The Shame Around Picky Eating

The Shame Around Picky Eating

Early in my career as a therapist specializing in picky eating, I found myself faced with a particularly challenging case involving a young child who refused to eat anything beyond a few select foods. Despite my best efforts and extensive training, I couldn't seem to make any progress. With each session, I felt the weight of shame creeping in – the nagging voice in my head whispering, "You're not good enough. You're failing as a therapist." Despite receiving praise from clients and knowing logically that I was skilled at my job, I too struggled with feelings of inadequacy and shame. Internally, I felt like I wasn't good enough, like I was being a fraud. 

If you're reading this, you may be all too familiar with the struggles of picky eating and the challenges it brings to the family table. Mealtimes can become battlegrounds, filled with frustration, worry, and a sense of shame. In this blog post, I want to shed light on the often-overlooked role of shame in picky eating dynamics, sharing not only professional insights, but also a personal example of how shame impacted my journey as a therapist.

Understanding Shame: What Is It?

Before we really get into such a topic, let’s first define shame. Shame is a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation that arises from the perception of having done something dishonorable, immoral, or improper. Shame is a powerful emotion, guiding us to know how to change our behavior for the better. This can be called healthy shame. Toxic shame, however, is harmful psychologically. It’s self-punishing and lingers on. It can ultimately deteriorate your physical health, your mental health, and relationships.

Identifying Shame: Recognizing Its Signs

Shame can manifest in various ways, both internally and externally. Some common signs of shame include:

  • Negative Self-Talk: Engaging in self-critical or degrading thoughts about oneself or one's abilities.
  • Avoidance Behaviors: Avoiding situations or activities that may trigger feelings of shame, such as avoiding social gatherings or refusing to try new foods.
  • Physical Symptoms: Experiencing physical sensations like a sinking feeling in the stomach, increased heart rate, or flushing of the face.

Unhelpful Thoughts Fueled by Shame:

  • "I'm a bad parent because my child won't eat what I serve."
  • "Other parents will judge me if my child is a picky eater."
  • "I must be doing something wrong if my child refuses to try new foods."

I'm not good enough... 

I think parents of picky eaters feel shame on another level. Firstly, not seeing your baby, infant, or child thrive or eat is gut-wrenching. It’s probably one of the most powerless feelings. And that thought that you are just not enough, not doing enough, or just not the right parent for this child can be all consuming. You feel guilty when your child cries for food because they did not eat their meal and you cannot help but feel that motherly instinct to give them something nourishing. 

On another note, the shame that is perpetuated by our society amplifies our already shame-based feeling at the home. Thoughts running through your head such as “What will others think?” “Do others think I’m soft?” “Do they think we are not disciplining our child?” “Will they think I’m a bad parent?” “Do they know that I don’t have it all together?” all come to the surface when you think about family get-togethers, eating in public, or simply having a family member over for a meal.

You might try to avoid eating at restaurants, avoid family get-togethers, or even avoid playdates revolving food. You hide yourself away in hopes of not being judged by others. When your child is refusing their meal and you are just at your wits end, you might scream, punish, give in, or bribe, even when you know that it’s not the right thing to do…. Because what else do we do! It can feel demoralizing and just overwhelming.

Working Through Shame: Strategies for Healing

We believe that the first step to tackling picky eating is understanding your own triggers, your own beliefs surrounding foods, your own thoughts, and your own feelings. Without truly digging deep into why you keep making the same mistakes and reliving the same patterns, it’ll be so hard to implement any of the strategies that will be taught in the next sessions.

Here are some of the first steps to take in order to understand your own feelings and thoughts:

  • One of the most important and powerful tool is to catch yourself when you shame yourself. I know when I started my journey, it was so hard to even identify my own thoughts and my own inner script. After some practice, it gets easier and easier to listen to all the words rushing by in my head. When you are able to identify some thoughts, catch yourself when you hear any negative thoughts about yourself. Some familiar thoughts could be
    • “I’m such a bad parent.”
    • “If only I cooked it just the way they liked it… They would eat it”
    • “My child doesn’t deserve me”
    • “I’m obviously not good enough… they won’t even do a simple action (eating) that keeps them alive”
When you catch yourself hearing these negative thoughts, think or say out loud “no! This is not true! This situation is really frustrating, but I’m good enough to handle anything that comes my way” or “no! I’m doing just fine”. Most of the time, you'll find that your inner thoughts are not logical and it's just the shame-bound emotions that are fueling the thoughts.
  • The second tool that will be offered is to talk to yourself compassionately. Talk to yourself the way you talk to your child. If you make a mistake, try to spin the narrative from “I’m such a clutz. I’m so dumb” to “oh wow, that’s frustrating! Everyone makes mistakes and it won’t take long to fix the problem. I’ve got this!”.  Just talking to yourself compassionately makes a huge difference.
  • Remember that perfection is not a goal. No one wants a perfect parent. You are doing your best with what you know. You don’t know what you don’t know and that’s okay! You don’t need to be perfect… just look at your own child – They are perfect just the way they are, no matter their imperfections.  
  • One crucial recommendation for overcoming shame related to picky eating is to acknowledge the radical truth that no one has all the answers. Picky eating is a complex issue influenced by various factors, and feeling pressure to have all the solutions can exacerbate feelings of shame when results aren't immediate. I often have to remind myself that sometimes, the harsh truth is that I don't have all the answers and it doesn't mean I'm not good enough to be a feeding specialist... it just means that the universe has just not had the time or the expertise yet to understand it all. I can read all the books I want, and spend my whole days learning about picky eating, but we just are not all-knowing. And that's okay! 

To tackle picky eating, start by understanding your triggers, beliefs surrounding food, thoughts, and feelings. Catch yourself when you shame yourself. Identify and challenge negative thoughts about yourself. Replace them with compassionate self-talk, just as you would talk to your child. It might feel awkward at first, but give yourself permission to let go of constant negative thoughts. You deserve better. 

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