Women and Shame: Replacing Self-Hatred With Self-Appreciation

By Shannon McQuaid, LMFT, LISAC, CDWF, CSAT-C, Executive Director/Clinical Director at Promises Scottsdale Millions of women suffer from shame related to our bodies and physical appearance. We harbor secrets about our perceived shortcomings and we’re triggered at every turn via magazines, movies, social media, family and dominant culture. Cultural ideals of beauty and femininity often lead us to focus on our flaws and the ways in which we do not match up. Studies show that shame is at the core of disordered eating and body dysmorphic disorder. What may begin as “beauty treatments” or “dieting” can turn into serious physical and behavioral health issues. We see women over-exercising, starving themselves, and compulsively overeating or binge eating. Here are some of the ways you can embrace imperfection and get beyond unworthiness: #1 Explore core issues. Delve into the origins of shame and the way it has manifested in your life. For many women, underneath disordered eating or poor body image is an underlying issue of never being enough and never feeling worthy. Childhood experiences of neglect or abuse are sometimes the source of these beliefs. We have to look at our early lives and where our shame messages began in order to heal. #2 Give up comparisons. Another self-defeating message is that we are not as good as “this one” or “that one.” She’s prettier, sexier, thinner. Comparison is the thief of happiness. When we constantly compare ourselves to others we open ourselves to deep feelings of inadequacy. #3 Understand the messages are universal. Shameful secrets keep us so isolated and trapped that we don’t recognize they are a common thread among women. The internal dialog that runs through our minds is common. We can give it a sense of normalcy by sharing and listening to others. #4 Give shame a name. We often have more than one secret locked inside. Identifying each is much like letting the air out of a balloon: It becomes flat and lifeless and shame loses power over us. Here’s an example: A woman shared in group that she had a sexually transmitted disease. The fear of being labeled and judged by this condition had paralyzed her, until she found the courage to share. Three women immediately admitted they had the same disease. Sharing shame is liberating, and connecting with others facing the same struggle is even more so. It lets us know other people feel this way too. #5 Focus on the internal, not the external. We are more than our bodies and physical appearance. It’s important to discover our authentic selves and what we have to offer the world. Maybe you are smart, creative, caring or generous. Perhaps you love school or you’re building a career. Dwell on what gives you substance, not what you look like. #6 Adopt a mantra. A word or phrase that elicits self-compassion and makes you feel stronger can help counteract triggers or negative self-talk. When stress creeps up, try: I am strong, I am brave, or I am worthy. Think it or say it out loud. Over time the positive words can overtake the trigger phrases. #7 Choose a theme song. Think of an empowering song that can play in your head every time you walk in a room. Or it can be a song that allows you to feel shame and courage at the same time, like “Secrets” by Mary Lambert, “Who Says” by Selena Gomez or “Try” by Colbie Caillat. That is where true power lies — when you can allow for all of your feelings and parts of yourself to exist without trying to squelch any of them. #8 Project into the future. We can use the symbolism of the arena — usually the home of sports events, concerts or performances — as a place in which we are empowered to be courageous. We can draw the image from any existing arena, or invent our own, and just imagine ourselves living the lives we want and standing strong in our power. It’s a place in our minds where we can feel brave, even when feeling afraid. #9 Don’t sacrifice yourself. Consider spending more time around people who lift you up and less with those who drag you down. Simmering under the surface for many of us is shame that we are not showing up in the world as others want us to. It leads us to twist ourselves into pretzels to try to meet their demands. We need to give ourselves permission to not give ourselves away to others. Following these tips might mean leaving a conversation with a critical person — or in our own heads. It could mean stopping use of social media if it is agitating or discouraging. Rather than getting angry or acting out in ways that exacerbate shame, such as engaging in disordered eating behaviors or drug or alcohol abuse, we can create boundaries and learn tools to help us continually look after our own well-being.

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