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How do you address shame from past abuse and overeating?

I am trying to work through issues on codependency and compulsive eating.  I can see that some of the root is the abuse from my childhood, but I cannot let that be an excuse not to grow past these issues. I am thankful I am learning to spot those ways of "coping" sooner, but sometimes that makes me more insecure because I feel like I have not grown fast enough and that God is mad at me. Do you have any insights that might help?

Robin's Response
Thanks so much for your vulnerability with your struggles. I certainly relate.  During college I had a problem with compulsive eating—where I would literally try to eat my pain/anxiety away and then starve myself for days afterwards. Although the overeating pretty much disappeared once I moved away from home for good, the roots were still there of thinking I needed to be “perfect” to get approval from others and God.

Years later, when I worked at a university, I went through an “Overcoming Overeating” wellness program. There we learned to defer the urge to eat and then to look for the feelings that follow (when they are not covered over by food).  We also provided each other with emotional support and courage to engage our losses and find real help, instead of false comfort.

What I learned is that compulsive eating is a way to medicate pain. We eat so we won't feel pain.  Eating makes feelings temporarily go away. Of course, the double whammy is that we’re left with shame for using food in a way God didn’t create it to be used and the pain is still there, buried deeper, influencing our interactions with other people and with God.

When you are tempted to eat, I'd suggest asking yourself (and God since He alone can totally explore the depths of our hearts)...

  • What am I feeling?  Why?
  • Is there any shame I've felt today?
  • When was the last time I felt this way?
  • When was a time in my past when I felt this way?

For instance, if I'm not doing something as well as I think I can, I might be afraid I'm not good enough.  That might remind me of a time as a teenager when my mother critiqued the way I cleaned the house.  And that might be an experience I still need to mourn, forgive and surrender to God. You too might find there is still mourning work to do from your past abuse.

Then commit to yourself to talk to another sister in Christ.  In fact, it might be most helpful to you to have an accountability partner who knows your struggles and who you can check in with daily for five minutes or so, talking through the above questions. This is your opportunity to bring any ways you’ve misused food into the light.  You could also share how you've turned to God for comfort and what opportunities you see for connecting with others.

I’ve found that this kind of emotional openness helps women (and men) get to the root of what drives them into addictive behaviors like eating, masturbation, pornography, shopping, etc.  Overeating is a type of false intimacy, in that it promises emotional relief, but in reality leaves us feeling more disconnected and lonely than before we did it.

Getting better means replacing false intimacy with real intimacy. And whenever you defer eating and choose instead to experience and express those feelings, you make a step towards emotional health/security.

Remember that recovering from any addictive behavior isn’t a one-time decision—it’s more of a journey. If you find this behavior difficult to overcome, I’d suggest praying about getting into a recovery group for overeaters, or even starting one with women at your church.  Or even finding a recovery group for those who suffered abuse in their childhood.  It is powerful to seek healing with others who are on a similar path.

As far as getting down on yourself that you're not growing fast enough, that's a common struggle that most of us relate to.  Bit by bit, I'm learning to trust God with the timing of my healing.  Sometimes, it amazes me that I can go to an insecure place after everything I've been through, yet if I don't give in to shame (berating myself for being there), I can use the energy that shame would steal from me, to find real answers to my struggles.

Most of all, it helps me to remember that God is pleased with me coming to him in my brokenness, looking to him for help and healing...

“For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and the revive the heart of the contrite…I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him.”  Isaiah 57:15, 18

When I pray about my insecurity and fear, I always end by coming back to God as my comfort and guide.  I’ll say something like… ”Father I thank you that you are my comfort—that you are the only one who understands the depths of my pain. Thank you for wrapping your strong arms around me.  And thank you that you are my guide. Thank you for helping put one foot in front of the other, and instructing me in the way I should go.  You are my security.”

I go back to Secure in Heart often as well.  It is a calming book for me and reminds me to focus on who God is instead of who I am.  My favorite recovery book for codependency is called A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps by Patrick Carnes.  It's a guided journal, and we use it in the codependency groups in our church.  It really helped me dig down to the roots of my issues, while also helping me mourn losses and then move past them.



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