Keeping shame at bay
Why shame never leads to lasting behavioural change and what helps
Earlier this week, a good friend of mine from college, let’s call them Jay, recounted a discussion they had with a friend of theirs. Jay’s friend, let’s call them Bea, believed that anyone who was fat without a valid medical reason was lazy and deserved to be shamed for not taking care of their body. Jay was shocked and furious at this belief.
The funny thing, Jay said, is that Bea had earlier been slim and had now put on a lot of weight. Bea was ashamed of themselves for being fat now, they no longer felt confident in their body, they had been trying the keto diet, and had even been on the receiving end of body shaming. Yet, Bea believed they deserved to be shamed, as well as to shame others for their body.
Jay was outraged at Bea’s seeming lack of empathy for others with the same struggle and could not understand why experiencing it first-hand also did not change Bea’s beliefs. Jay thinks it’s possible that since it’s Bea’s own shame that is working on their mind and the problem at hand rather than someone else’s, it may drive behavioural change for Bea from within.
Around 5 or so years ago, a cousin got married. There were a lot of members of the extended family attending the event, and a lot of them were keen on getting a big picture of all of us together. Many of them went on to post the picture on social media and family texting groups, and so on. My parents hadn’t seen me or my picture in a while, so when my mother saw the picture, she called me and brought it up.
In an admonitory tone I will never forget, she said to me—
“Did you even look at yourself? You need to lose weight.”
I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. I felt utterly worthless—why was I not even capable of making my mum proud by staying thin?
Although I did not know it then, what I experienced in that moment was the “warm wash of shame”. This was exactly the reason why I avoided getting photographed—was it not bad enough that nobody taught me that my self-worth was not tied to my body weight, was it not enough that I hated how I looked, was it not enough that I normally avoided cameras like the plague and refused stubbornly to get photographed? Did I also have to hear a reaffirmation from my mother about how ashamed of my body I should be?
When one has been shamed for their body, it feels like a personal attack. And it is not just an attack on my body, it is an attack on my values, my morals—because the subtext is—
How could you be so lazy?
How could you ‘let yourself go’ that far?
How could not have more self-control, more willpower?
These people who shame others seem to believe that—“Well, at least now that we’ve pointed it out, you should be ashamed enough of yourself to start making changes, to do things differently.” Right?
Research has proven that shame doesn’t drive changes in behaviour. Nor do things like having “more willpower”.
It can feel very tempting to use shame for self and others, it may even spur a bout of resolutions (unrealistic ones like—I will starting going to the gym every morning right from tomorrow, I will stop snacking entirely, I will only eat healthy food—yeah yeah, we all know how effective that is) which may feel like it’s influencing behaviour change.
It just doesn’t work like that. Trust me when I say I know.
You simply cannot build yourself up by pulling yourself down.
The true way to lasting behaviour change in my case, and in Bea’s, has to be complete surrender and acceptance. It requires an addressing of the causes and needs at the physical, mental, and emotional level.
It requires tremendous self-love. And shame stands in the way of love. Shame is the fear that we are not worthy of love.
Like all fears, shame is not something that can be cast away entirely; it is something that can be managed, however. You acknowledge it, you appreciate it, yet you keep it at arm’s length, because it doesn’t serve you.