Shame As A Motivational Tool

My general tendency in life is to jump to the worst possible conclusion. Miss two days of study? FAIL EVERYTHING. Eat a lot of chocolate last night? OBESITY CRISIS. Mistake pointed out in your work? WRONG CAREER CHOICE LIFE RUINED. And then I take these thoughts and I use them to motivate myself to do the “right” thing.

Motivating change is a funny thing. There is a very thin line between motivation and obsession in the same way that the reasons behind the change can be productive or destructive with the same end goal. Shame is a huge indicator of which side of the line you fall on.

I am once again trying to lose weight. I am conscious of what I eat, I have specific plans on my exercise for the week, I am disappointed when I don’t meet those goals and sometimes need to white knuckle through to meet them. Some days I worry if I am slipping back into old habits and then I think of shame. In the height of my ED, I was more than conscious of what I ate. I was so consumed with meeting my deficit for the day that I weighed everything. I weighed lettuce, which is essentially water, for fear of going overboard. I measured calories burnt on my heart rate monitor and wouldn’t allow myself to stop exercising until I had reached 600+ calories burnt. I had no life outside weight loss and situations that might cause deviance from the plan caused my so much stress and panic that I often just avoided social situations.

Looking back on it, I see a lot of similarities between how I treated food and how I treated my work when I was doing my leaving cert. It was all or nothing and since nothing meant overwhelming guilt, I was going to commit all to studying and all to weight loss. In both endeavors, there was no clear end point, just a vague goal of “Get medicine” and “Lose weight.” When I got medicine it wasn’t enough. When I lost weight, I needed to lose more. And I was able to maintain this hellish lifestyle because of that voice in my head that reminded me of the dreaded alternative – a B instead of an A, a size 12 instead of a size 4.

When we look at how we motivate ourselves, it is essential to look at our driving force. Denouncing the use of shame is not the same as letting yourself off the hook and continuing with your damaging behavior (in my case, overeating.) The original damaging behavior is no better because it comes from a place of self hatred. When I am eating my third helping of Tesco brand chocolate, I can easily convince myself that I am making up for all the abuse I put my body through in the past few  years. But cut to an hour later when I am nauseous and bloated, and I feel like shit for overeating, it is all too clear that my “treat” was really a punishment. It is no different from starving myself all day and feeling really proud about it until I faint into my friend’s arms and have to explain the headaches and the hunger pains. Both situations are riddled in detrimental emotion and neither allow for a life outside the food (or whatever change you are making.)

In my life right now, I am trying to lose weight. But I am also working, studying, going out, writing, singing, having fun, and all manner of things in between. Sometimes I don’t have time and sometimes I fuck up (read: the last 10 days.) But today I am getting out of my motivational slump and am determined to push myself back onto the right track. And under no circumstances are the words “not good enough,” “failure,” “too fat/lazy,” or anything remotely similar going to be used in this process. Instead, I remind myself of the extra energy, the extra confidence, the more stable emotions and reactions I felt when my diet and exercise patterns were more balanced. Oh, and I lost a few pounds. But that’s not what is important.


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