Shame is a shit motivator. Loads of research has found that instead of inspiring people to quit smoking, lose weight, be more patient parents, whatever, it instead pushes them into a loop of self-loathing and self-punishment followed by reactive over-correction for short periods of time. Shame is the cornerstone of large-scale diet and fitness industry messaging–tapping into our feelings of inadequacy to push us to extremes for short periods of time. They don’t need it to work long term; buy the gym membership and never show up again, they’re counting on it. Buy the bucket of meal replacement powder and never learn to maintain a lower body size without gimmicks; they can count on your shame defining it as a personal failure instead of theirs.
Shame is a tool of oppression. Hold people down by having them hold themselves down. It is easier to control people when they self-police. The more caught up into the cycles of “personal” failure and failed attempted successes we are, the less likely we are to look outside ourselves for the solutions; the less likely we are to wonder if the problem is systemic. The system is perpetuated on our belief that it is our own fault.
So, what would you want for yourself without the shame? Would you still want to lose the weight, quit smoking, raise your voice less often at your spouse and kids? Why? What kind of person do you want to become, and what does it have to do with those outcomes? Find those reasons and motivate yourself from THAT space. And you might actually find you can stick with it. Changing who we are by focusing on what we want to become, by changing our identities and how we see ourselves creates lasting changes in our outlook and the resulting behaviors. When the motivation really connects with our core selves, we push ourselves towards becoming who we want to be.
But never forget that we are deeply influenced by the systems around us. Environmental factors influence our choices every day in subtle and persistent ways. It won’t all be in our control. How we react to all of it won’t be entirely in our control, either. Acknowledge that reality, accept it, and then build that into your goals. It might mean we have to change elements of our environment to reach our full potential. And the degree to which we can individually make those changes will vary dramatically based upon our own personal resources and privilege.
It isn’t entirely in our control. Hold that to be true and remind yourself of it when you feel that old frenemy, shame, creeping in again.
I think of myself as a bodybuilder, and I know that few people looking at me would say I fit the image of one. But I try not to define my success based upon meeting some potentially unreachable physique standard; rather, I am working to define my success based upon how far I’ve come, and what I’m willing and able to do day in and day out to eek a bit closer to my personal best physique.
I don’t want to look more like a bodybuilder because I’m ashamed of my body. My motivations are far more personal than that. I am a queer person, and I want my body to more authentically reflect how I see myself. I want to show up taking up more space, to move and experience the world from a place of strength and self-expression. I want to live in a way that is true to who I am even as it pushes against people’s preconceptions of gender. These feelings, that identity, is far stronger motivation than shame ever would be. It has helped me to keep doing the work for years despite seemingly endless setbacks. It has also helped me appreciate the work I’ve been able to do along the way to incrementally get closer to my goals. Because when I lift today, even if I’m not feeling it, I’m showing myself that I am a bodybuilder. When I make my breakfast oats and eggs, even though I have a temporary impulse to instead have a few donuts, I’m showing myself I’m a bodybuilder. It gives meaning to those decisions that is stronger than any sense of self-punishment ever would, and more importantly, it prevents the pushback my rebellious brain would inevitably impose if I were simply making choices from a place of shame.
What would you want for yourself if you weren’t motivated first by shame? What if you gave yourself permission to be only what you want for yourself and not what others have imposed upon you? These can be scary questions to truthfully answer for ourselves. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing–we can ask ourselves what is one small thing we can do today to more closely live in alignment with our values? One small change motivated by who we want to be rather than by who we wish we weren’t. Imagine the world we could create!
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