The connection between maladaptive eating behaviours such as calorie restriction, food addictions, binge eating and grazing, and trauma is widely accepted as significant (see research below). If you struggle to keep a healthy weight, it is worth considering that a change of diet alone might not be enough to produce lasting effects. To gain greater awareness of how your mental health affects your relationship with food, here are 5 signs your weight problem is trauma related:
1- You eat emotionally to soothe yourself. Emotional eating is motivated by negative feelings such as loneliness, tiredness, anxiety, sadness, shame, guilt and anger that are stored in the body from traumatic events. Victims of emotional abuse, physical neglect and/or sexual abuse are more likely to turn to food to regulate their emotions and deal with traumatic stress (Kong et al, 2009). Or as Stojek MM et al (2019) point out, “From a psychological perspective, consuming high-calorie foods that stimulate the reward neurocircuitry may be a powerful emotion regulation strategy in response to increased stress”.
2- You overeat to defy authority. You express anger at your abusive caregivers and control over you own body by overeating or eating whatever you want not to conform with their rigid diet and beauty standards.
3- You undereat to defy authority. You express your anger at your abusive caregivers and control over you own body by dieting and becoming smaller/thinner and making them jealous or resentful of your autonomy and weight loss.
4- Your weight makes you feel safe. You feel stronger when physically bigger or “invisible”, in a way that makes you feel protected from attracting attention to yourself and less vulnerable to abuse.
5- You are addicted to sugar. Unresolved childhood trauma and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) “commonly co-occur with addiction” (Flanagan et al, 2016). Sugar is used to soothe traumatic stress, and it serves the same purpose of other addictive substances such as alcohol and drugs.
A trauma aware approach is essential if you are committed to overcoming an eating disorder or managing your weight effectively. For a successful outcome, combine a healthy diet with psychological treatment of unresolved trauma and address your health wholistically, from head to toe.
When the negative belief “I am not good enough” is active, we feel insecure and doubt ourselves. We question our intelligence and competence. What is more, we become hypervigilant and dependent on external approval to feel less anxious. If you would like to gain more control over that process, I recommend making the link between that core belief and your unresolved childhood trauma. Adverse experiences, such as suffering bullying at school, work to gives such negative beliefs their strength. When that connection is found, you are in a more powerful position to break it and free yourself from its effects on your self-esteem.
If you do not know where to begin, here are some examples of traumatic events experienced in childhood that make you think you are not good enough as an adult:
Your school grades, even when very good or excellent, were never good enough for your primary caregivers. When you shared your marks with them, you were asked who else got them or if you were the first or second best in your class.
Your primary caregivers were not emotionally present when you shared your school grades with them. Your efforts were neither validated nor dismissed by them, they were just not interested enough to care.
Your school and/or teachers were ignorant or not equipped with the right tools to deal with your psychological vulnerability, such as Attention Deficit Disorder or Asperger’s. You felt bad for being different, lonely and even alienated by that lack of support.
You were too hungry, tired, angry or scared/anxious to be able to focus at school. You struggled to concentrate and/or lacked the structure to be able to learn as your classmates.
How did your brain build this notion that you are not good enough? What are the negative events that work as “proof” of your supposed incompetence? Go somewhere private and focus your attention on your breathing for 1 minute. After that, feel yourself connecting with your body, from head to toe. Set an intention to be guided by it, to find a connection between “I am not good enough” with an adverse event from your childhood. Finally, notice where it takes you. Once your brain has given you an image, allow yourself to be present with it. Notice the effects it has on your psyche, body and emotions. Repeat that practice on different days until you the image has no negative effect on you.
