Shame: The Not-So-Good Driver

Several years ago, I remember thinking that it was time for me to lose a little weight. I wasn’t massively overweight, I just noticed that my clothes seemed to be fitting tighter than they were and I didn’t like that. So, I started exercising and paying a little more attention to what I was eating.

I don’t know about you, but trying to lose weight requires some work and therefore requires some drive. Now, I don’t know where I learned this (parents, teachers, tv, siblings, etc) but I thought shame was the best driver to get this job done.

I proceeded to drive myself with shame.

My inner dialogue went something like: “Get going, Fatty!” “You’re a horrible person for not being able to control what you eat!” “A second piece of cake?! I don’t think so, Chunky.” “No one will like you with this spare tire hanging over your pants.” “How did I let myself get so disgusting?”

You may read that and think, “Yikes, Louise. You’re really hard on yourself.” And you’d be right. But let’s get honest, are you hard on yourself, too? Are there similar dialogues that take place in your inner world? Do you use shame to drive your efforts to break an unwanted habit or build a wanted habit?

Research shows that shame is not an effective driver when it comes to habits. Shame and self-loathing, self-judgement, and guilt all increase stress in the body. This leads to increased cortisol, too. And especially when it comes weight loss, heightened levels of cortisol is not your friend - cortisol contributes to weight gain, especially around the middle. Heightened levels of cortisol also leads to a list of undesired effects, including accelerated aging, brain cell death, diminished cell repair, lower energy levels, decreased bone density, high blood pressure, and suppressed immunity.

Secondly, shame, self-loathing, self-judgement, and guilt make you feel bad about yourself, creating anxiety, that pushes you straight into the sweet, lovely, comforting arms of food, smoking, drinking, recreational drugs, overworking or any other unwanted habit you are trying to break.

One of the main reasons you have this unwanted habit in the first place is because it provides a soothing effect to the anxiety or stress, for whatever reason, you feel.

It goes like this: you have stress because of something going on in your life. You turn to your “drug of choice” that soothes the stress somewhat, but not completely. Eventually, you realize for some reason (this may include weight gain, loss or job, relationship challenges, etc…usually a consequence of the habit) that this habit may not be working so well for you overall. So, you decide to break the habit…and usually use shame as the driving force. “Change your ways, Fatty!”

But really what that does is feed into the stress loop and reinforce the habit, causing you to turn again to your “drug of choice”, the unwanted habit.

So, how do you get out of your unwanted habit?

By something that may seem counterintuitive: Acceptance.

“What?! NO! I can’t accept myself with love handles!”

The irony is that you have to accept where you are at in order to move forward. (It is no coincidence that the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous start with admitting and accepting.)

Acceptance is not “giving up”. It is not “letting life just happen” to you. It is a balance of accepting things as they are while also understanding they need to change.

As psychologist Carl Rogers put it: The curious paradox is that when I accept myself, just as I am, then I can change.

How can you practice more acceptance?

Here’s to conquering stress.

With heart,


The Stress Experts

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