Shame and Motivation

When I visited Green Mountain at Fox Run back in May of 2012, I learned so much. About body image, mindful eating, social pressures, psychology, stress, rebellion, tenderness … it was a very intense education compressed into a single amazing week. During my stay I was also reminded of many things I already knew. I was reminded that women are AMAZING at supporting and caring for other women, especially in times of need and crisis. I was reminded that our urges to care for others often eclipse our urges to care for ourselves. I was reminded that depriving a physical body will only work for so long before biology and nature win out.

And I was reminded about shame.

In my experience, shame is often central to poor body image. The hatred that we feel for our own physical forms is wrapped up in the shame we feel about how others see us, how we “let ourselves get this way” (whatever that may mean on an individual basis), how our own bodies compare to other supposedly better bodies, how “different” and “wrong” we are. And the social, external forces that encourage us to change ourselves – diet programs, exercise DVDs, magazines, cosmetics companies – leverage the shame we’re already feeling, then amplify it. Shame is used as a motivator for physical change. We are shamed for being too fat, too skinny, too old, too androgynous, too sexy, and shamed into actions that will supposedly get our shameful bodies back into line.

I don’t oppose physical change. It’s your body, and it’s the only one you’ll ever have. You get to decide how to care for it, how it looks, what of it you share with others, and how to change it should the desire or need arise. You may draw upon any number of sources for your motivation, and may find some to be more effective than others. But as the folks at Green Mountain pointed out, and as I hope to now point out with equal tenderness, consider carefully how much shame you include in your personal motivational cocktail. Shame often makes for a painful, weak, and unsustainable motivational force. If you allow others to shame you into changing your hair, your weight, your clothing, or anything about your physical self, you may eventually resent those changes and rebel against them. If you shame yourself into changing your hair, your weight, your clothing, or anything about your physical self, you may be able to enact change for a time. It may last for years, decades even. But shame and self-loathing are erosive, and forcing yourself to change using shame as a driving force will wear you down.

Body shame is easy. Body love is hard. Body shame is fast. Body love is slow. It can be so tempting to just succumb to shame and let it steer our actions and blunt our emotions. But if you want to exert control over the arc of your life, and if you want to undertake positive physical change, I urge you to approach that change from a place of love. Think about the concept of stewardship: The careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care. You are the steward of your own body. You can alter and change that body, and if you do so with care and patience and love then the process will be easier and more valuable. And if all of that fails to appeal, consider this: Change undertaken with care and patience and love is FAR more likely to yield results that last. Just ask anyone who shamed herself into a restrictive diet and overtaxing exercise plan. Did it work for a while? Yes? Did it work forever? No. Did you feel good about yourself in the interim? Probably not.

It’s certainly true that making changes during a period of self-loathing can encourage feelings of stewardship and build the desire to continue on a path of self-care. But I’m inclined to believe that choosing to undertake change because of the love and care you feel for yourself will work out well and often. If you wait until you’re a different shape or configuration before you allow any tenderness toward your physical self, you could wait forever. And since shame is a crappy motivator, consider love instead.

Image courtesy Helga Weber.

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  • A wonderful book about shame is I Thought it was Just Me (bit it isn’t) by Brene Brown. She has studied the debilitating effects of shame, and offers what I think are some effective ways of learning to tame it.

  • Brigitte

    Wonderful post! I’ve sensed a bit of body shame creeping into my spirit lately, and this made me realize how bad it makes me feel. I do struggle with finding a balance between wanting to change my body by losing weight and loving that body I have now, so this post was perfect for me this morning!

  • Wonderful post. It reminds me of a great little book, Love Is Letting Go Of Fear by Gerald Jampolsky. He writes we can tell ourselves “I choose to see love instead of (negative emotion).”

  • bubu

    Wonderful post. You perfectly capture how shaming works and where it gets us. I love that concept of stewardship of one’s body. I remember reading somewhere years ago that you should not say anything to yourself that you would not say to a close friend. If you loved that friend you would treat her with kindness and love and respect, so then be at least that much of a friend to yourself. I think one can extend that idea beyond what you say to yourself to how you treat yourself and the things you do, or don’t do, with/to/for your body.

  • In addition, choosing friends carefully. So much of our guidance is socially based and if we’re not careful we can become pressured by the shame based opinions of others.

  • Aziraphale

    You are right, of course. If you are motivated to exercise and cut calories out of a loathing for your body, you won’t be able to keep it up long. But my question is, how exactly does a girl turn the tables on her thinking and see her body as something to love? Because I have to say, I endured a lot of counseling and doctor’s appointments and workshops when I was a young woman with an eating disorder, and no one ever, EVER, found anything to say to me that changed my mind and made me see my body as praiseworthy. In the end, I just got tired of being hounded. And watched. It was just easier to force myself to eat normally and try not to think about my body too much. The body love didn’t come until YEARS later, and was the result of maturity and a gradually shifting perspective — the eventual understanding that nothing lasts forever, and a body is meant to be used and enjoyed and besides, there are loads more important things in life than how you look in a bikini.

