addiction. Many issues arise as people become aware of the factors involved in their addictive relationship with food. Among the most powerful of these issues is shame.

Not just women’s issues

Well over three-quarters of the members of Overeaters Anonymous are women. Therefore we will concentrate on female issues, although these principles certainly apply to many men. Suffering from an eating addiction brings not only the shame associated with the eating problems, but very often some pathological shame from a family history marked by abuse, incest, addiction, or other dysfunctions.

Dysfunctional family

If your family of origin had the typical problems identified as a dysfunctional family, you will have certain handicaps to overcome in recovery. Expectations were unrealistic. Secrets prohibited openness and honesty. Rigid rules and perfectionism attempted to cover the pain. As a small child you had to develop survival defenses. Your self-esteem suffered. You couldn’t allow yourself to be needy and vulnerable. Control became a way to cope. You probably took on these characteristics in your own interpersonal relationships. Understanding these issues can help your own recovery and result in a healthier fellowship within OA.

Shame is not an all-or-nothing experience

Though we may have an aversion to the word, it is the only one available to describe this human experience. Shame is related to a feeling about our beingness. When we discover a characteristic or condition that reveals us as less than perfect, defective, not whole, we feel shame. It is important to realize these are conditions over which we are powerless. If we are lucky, we have other situations and conditions that balance these so our shame is not pathological and paralyzing, it is simply human.

Pathological shame

Pathological shame results when women (and men) are abused, discounted, ignored, and dis-empowered. People are born wth the power to feel feelings, to think and understand the world, and to get their needs met by loving and being loved. When these powers are oppressed, a child feels shame for needs and feelings that are natural. She will usually believe that something is wrong with her. She is somehow defective. But she has a drive to survive, so she adapts.

You learn to not trust other people and to take control of your own life. But no matter how you cope, feelings of powerlessness and Victimization continue. This results in a shame-based life position.

The paradox of shame

As an adult with an eating disorder, but also a desire for health, you find yourself with a challenge that isa paradox. Healing from pathological shame means to reclaim your personal power. The power of sponteneity lets you own and express your feelings. Awareness is a power to understand the world. The power of intimacy is loving and being loved. This is about empowerment, making choices that are self-esteemimg.

The paradox is that you also have to accept powerlessness (Step One) over your eating disease and look for help outside yourself (Higher Power). But if your history has taught you not to trust others, you are caught in a hopeless dilemma. To recover from pathological shame you must claim healthy power in your life. To recover from your eating addiction you must learn to trust others appropriately. These are not mutually exclusive, though superficially they may seem so.

It may get worse

If you walk into a treatment program or a support group like Overeaters Anonymous with a shame-based history, two elements are important. One is how far you are along the path of healing from your past, and the other is how healthy and skillful the people are who are working with you in treatment or in the rooms of the fellowship.

“Welcome home” may not be so great

If you have little experience with recovery of any type, you may not have the insight or understanding to know the difference. You may continue to feel you have to earn approval or recovery. You may find people who give you rules and regulations and a checklist of what you have to do. "Make three phone calls a day. Call in your food every morning. Weigh and measure all your food. Go to ninety meetings in ninety days.” They even use program phrases in a convoluted, manipulative way, as “Are you willing to go to any lengths?” This may even feel comfortable for you. The rigid, perfectionistic, and controlling environment mimics your dysfunctional family.

At first it is promising, because now you feel you have another chance to prove yourself. But you inevitably fail. Neither you nor these other people have any awareness of these dynamics. They may all have their own control issues. Surrender seems impossible. Not much healing or recovery takes place.

“We are not saints”

The Twelve Step recovery concept is designed for people who are human, imperfect, and trying to be OK in spite of problems and behavior that make them feel guilty and ashamed. A recovering person who has learned to use the Steps effectively is usually loving, tolerant, and Willing to share her experience, strength, and hope. She is aware of her control issues, and does not try to play God.

Recovery is not a plan to attain worthiness. The fellowships are where people love you because of your afflictions and shortcomings not in spite of them. You are loved for the very things of which you are ashamed.

Recovery can’t be bought

If you continue to think you have to earn their love, or if you can find excuses not to trust them, your disease can keep its hold on you. It is important to let yourself be loved when you feel most unloveable.

Recovery should not be another experience as a victim. It is an opportunity to accept your humanity and imperfection. You can honestly face your past. You will learn to make choices that are self-esteeming and empowering. You can find relationships that are tolerant, loving, and forgiving. You will experience the grace of feeling at home with yourself, your Higher Power, and other people.

— Judith A. Wilson, 8 October 1992

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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