Shame is no fun, but then, neither is going to the gym. You gotta go through some pain if you want to improve, right? A lot of us think this way, especially if we honestly just want to become better people. I’ve spent most of my life sure that if I could just impress on myself how sub-par I am, the shame, guilt, and general disgust would push me into finally making some progress.
It looks different for everyone, but for me, it’s, “You’re out of breath already? What, do you just like being incompetent?” or, “Great, the kids are a wreck, and you didn’t remotely manage to defuse this. When are you going to finally start taking motherhood seriously?” or, “You look like a slob. No wonder people don’t take you seriously.”
I don’t enjoy berating myself, obviously, but whatever works, right? Once I lose the weight, break that bad habit, up my productivity, whatever it is, then I can afford to switch back to speaking to myself with kindness. Right?
It doesn't work like that, though. Abuse is abuse, even when the abuse is self-inflicted. And abuse always leaves scars. Leaning into shame, self-loathing, guilt, cruelty, disgust (tactics we’d never dream of using on a person we love, by the way) are going to have a pretty serious ripple-effect on life across the board.
So if you’re tempted to try to humiliate yourself into reaching your goals, here’s what you need to know:
01. It’s not going to work. To use weight loss as an example, a study of over 6000 people found that those who experienced weight discrimination, about the most humiliating thing I can think of, were about 2.5 times more likely to gain weight than those who didn’t report being treated differently. Those who were already overweight at the time of the study were three times more likely to keep or gain more weight. “Rather than motivating individuals to lose weight,” the study concludes, “weight discrimination increases risk for obesity.” The study’s not about cruelty that comes from within, of course, but the principle is the same. Shame doesn’t support long-term change. The stress brought on by that kind of abuse is much more likely to reinforce the habits we’re trying to break.
02. It’s really hard to put on the breaks. At first, you probably won’t even realize it’s not working. The fact that you’re even trying to basically shame yourself into submission means that you already think it’s going to work. So when it doesn’t? You’re going to figure you just didn’t try hard enough. Maybe, just maybe, if you critiqued yourself a little bit more, you’d finally find the motivation to break that habit? But of course, the problem isn’t that you’re not trying hard enough, the problem is that your strategy is all wrong.
03. You’re basing your self-respect on—well, on anything. Would you stay in a relationship with a guy who only loved you when you were skinny, or making lots of money, or regularly winning gold medals? Please, please tell me you wouldn’t. A guy who loves you for anything other than who you actually are is definitely not worth your time. Well guess what? If you only think you’re worthy of love when you’re performing up to your own standards, whatever they might be, you are basically being your own lousy boyfriend. Do yourself a big favor, and dump that attitude. You’re worthy of love and respect, no matter what is going on in your life.
04. Let’s say you make your goal. Congratulations! You finally convinced yourself that unless you wake up at the crack of dawn every day to go running, you’re a failure. So now you’re going for these great morning runs, and you feel awesome. Except, whoops, you’ve developed an awfully difficult habit to break. Whenever the next problem shows up, you’re going to think you know exactly what to do: drag out the shame and self-loathing again. Before long, you are only going to like yourself when you can’t find any flaws at all. That’s no way to live.
05. The way we treat ourselves tends to transfer to other people. If you don’t want to lean away from shame for your own sake, do it for the sake of the people you love. The way we speak to ourselves can easily become the way we approach others, too. If you decide you’re worthless for not being able to make your deadlines, it’s not a far stretch before you start acting like other people who are falling short are less worthy of respect too.
The easy way out?
Taking the shame-and-guilt approach to personal change seems like the toughest, most serious option. That’s why we like it. Approaching our flaws with an attitude of gentleness? It just feels weak. If I’m too soft on myself, I wonder, how will I ever find the courage to change?
The truth is, shame is actually the easy way out. Choosing to speak to yourself with love and respect takes immeasurably more courage and grit, because you are leaning into the difficult truth that people deserve love—even when that person is you.
Remembering that you’re valuable, capable, and competent isn’t being “soft”; it’s living the truth that a person’s value doesn't come from her success. It’s refusing to buy into the narrative that people need to justify their place in this world by their accomplishments. It’s remembering that that everyone, no matter how they might be falling short of perfect, deserves respect. That’s a far more powerful foundation than shame and hatred could ever be. We can start with ourselves—and from there, we’ll be able to extend that grace to everyone we meet.