As an Attachment-Focused EMDR therapist who specialises in relational trauma, honouring my clients’ feelings and their right to believe in their emotional wisdom make for essential tools to help them heal. Not surprisingly, relational trauma victims tend to display a complex and often neglectful relationship with their own body, feelings and emotions, which has a negative impact on their physical and/or mental health. Here are 3 reasons why you feel you cannot trust your own feelings, so to clarify why that happens and help you break that habit:
When you grow up without feeling properly heard, seen and felt, you struggle to connect and honour your own self. To promote emotional wellbeing and healthy development, conscious caregivers are attentive and respectful of their children’s needs, feelings and wants. By validating their children’s experience, they help them honour their own. As a result, those who are raised by emotionally conscious and mature parents develop a good sense of identity which is guided, comfortably, by their own feelings. Conversely, those whose feelings were dismissed as unimportant or even shamed and rejected for having them learn, through those very processes, to repress or deny their own emotional wisdom.
2- Connecting with negative feelings makes you feel unsafe
Do you remember what happened when you expressed negative emotions and feelings such as anger, sadness, fear and grief as a child? How did the key people around you, namely caregivers, teachers, relatives and friends respond? If they reacted with antagonism, be it by ignoring your feelings completely, solely focusing on solving what they believed was a problem, openly shaming you for having them or making you believe they did not correspond to your true experience (also known as gaslighting or truth abuse), it is only natural that you feel vulnerable when feeling them and insecure about their veracity and purpose, even as an adult.
3- You are in denial or not ready to change
Not fully believing in how you feel – especially when times are tough and change is required to promote solid wellbeing – helps one remain motionless. If you are not ready to face reality or willing to put energy into making positive changes and dealing with their consequences, telling yourself that you cannot trust your own feelings keeps you in your comfort zone. Despite perpetuating discomfort in the long term, this dysfunctional coping strategy creates a temporary sense of safety which feeds your inertia.
In order to feel whole and, most importantly, lead an authentic and fulfilling life, I highly recommend you challenge beliefs that lead to thinking that you cannot trust what you feel proactively, every time they trigger inadequacy. Do that by practicing “feeling is believing” and tell yourself that that inadequacy is part of your conditioning and it is time you let that go. Then, focus on recreating a freer and more trusting relationship with your own true self by allowing your feelings to take the lead, unconditionally.
Are you emotionally dependent? If you struggle with low self-esteem and excessive worrying, there is a high probability that you are. Emotional dependency is a vulnerability of those who did not receive enough unconditional love in childhood so to build a solid sense of safety and self-worth. Because they lack self-esteem and that all important inner sense of safety, they become addicted to the approval of others in order to feel at ease with themselves and in the context of relationships. To find out if that fits your profile, here are common thoughts of the emotionally dependent:
“I often worry about what other people think of what I say and do”
“I need reassurance that I am doing the right thing, otherwise, I feel insecure”
“It is hard for me to truly know what is best for me”
“I try my best to make people feel good around me”
“I check in with others first, before making a decision”
“I tend to feel ashamed of myself when I make a mistake”
“If I do not get positive feedback when I do well, I feel extremely disappointed”
“I have been let down by a great number of people”
“I worry and feel guilty when I am not able to be there for others and make them happy”
“I do not trust my own feelings”
“I feel very ashamed and resentful when I am given criticism, even when I am aware that it is constructive”
“I make an effort to be liked”
“I love helping others and making them feel happy”
“When people are not OK around me, I think it is because of something I may have said or done wrong”
“I often do not know if I am doing what is right for me, or if it is what I truly want”
“I try to avoid confrontation because it makes me nervous”
“I am afraid of making mistakes and disappointing others”
“I put others’ need before mine, even when I do not want to”
“I would love to be able to trust and value myself”
“I feel more relaxed when others take the lead”
“I always try to do my best”
“When I say no, I feel guilty”
As with any type of dependency, healing is viable through true emotional freedom. To achieve emotional autonomy and self-confidence, it is essential that you learn how to be yourself, regardless of the consequences. As simple as that sounds, converting that into action requires great courage. That is because in Western culture, authenticity often requires a fearless attitude. Practice increasing you discomfort tolerance and tell yourself you can stand and overcome the anxiety, guilt and shame that arise from honouring your own feelings, interests and boundaries. As painful and as difficult as that may seem, your end goal makes it all worth it. After all, there is nothing more rewarding than living your own life and enjoying authentic self-expression.