  • Tara

    For me, sometimes I need a healthy (and deserved) dose of shame to get me moving in the right direction. I love myself and for me shame never turns into self-loathing; it’s the opposite. I expect certain things out of myself and when I don’t deliver, I think feeling a bit abaashed is a normal and healthy response. For example, if I find that I have packed on some lbs due to eating, drinking and loafing with abandon, I think I deserve a little shame for letting myself behave that way for long enough that it has clear consequences on my body. Conversely, when I’m excercising and using moderation with eating and drinking, I dole out some well-earned self-praise. I guess it’s not an either-or proposition for me.

  • I agree with @bubu. A mentor of mine would always respond to any of my horrible self abasement by saying, ‘Don’t talk about my friend like that!’ It really helped me see it in a new light.

    As for body image, most of my negative self talk is about my academic/professional achievements, but I see working out and eating right as treating myself well and feeling in control of my life. Running is totally guilt free me-time, because it cured my depression. That’s at least 4 hours a week I never have to justify. You’re right; it’s an act of love, not shame, and that’s why I’ve stuck at it for the last few years unlike all the earlier times.

  • So true. I think one thing parents should really consider is how, and how much they use shame to control their children. I see so many mindlessly continue subtle manipulative patterns that create irrepairable insecurities. It´s good advice to choose one´s friends carefully, not quite as easy to handle parents and other close relatives constantly feeding one´s shame.

  • Dianna

    Well said friend!

  • Annie

    So well said. This year I embarked on — not another diet, not another regimen of self-punishment, but an exercise program that I thought of only as making myself healthy and strong. I wanted to be able to walk, run, hike, haul, bike, you name it! And yet – 15 pounds down, tons more muscle tone, and two dress sizes gone. None of that matters to me as much as the fact that I can do 100 push-ups! And because I feel like I am not reducing myself to fit someone else’s mold — because I am instead increasing what I can do — I think of this not as a temporary “diet” measure but as a new way to live my life.

  • Linette Morton-Banks

    This is an amazing post Sally! I think that anyone struggling with body shame should read this at least once.

    That said self-love is very difficult and I find it hard to get to that place. It may be why many of my attempted changes haven’t really stuck thus far. I’m working on it and have been finding lately that I’ve come farther than I often think I have.

    I love Katy’s recount of what her mentor would say in response to her self effacement.

  • Well said!

  • Thank you for this post. It really hit home with me- I actually linked to this on my blog yesterday. http://theclevelanddilemma.blogspot.com/2012/09/love-thyself.html

    I really do feel sometimes like I can’t even like myself if I’m not ‘where I’m supposed to be’ weight wise. This post was really inspiring to me- I’m really trying to be more self-positive. I had a lengthy discussion with my fiance about it last night, and he told me, he loves me for ME, no matter what size I am. I knew that (one of the many reasons I’m marrying him), but hearing it out loud (again) was a little bit of a wake-up call. I need to say “you’re awesome” when I look in the mirror, not “omg you’re SO FAT.’

    Thanks Sally! I love your blog, read it every day. You’re very inspiring.

  • Kookoo

    I’ve been motivated by shame since I was a professional dancer at the age of 12. Although I retired in my late 20’s I still struggle 30 years later. I blame no one but myself, but deprive myself with the same diligence of years ago, even though it is my secret burden and I make sure I am nourished and act normally to others. Maybe it is time to consider shaking off this mindset…I work out and maintain a healthy facade and yet inside and privately I starve, overwhelm my body, and find criticism easy. The legacy of mental bulimia is a horror I cover with fancy clothes and a polished presentation…it’s a deception that is outdated, so maybe this year I can find a way to move beyond.

  • Katje

    Great post Sally. It is easy to feel ashamed of your own shame when reading about self-love… I appreciate that your comments kindly avoid that. What a great idea from the other posters to think of yourself as a friend. Thanks again for the on-line high five.

  • Kayla

    Hey, Sal! Wanted to send a little love n huge thank you for this post on shame n motivation. It spoke to my heart as I have been shaming myself for the prego weight that hasn’t come off. Body love IS hard! After reading this post several times and thinking about what all my body has gone thru (child birth, breast feeding, etc), I am inspired to shift my thought patterns n focus on taking care of my body. Thank you!!!

  • Sally, I needed this today. Your blog is an endless source of support and inspiration. Thanks for all you do.

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