What is the Antidote to Shame?

If you experience a connection between eating and shame, think about this:

Fat-shaming is wrong to do to other people, and it’s wrong to do to yourself.

Your scale measures only your weight, not your worth. In our culture, heavy people are viewed as undisciplined or unmotivated. Please don’t be part of that appallingly cruel and wrong-headed kind of thinking. Before you shed even a single pound, if you can let go of the shame, then you will be able to carry out a strategy that will result in sustainable weight loss.

The Antidote to Shame is Kindness

If you want to change your relationship with food and with your body, then making a commitment to kindness toward yourself will make the process not only positive, but also permanent. It sounds so simplistic; I swear to you, it is not. Feeling positive about yourself and your ability to make good changes in your life is essential. In fact, there’s good science that bears this out: in a study of men and women who maintained weight loss, one of the factors in their success was “a greater sense of self-worth.”(1)

Being kind to yourself doesn’t mean you’re perfect. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never make a make a mistake. You may even feel at some point that you’re losing your way. But I promise that the feeling of losing your way will be temporary if you are living a life of being compassionate toward yourself. Losing weight will not make you love yourself — but loving yourself will certainly help you lose weight. That may sound sappy or even selfish. It’s not — ­­ it’s just true.

I’m not talking about that mind-numbingly overused term “self-esteem.” I’m not discounting discipline or perseverance. Creating — and then maintaining — a new relationship with food can be hard. No wonder two-thirds of our country is overweight! But I offer this solemn promise: it won’t be as hard as continuing to endure the self-critical voice in your head that is talking to you all day long — sometimes softly in the background, sometimes front and center — but always there and always cruel.

For me, the most important and meaningful change related to changing my relationship with food has not been ridding myself of excess weight, but rather it has been ridding myself of the self-loathing tape that was on a continuous loop inside my head. There is only one response to shame that makes any sense to me: kindness and compassion towards oneself.

How then, do you begin this change toward kindness? The answer may be to pretend. Pretend that you are your own dear friend. I’m going to assume that you’re a good person and that you know how to be a good friend to other people. When your friend is feeling low, your response is certainly not to make your friend feel lower. So why would you talk to yourself any differently than you would talk to someone else whom you care about?

For example, if your friend was “on a diet” and ate three donuts, you might well tell them that they must have had a crazy, stressful moment and sought relief in a totally understandable way. You might tell them that it doesn’t mean that they are weak or pathetic or a failure. It only means that life can be tough and that donuts can taste awfully good. But what words have you used for yourself in the same situation? Words such as weak, pathetic and failure may come to mind. And that’s a problem.

Exactly why is that a problem? Aren’t negative thoughts motivating? Well, no, they’re not. You may need to summon your inner drill sergeant to get yourself out of bed in the morning, but persistent negative thoughts that dominate your mind are self-defeating. What’s more, they’re usually not even true. Talking to yourself like that just makes you end up feeling worse and wanting to comfort yourself — perhaps by eating crap. Scolding yourself and belittling yourself do not work. They never did. Hating yourself cannot be an option.

Moving from Negative to Positive

Being negative about yourself hurts not just yourself, but also the other people in your life who you care about. Negativity is contagious; it makes others feel bad, feel sad, feel more negative. Positivity, on the other hand, is also contagious and is a gift that you will both give and receive. It will enable you to experience more gratitude, along with increased compassion for yourself and others.

So how about talking to yourself as you would talk to your good friend? When you get stuck, think what you would say to your best friend — change the script. When you say hurtful things to yourself, try to catch yourself and think: would you ever talk to a friend like that?

(1) Kozica S et al. Initiating and continuing behaviour change within a weight gain prevention trial: a qualitative investigation. Plos One/DOI 2015: 1–14.