How and why you should stop fat shaming yourself

You might be asking yourself, “Why would Jeff include the word “why” in the title? Surely nobody needs convincing to not make themselves feel like shit.”

You’d be surprised though.

Fat shaming is so deeply entrenched in our society it’s seen as the go to for motivation.

I’ve worked with many clients who intentionally clung onto their tendency to fat shame themselves.

The rationale being they felt their self shaming was the only thing preventing them from slipping even further away from their goals. It felt like that shame was the only thing keeping them together. That if they stopped shaming themself, they’d completely go off the rails and everything would fall apart.

Often these same people felt that if they hadn’t been successful in weight loss yet, it was simply because they hadn’t hit rock bottom. They simply hadn’t felt shitty enough to reach that life changing moment where you go from struggling to ultra-motivated-fit-person.

Don’t get me wrong, seemingly instantaneous changes like this can happen (sort of) as James Fell discusses in The Holy Sh!t Moment, but intentionally making yourself feel worthless in the hopes that your muse will someday arrive is unproductive at best, and self-destructive at worst.

I mean, we’re fed this narrative all the time. It’s the basic story arc for many movies and books. The main character has to lose it all before they montage their way to success whether it’s beating the bad guy or being successful or whatever.

These narratives perpetuate this myth that shame is a good motivator. SPOILER ALERT: it’s not.

Shame is such a prevalent aspect of our culture it sinks its claws into pretty much everything we do.

So first, you’ll need to acknowledge that self shaming is a problem. That’s step one really.

If you knowingly hold on to your internal fat shame, it’s not going anywhere. In this post, I’m going to try to convince you that hating your way into a better body isn’t going to work and I’ll show you what to do instead.

First, let’s get into WHY internalized fat shaming is counterproductive from a behavior change standpoint. Then we’ll go into how to stop.

Shame and Motivation

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is the kind that comes from within, because you simply want to do something for its own sake. Doing the action is rewarding in and of itself.

Whereas extrinsic motivation relies on an external reward as motivation. For example, you get paid to do your job. Your salary extrinsically motivates you. The promise of an external reward gets you to do the thing.

Most people view motivation and extrinsic motivation synonymously.

There’s a problem with this though.

Extrinsic motivation doesn’t lead to lasting behavioral changes.

For example, a study by Vansteenkiste, Simons, Soenens, et al. (2004) looked at how framing a goal affects short term and long adherence to an exercise program.

One test group was told the goal of exercise was physical attractiveness (extrinsic), while the other test group was told the goal was physical health and fitness (intrinsic).

The result of this was that, “intrinsic goal framing resulted in superior performance and increased persistence over the short term (i.e., 1 week after the experiment)... and it also predicted participants’ joining the year-long physical exercise course.” (Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006) The people that used an external reward as motivation were not as successful in the short term or the long term.

If you’re doing something because of some external reward, when the novelty of the reward goes away, so does your inclination to do the thing. You wouldn’t keep going to work if you weren’t getting paid, or if how much you hated your job outweighed your salary. And even when you do go to work, you only do so begrudgingly.

As such, extrinsic motivation doesn’t create the real, lasting habit change necessary for sustainable health and weight loss. Especially when it comes to extrinsic motivation fueled by self shame.

For instance, when “people engage in an activity to comply with internal pressure, which is based either in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement and (contingent) self-worth or in the avoidance of feelings of guilt and shame... the activity does not emanate from the person’s sense of self and is experienced as being pressured or coerced”. (Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006)

In a bit, we’ll go into why feeling “pressured and coerced” is important. For now, the important thing is to note that even though the pressure is coming from within yourself, this is still a form of extrinsic motivation.

For lasting changes you need to foster intrinsic motivation because it’s reliable regardless of circumstances. Because if you’re intrinsically motivated to do something, you like doing that activity and/or it’s something you associate with your identity.

Intuitively, you can probably see how intrinsically motivated behaviors are more sticky. If someone likes working out or sees themselves as someone who works out, it’ll be easier for them to get to the gym.

So your goal, when it comes to fostering motivation, shouldn’t be to make yourself so miserable change happens to you. It should be to link your goal to who want to be as a person.

TL;DR the more intrinsically motivated you are, the easier it is to act in line with your values and your goals.

How fat shaming inhibits intrinsic motivation

From the research of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, intrinsic motivation thrives when three conditions are met:

  • Autonomy
  • Competency
  • Sense of Belonging

How does self fat shaming go against these 3 conditions?