Beliefs, like words, have power. What you tell yourself in your own head has immense influence on your self-image and self-esteem. That is because behind your negative self-talk, there are always negative beliefs about yourself, the world and others fuelling a pessimistic, weak and unfavourable outlook. Beliefs are so powerful, that they can guide you towards creating a reality you have built with thought alone. So if you believe you are not fit to run for more than 5 minutes, you will not. Equally, if you decide you can do it, not only rationally but also emotionally, you will. By believing in something “emotionally”, I mean with your whole being, namely, with your mind and body. As Lipton (2015) explains in The Biology of Belief, “Thoughts, the mind’s energy, directly influence how the physical brain controls the body’s physiology”. That would explain how there are so many stories of people that defied terminal cancer diagnoses, for instance, and ended up living a much longer life. To help you start thinking and feeling better about yourself, below you will find 5 positive beliefs to boost self-esteem:
1- I matter
Even if you are currently not in a relationship or do not have many friends, you are important to others. As a living being, you matter not only to the universe, but also to yourself and others around you, even when they do not know you. Life is precious and we all want to preserve it. Therefore, even if I have never seen you, as a fellow human being, I wish you all the best. And no, you do not have to be a therapist or a monk to think like this, since a great number of people do.
2- I am competent
Are you aware of how many skills are required of you just to read this blog article? Even if you feel depressed, in despair or heartbroken, you still have the ability and strength to wake up and face your fears every single day. It is sometimes hard being human, but we become masters of our existence already from a very early age. Remind yourself that trying is what matters, not winning. Every time you try, you show yourself, the world and others that you are alive and connected.
3- I can stand it
You have overcome disease, bad weather, hardship and disappointments. You have been able to get up and get things done even when you felt like curling into a ball and disappearing. You have shown up even when your body felt weak. You have been there for others when you could not be there for yourself. You have felt alone and bitter, but tried to be civil and respectful to others. You have dealt with your losses the best you could, even without validation or support from others. You are resilient and can stand pain and discomfort.
4- I can trust others
Would you have got this far without the help of others? Even though some of us are quite independent, we all survive and even thrive because we work in collaboration. Relationships of all kinds are risky, because everyone that comes into it does so with a set of expectations, vulnerabilities and at least one trauma. As we are imperfect beings, we all get hurt at some stage in our lives. The good news is, as you learned above, you can stand it! If you get disappointed, you will eventually get over it, as with most things in life.
5- I am good enough
You were good enough to have come into this world. You were good enough for growth and development, regardless of the circumstances. You were good enough to make it to your age and have known the people you do. You were good enough to achieve what you have and to make something out of it. You are good enough to be alive and worth every breath you take. You are good enough and worthy of everything you still have to give to yourself, the universe and others. You are good enough because you are you, and you are unique.
If you suffer from low self-esteem and struggle to feel whole and happy, it is time you started telling your brain a different story about yourself, the world and those around you. I highly recommend writing the above beliefs down and incorporating them into your meditation practice. When you reach a calm state of mind and feel at one with your body, create imaginary scenarios in which you see yourself behaving as mentioned above. Then, connect with the positive bodily sensations these images evoke, as if you were right there and then enjoying this new way of being. Repeat the exercise on a daily basis and observe the effects it has on you emotional health.
Lipton, B. H. (2015). The Biology of Belief, Unleashing the power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Carlsband, CA: Hay House
Shame is built in our bodies based on the experience we have had with other people, such as our caregivers, relatives, friends and teachers. Shame is morally, socially and evolutionarily relevant, because it favours the integrity of human groups, helping increase their survival rates. When we stick together, we tend to live longer and healthier lives. While behaviours such as altruism, treating each other well, being empathetic, sharing and helping each other favour the quality of our relationships, acting in an exclusively narcissistic, selfish, aggressive and anti-social manner threaten their unity. Fortunately, shame is an emotion that is there to regulate such behaviours, so that the interests of the group prevail. For that reason, shame may feel like “emotional punishment” for not respecting the integrity and harmony of a group, or the rules that make us identify with each other and work in cooperation.
