Shame And Embarrassment
Behaviors associated with eating disorders that involve food restriction or purging often develop out of a sense of shame. Shame occurs when someone is painfully aware that they have failed to meet a social standard, and have let people down. Shame is an inherently social emotion, and one that reveals a deep dependency on social expectations and the status quo. Because individuals suffering with eating disorders cannot alter or reset the culturally established standards to which they hold themselves, their resulting moods and level of shame are dependent on their perceived ability to meet them.
Because there is shame attached to eating disorders, a sort of trap occurs when individuals realize that their disordered behavior is no longer manageable. For fear of being judged, and in an effort to preserve their self worth, they often avoid or reject assistance and help. When they are unable to help themselves, they feel ashamed to reveal their disordered behavior and embarrassed to admit that they are out of control. They believe that asking for help would be an admission of ultimate failure. This painful and shameful secret tends to perpetuate the problem and keep them enslaved in the disordered behavior.
Psychologists know that dysfunctional thinking can contribute to the susceptibility toward and maintenance of eating disorders and depression. One example of maladaptive thinking is learned helplessness, discovered in foundational experiments by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960's. Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a person learns to believe that they are helpless even when their situation is avoidable or changeable. Individuals with eating disorders often believe that they have no control over the expectations imposed on them, the behaviors used to meet those standards, and the resulting pain and loneliness they endure. They believe that their situation is hopeless and anything they do is futile. As a result, they remain passive and stuck in an unpleasant and even harmful situation.
Another maladaptive pattern of thinking often found in eating disorder patients is body image distortion. Body image distortion occurs when people inaccurately perceive themselves as being different (generally heavier) than they actually are. Individuals with eating disorders continue to see themselves as fat and unattractive, even when the people around them worry about their weight loss and body size. Because they see themselves as significantly different than others, they do not trust the opinions or advice of those around them. Body image distortion occurs more frequently for women than for men. Teenagers may be particularly at risk for developing body image distortion during puberty, when rapid changes in body size and shape, as well as development of secondary sex characteristics make them vulnerable to feeling awkward and large.