Autonomy:

Autonomy is defined as, “The right or condition of self-government”.

Because autonomy is so important for motivation, when I work with online clients I don’t just bark orders and tell them what to do. Because if my clients feel controlled, that kills motivation.

Basically, when people feel controlled they have two options: rebel or follow orders.

Neither of these options are ideal. Because, best case scenario, even if someone follows orders/rules and loses weight, once those rules go away, so do the behaviors that caused the weight loss. This is why diets, which are just sets of rules, don’t work.

Rebelling here is a bad thing because you end up reactionarily working against the rules. You undermine them, find loopholes, or flat out disregard them in an attempt to regain your sense of autonomy.

What does this have to do with fat shaming?

Remember, even though the control is coming from you, you’ll still feel “pressured and coerced” by your inner fat shamer, as if there was another person making you do something. Your inner fat shamer acts like a cruel authority figure, coercing you with insults and negative comments. You lose your autonomy and, consequently, motivation.

Competency

This one’s a bit more straightforward. If someone shames you, by definition they make you feel inadequate.

A sense of competency is key for staying motivated. People like what they’re good at. This is one reason why people who were naturally good at sports growing up have an easier time staying active.

Whereas, if you had a coach or PE teacher who made you feel like you sucked, you probably developed an aversion or hatred of sports and fitness. This brings us to the next point.

Sense of belonging

If someone makes you feel like shit, you’re not going to feel welcome. You’re not going to feel like you deserve to be there.

If you had a bad experience with the gym, or with nutrition -- maybe you had an awful coach, or your parents always made you feel guilty about your weight -- you’re going to feel like you don’t belong in the world of fitness and health. It’s going to feel like fitness, health, the gym etc., is for those people and not you.

As such, walking into the gym might as well be walking into Mordor. And everybody knows...

Now, if the voice in your head is always shaming you about your weight, fitness, and/or health, that’s going to make you feel like you don’t belong in the health world.

You’re not going to see yourself as part of that “tribe”/group. You’re going to feel awkward and out of place even when working out at home away from everyone else.

Health and fitness should be for everyone, not just the people who live and breathe protein shakes. Plus, not everyone who lifts weights is, or should be, the kind of people you imagine they are.

However, even being cognizant of that doesn’t mean you won’t feel like “it’s not for you”. Especially if that voice in your head is constantly fat shaming you, making you feel like you don’t belong with the “fit” people.

Fat shaming, internal or external, hinders these 3 feelings of autonomy, competency, and a sense of belonging. Consequently, internal fat shaming deals a massive blow to motivation.

Vulnerability, shame, and feeling like a failure

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better” - Brene Brown.

If you’re to change anything, it’s imperative you believe you can change. After all, if you feel there’s no point, why would you even try? Well, you might still try, but not *really try.

Not trying keeps you safe. Because if you don’t put yourself out there, you aren’t vulnerable to feeling like a failure.

I never made an effort in school because it meant I was never vulnerable to my grades. I always had the ego-protecting defense of, “Well, I wasn’t really trying. If I actually put in the effort it’d be a different story”.

Granted, I also didn’t try because I didn’t actually care about my grades. But I’d be lying if I said the former motivation didn’t play a large role in my actions.

Because when you put yourself out there, when you genuinely try, you’re vulnerable. What happens if you fail?

The subtext here is that if you fail, you are a failure. This is yet another way shame stifles action.

It’s a vicious cycle. You’re afraid to fully try because you’re afraid of being a failure. This causes you to fail, which reinforces/justifies your fear of being a failure.

In addition, “when we feel shame, we are most likely to protect ourselves by blaming something or someone, rationalizing our lapse” (Brown, 2015).

You can see this in how I responded to my subpar grades. I rationalized my grades to shield myself from any pain or threat to my ego. I wasn’t being honest with myself or taking responsibility.

You may be thinking of specific instances yourself where you rationalized what you knew deep down was a poor decision. Maybe you blamed someone or something else for your lack of results.

These rationalizations stem from shame. And let’s acknowledge these rationalizations are all nonsense. And, deep down, we all know that. They’re lies we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better about an imperfection.

These rationalizations block the way forward. You can’t make lasting behavior changes if you don’t take ownership of your actions.

Plus, we shouldn’t have to feel so threatened and defensive when we’re not perfect. Because to be imperfect is to be human.