The role of shame
Shame warns us when we have broken the rules shared by a given group. Because those values or set of social rules vary according to cultural context, what is shameful for a certain group may be acceptable for another. While guilt tells us that we have done something wrong, shame points the finger directly at us, as if saying: “You are wrong”. Therefore, shame has the potential to become extremely toxic to self-esteem, because it causes us to feel rejected and even a failure. Moreover, since it is a “learned” emotion, it can become an internalised self-sabotaging mechanism or a bad emotional habit through which we constantly criticise and judge ourselves. When that occurs, we feel vulnerable and tend to isolate from others.
Feelings related to shame
Embarrassment, inadequacy, worthlessness and regret, as well as feeling mortified or dishonoured, are all shame-based feelings (If you need help identifying feelings of shame, please click here).
How shame is felt in the body
Interestingly, shame, as a “moral feeling” (Michl et al, 2014) is triggered by the frontal, temporal and limbic areas of the brain (linked to rational thinking, learning and fear and survival, respectively). As you can notice below, the bodily sensations associated with shame prepare us to disconnect, avoid and even hide from the other:
Heavy body: head, torso, legs and arms
Shoulders rolled forward
Eyes look downward
Lack of movement
Heated head and face
Adaptive and maladaptive shame
Because we value a sense of belonging, adaptive shame can stop us from acting against our best interests, as damaging the relationships we value. The same applies to our life goals and achievements. When a friend catches you out watching TV in the afternoon, when you had planned to study for a big exam, for instance, and, consequently, you feel inadequate, shame helps you stay focused on what is important to you in the long term (qualifications, better chance of employment, etc.). In such contexts, shame is adaptive because it favours goal attainment and psychological wellbeing. In that context, shame does not “run the show” as the sole motivator, but it arises in specific contexts to remind a confident and responsible individual to choose the behaviours that match his or her objectives. Maladaptive shame, however, does not contribute to personal and professional growth gracefully, but it has a hindering and lasting, self-destructive effect. When behaviour is dictated by shame, incredible harm is done to identity and self-esteem, which creates a great distance between our ourselves and our essence. Maladaptive shame is considered the most toxic of emotions, since its effect is extremely debilitating to one’s ability to connect not only with his or her own self, but also with others, making it impossible for one to feel contentment, as well as a real sense of love and joy in life.
What your shame says about you
As we have already noted, shame tells you when there is something supposedly wrong with your way of being or behaving. If you relate to your shame in a functional way – listening to its message from a balanced perspective – you take what you need (if anything) from it, and use it to recentre or reach a better state of alignment between your values and true identity. By doing so, you act with self-esteem and grow from the experience. That pragmatic attitude towards shame, and your ability to judge and regulate it, reflect a high level of self-awareness, respect and love for yourself. Shame that cannot be shaken off that effectively, but it seems to resonate with negative core beliefs such as, “I am not good enough” or “I am damaged goods”, however, lingers for longer than required to create a healthy sense of awareness. In that case, its purpose is not to inform and help you regain focus on what enhances wellbeing and development, but humiliate and denigrate you. Recurrent feelings of toxic shame is often a sign that you need to take better care of yourself emotionally and psychologically.
Due to its harmful effect on the psyche and body, toxic shame is connected to an array of mental health problems such as unresolved childhood trauma, as well as personality, anxiety and mood disorders, amongst others. If you are not satisfied with the relationship you keep with your shame or ability to control it, I highly recommend seeking professional health. Facing your shame head-on, with energy and courage, remains the best away to weaken its power over you and improve self-esteem.
Michl P., Meindl T., Meister F., Born C., Engel R.R., Reiser, M., Hennig-Fast K. (2014). Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9(2): 150–157. http://dx. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss114
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