Shame Is The Worst Motivator
This article is part of a series going deeper into mental health and wellness.
I tend to go on about shame, because I know that shame is responsible for a lot of what we struggle with, both individually and as a society. The first thing that people ask me whenever I go on a shame rant is, “Won’t you please stop talking about shame now kthxbye.” The second thing, though is this: “If we don’t have shame, how will anyone ever change their behavior?”
There’s a pervasive belief that if we don’t shame ourselves, our children, and each other, we will never learn. Shame is, in the minds of most of us, the only way to change. This belief is utterly, destructively wrong.
I can show you research that proves this out, but I don’t need to (if you want me to, hit me up). I can prove it with a simple question: What should you change in your life right now?
In the past, an answer of mine might have been something like: my weight, my inability to stop interrupting people, my overbearing political views, and my tendency toward misspelling words (and a lot of other stuff). I felt shame about all this stuff. I know these things were shaming for me because I’ve learned how shame feels in my body. For me, shame is a wave of heat that flows from my toes to my head. I flush scarlet red, and I start breathing shallow. I get a sort of ocean-like rush in my ears, and all I can think about is how to get very small, very invisible, and very gone as quickly as possible. The faster I can remove myself, the faster my shame will be hidden. These physical triggers might be set off by someone teasing me for a typo or needing to scootch a chair in closer when I was trying to get by. I had a co-occurring cognitive element; thoughts would race through my brain about how useless I was, how big and loud and too much I was, and how the world would be better off if I could just shrink. These thoughts were as familiar to me as breathing and honestly, I never even considered that they might be wrong.
Here’s the thing about shame that proves it won’t help anyone change: I never got any less of any of that stuff in shame. I never got more comfortable with my body, never learned to double check for typos, or, even better, grow comfortable in an imperfect skin. I interrupted people and felt shame but never really noticed myself doing it until after the fact. Shame does not help us change. It only keeps us caught in loops of being not good enough.
Let’s say someone is ashamed by their messy house. A common one, to be sure, full of self judgment and loathing about energy, cleanliness and worth as a person. The shame-as-motivation temptation would be to yell at themselves for being so lazy, so slovenly, and so useless that they cannot even clean a house. That may move a person to clean up a bit here or there, but it will never honor the reasons the house is messy and allow for a true change in the person’s motivation such that they keep a cleaner home all the time. Shame says, “I am dirty.” There’s nowhere to go from there. Why bother trying if someone’s identity says they are a dirty person? Any cleaning they do will be wrecked eventually, and that will just be further proof of their filthy self.
Alternately, if we look at messiness as a function of someone’s current needs and abilities with compassion we may find some really useful treasures. Perhaps the person is working 80 hours a week or is having trouble with depression or gets anxious and freezes when a project is overwhelming (raising my own hand here). Perhaps they are overestimating their messy levels to begin with and struggling with perfectionism. Maybe they grew up in a place where they had to hold onto everything tightly for fear it would be lost. There are infinite reasons someone may struggle to clean up, and each reason requires a different response. If we offer compassion to ourselves and others, we can explore the true reasons things are challenging, rather than being mired in the unsolvable “I suck” mentality.
Every change comes with barriers, challenges and stress. Change isn’t easy. Moving from having a messy home to a clean one is a long battle with whatever has been in the way. Ironically, the first and most important battle is the fight against shame. If we take shame out, everything gets easier. A messy home is just a thing, not a measure of our worth as a person. When a messy home is just that, we can look at the barriers with an open mind and heart and make some really useful decisions about how to proceed. If all we can see is our own failure, we can’t do anything about it.
If you have things you want to change but can’t seem to figure out how, it’s very likely shame is at least part of the equation. In the end, I don’t bother arguing with people about shame. I simply ask, “Has being in shame helped you change so far?” Almost always, the answer is no. Shame does feel bad and may push us toward a temporary action, but it doesn’t address the root causes of our behaviors and how we might honor what we really need. Shame is universal and painful, and the only path through it is to offer ourselves, and others, compassion. Compassion is really the secret weapon we’re looking for. You’ll just have to try it for yourself and see if it works better for you.