It shouldn’t be a shameful thing to say, “I made a mistake. I lost focus and crushed a pint of ice cream”.

Shame is the result of attaching your worth/value as a human to arbitrary attributes like your productivity, your weight, your bank account, etc.

In the context of this article, it’s attaching your worthiness to your body, your weight, and your ability to lose weight.

So not only does shame make you feel incapable of achieving your goal, but it prevents you from taking ownership and responsibility of your actions. Combined, these two factors create a massive impediment to lasting, intrinsically driven change.

But what’s to be done? How exactly do you beat something that’s been festering in your psyche your whole life?

We’ll turn again to Brene Brown’s work because she’s the leading researcher on the topic. When she talks about shame, I listen. She says the key to building “shame resilience” is empathy. She breaks this down into 4 elements and states:

  1. Recognizing Shame and Understanding It’s Triggers. Shame is biology and biography. Can you physically recognize when you’re in the grips of shame, feel your way through it, and figure out what messages and expectations triggered it?
  2. Practicing Critical Awareness. Can you reality check the messages and expectations that are driving your shame? Are they realistic? Attainable? Are they what you want to be or what you think others need/want from you?
  3. Reaching Out. Are you owning and sharing your story? We can’t experience empathy if we’re not connecting.
  4. Speaking Shame. Are you talking about how you feel and asking for what you need when you feel shame? (Brown, 2015)

It won’t be easy. You probably guessed that though.

You’re probably going to have to let go of narratives you’ve told yourself your whole life. It can be quite jarring to realize a story you’ve always told yourself is just that. A story. But, once you get over the initial shock, you’ll feel lighter as you let go of perspectives that don’t serve you or line up with who you want to be.

It’s important to remember humans have these shame mechanisms because of the way our species evolved. However, the result of such biological mechanisms in the modern world are often arbitrary and subjective. Just because you feel like a failure, doesn’t mean you are in reality.

To combat self fat shaming, build more self-compassion. Let yourself be OK with mistakes and imperfections. Remember, it’s not about “coddling” or being “too easy on yourself”. It’s about being honest with yourself, taking ownership, and being brave enough to face said mistakes and imperfections.

Just like with any self-talk it helps to imagine you’re talking to a friend instead of yourself. Because people often say horrible things to themselves they’d never say to people they care about. If you want to know what self-compassion looks like, imagine what being compassionate to someone you care about looks like. Same thing.

Again, this stuff is hard. And it’s not like something you can tick off your to do list and be done with it. Make it an ongoing practice. Otherwise the shame creeps (or barges) back in.

The reward is ultimately worth it though. Because shame prevents you from being your authentic self. Now, you can’t get rid of shame entirely. After all, Brown says, “the only people who don’t feel shame are sociopaths”. However, I think giving your internal fat shamer the boot is a good goal to work towards.

To summarize this long ass post:

  • Fat shaming yourself is an enemy, not an aid, to losing weight.
  • There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
  • Science shows intrinsic motivation is more effective for creating lasting behavior changes.
  • Self shaming is a form of extrinsic motivation and actually undermines your goals.
  • For intrinsic motivation to thrive, 3 conditions need to be met: autonomy, competency, and a sense of belonging.
  • When you fat shame yourself, you work against all three of these conditions. Motivation suffers.
  • To be successful, you need to believe change is possible. Shame crushes confidence.
  • Shame prevents you from taking ownership of your actions because it leads to defensiveness and rationalizing poor decisions. When this happens you, reinforce the status quo and work against change.
  • It’s OK to be imperfect. It means you’re human.
  • To be resilient to shame you need empathy, from yourself and from others.
  • Develop self-compassion.
  • Letting yourself make mistakes isn’t “weakness”. It takes courage to accept one’s mistakes.
  • Keeping your inner fat shamer at bay is an ongoing practice, not a one off task.
Sources:
  1. Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Soenens, B., & Lens, W. (2004). How to become a persevering exerciser? The importance of providing a clear, future intrinsic goal in an autonomy-supportive manner. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 26, 232–249.
  2. Vansteenkiste, Maarten, et al. “Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Goal Contents in Self-Determination Theory: Another Look at the Quality of Academic Motivation.” Educational Psychologist, vol. 41, no. 1, 2006, pp. 19–31., doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4101_4.
  3. Brown Brené.Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Penguin Life, 2015.

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Posted on Apr 10, 2019