From Shame and Guilt to Self Acceptance and Love
Jenna was ashamed of her appearance. Over the last year, she had gained more weight than she could possibly excuse. She avoided social events. She avoided being in pictures. She even avoided looking in the mirror because it just brought up feelings of self-hatred and depression. Every once in a while she would get so disgusted with herself she would go on a deprivation diet. Which was useless because she didn't have the energy to sustain the punishment. Her dieting attempts were seen as failures and only served to further lower her self esteem. She was killing herself and needed to get out of the horrible rut she was in. At this point, happiness seemed unattainable and she began to feel she had no reason to live. She didn't have the nerve to kill herself but wished she would go to sleep and never wake up.
From this state of despair, Jenna began to reflect on her life and how things had gotten so out of control. She was scared by her suicidal wishes and decided it was time to reach out for help.
Her therapist asked her a lot of questions in the first session but the one question that had her thinking for weeks was, "When was the happiest time in your life?"
Jenna had not always been this depressed. She had always struggled with low self-esteem and there were times in her life when she was happy. Actually, most of her life she was relatively content. It had only been in the last year that she felt this miserable.
Her therapist began to question the events of the last year but Jenna tended to brush off the conversation and focus on how her weight made her so miserable. "Maybe something has made you so miserable and is the reason you have gained so much weight."
The more the therapist pushed, the more Jenna resisted. "Can't you see, I'm just fat and lazy. I have no self-discipline."
"I'm not buying it. It seems you want me to believe you are a bad person and that's why you have this problem. I agree you are troubled but that does not make you a bad person. I think you should consider there is a reason this weight gain occurred and it has nothing to do with your worthiness as a person. Give it some thought, what happened in the last year that made you so miserable? In the meantime, I would like to suggest you take a picture of everything you eat. This is not for me to see, I will never ask to see these pictures. I just want you to observe and be aware of what you are eating. Also, I'm not asking that you change your eating, just observe it.”
Jenna knew the answer to her therapist's question. She knew what started her year-long binge but she wasn't sure if she could tell her therapist. She didn't want to be judged. Without getting into details, it involved a married boss and long lunch hours. She had told herself it was only a harmless fling. She was single, he was the one having the affair. At some point, his wife may have become suspicious because she began working in the office. It was at this point that she realized her fling was not harmless. Suddenly when she came face to face with the other person in the love triangle, Jenna felt ashamed. There was no longer a nameless third party. She was a real person, and coming face to face with her, every day changed everything. Jenna had never really considered his wife and how she might feel. When the boss's wife brought in pictures of their children, she felt the impact of her careless behavior even further. Jenna then began spending her lunch hour driving through fast-food restaurants and devouring as many calories as she could. She eventually found another job just to escape her feelings of guilt. The problem was, she left the job but took the guilt with her.
Eventually, Jenna got the nerve to tell her therapist. Her therapist calmly asked, "So what did you learn from that experience?"
A bit surprised by her matter-of-fact response, Jenna replied "Well... I learned not to get mixed up with married men."
"That sounds like an important takeaway." She paused to see if Jenna had more to add. "Is there anything else? "
"I'm such a bad person. I can't believe I did it. I don't even understand why I did it. He didn't even mean that much to me. He was so much older than me. I guess I was just lonely and he was being so nice. I liked the attention. I've never been treated special like that. At the time I just thought, why not?"
"Being lonely and flattered by attention doesn't make you a bad person. Having an affair with a married man doesn't make you bad. Yes, mistakes were made. You felt guilty. You have regrets, and it sounds like you learned something from your mistakes. Guilt is your teacher. Guilt is an emotion to learn from, not to suffer from. Once you have learned the important lesson surrounding guilt, it is very important to forgive yourself and let the guilt go."
"I don't think I can let it go. What I did was so careless and unforgivable. "
"There is nothing unforgivable. Continuing to punish yourself is serving no purpose for you or humanity. The world is not a better place because you are being punished. I know this is a risk but what if you just accept yourself as an imperfect person, like the rest of us. You will continue to make mistakes throughout your life. Everyone does. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and move on.”
Jenna contemplated the idea of letting go of her guilt. She questioned her worthiness but she also remembered a time in her life when she was happy. Jenna considered, maybe this was the way back.
"Why did you ask me to take a picture of what I eat?" inquired Jenna.
"Well, I was hoping you would begin to see the connection between what you eat and how you are feeling. I suspect that you eat unhealthy when you are punishing yourself, judging yourself, or feeling ashamed of your past. Perhaps when you find yourself eating poorly, it can be a signal to forgive yourself, honor yourself, and take care of yourself."
What the therapist was asking Jenna to do was to take the risk of loving herself and accepting herself, mistakes, excess weight, and all of the other beautiful things about her. To love only the "good" parts of ourselves is not loving ourselves. Loving ourselves means loving and accepting who we are, just as we are.