Remember when motivational posters were just pictures of kittens holding onto limbs under the caption, “Hang in there?” If you’ve spent any amount of time on Instagram and Pinterest, you have seen the emotional dysfunction minefield that is often labeled as #motivational. Sadly, many of these graphics use the same tactics as pro-ana (pro-anorexia) websites: selling shame as a motivator for fitness goals. Take a look at these “inspirational” gems that show up on my feed frequently:
This one is tricky because I just got called a badass. Yeah! I love being a bad ass! Oh wait, I’m lazy too? This, my friends, is a typical backhanded compliment. It’s also a common tactic that pick-up artists use to “take pretty women down a peg.” I was just hit-on and insulted in the same sentence. I don’t want to impress you. Now, I just want to punch you in the face. Next. PLEASE.
Oh, so now I’m lazy AND nobody cares? This one doesn’t even try to take a positive slant. I believe it’s trying to bring about feelings of accountability and responsibility in regards to my fitness goals, but the “nobody cares, quit your whining” approach reminds me of an elementary school bully. Yeah, we aren’t even at middle school intimidation tactics yet. And who are these “lazy” people that are being constantly coddled? When have I ever procrastinated and received a ton of pity? Is there a place where all the lazy procrastinators get cuddles, pity, and praise? Let me join that club.
Oh, so crawling, injury, pain, vomiting, crying, and bleeding are preferable to being fat (or unfit)? What a strange notion. It’s almost as if these “motivational” pictures are selling disordered thinking as the gold standard achievement. They are sending the message that we are unacceptable and we have to throttle ourselves with exercise to gain acceptance. Social media feeds are turning into an encyclopedia on: How to Shame Yourself into Self-Hatred (But it’s okay because you’ll have that sweet thigh gap!)
A long time ago, these images appealed to me. They appealed to me because they reinforced what I already thought. I thought I was lazy. I thought my body was deeply flawed, and I thought I needed to whip it and myself into shape. I was ashamed of my body, and therefore I was motivated by shame. However, when shame is persistent, it just keeps you stuck in a cycle. For example: I suck because I’m fat. I suck because exercise is hard. I suck because I don’t want to exercise anymore. I suck because I can’t keep commitments to myself. I suck because I’ve gotten fatter. The cycle repeats.
The thing is, shame IS a great motivator for change, but it comes at a high price. We begin using shame to manipulate others, and over a period of time the feelings of shame can become persistent and debilitating. So, let’s say you feel awful about yourself because you are overweight or “out of shape,” this feeling makes you miserable and it a great motivator to get you to exercise. Exercise is the thing that is supposed to make you not feel bad about yourself anymore, but if you don’t change your motivator to something more positive, you just remain stuck in the shame cycle.
We Need a Better Motivator.
We respond well to shame because we already ARE ashamed, and shame becomes our motivation, our drug, and eventually a prison. To break the cycle, we have to stop seeking shame as a motivator, and seek positive change for its own sake. In regards to exercise, there are a few dysfunctional behavior and thought patterns that can be addressed to inoculate yourself against shame.
Stop viewing exercise as a punishment. Exercise has numerous health benefits, and there’s a million ways to make it happen. If you view your current fitness routine as drudgery, maybe it’s time to switch things up a bit. Take a dance class, walk in a different part of town, or try something new. Let your motivation for exercise be based in self care. Don’t walk because you think your body is disgusting; do it because it’s good for you, and you like to do good things for yourself.
Stop looking at fitness as a means to an end. Do you often think that you have to run because you ate too much the day before? Do you only exercise because your body is seen as unacceptable? Exercise isn’t just for losing weight or gaining muscles, it’s healthy in it’s own right. If you are going to Zumba class to get a flatter stomach instead of for the joy of movement or the elevation of your own health, you might be using shame as a motivator.
Stop thinking of exercise as something you have to be a certain size/shape/ability to do. All yoga teachers have heard potential students saying they will come back when they are more flexible. Um. Okay. Maybe you hesitate to join a gym because you don’t want to be the most out of shape or overweight person there? Movement is for everyone that can move. You can start anytime. Your body is perfectly acceptable. You can start now. Yeah, you may not be able to do those Olympic lifts just yet, but you can be on your way. The only way to get to your destination is to begin.
Surround yourself with good fitness role models. If you need some motivation and inspiration, surround yourself with people who promote healthy habits for their own sake, and don’t shame the body you have. The internet is full of them!
When we move away from using shame as a motivator, it becomes easier to build healthy habits. Exercise stops becoming a punishment and turns into an act of self-care. Most importantly, when we stop shaming ourselves, we stop shaming others. Self-compassion and self-care become the motivators, the fuel to our fire, and the cure for debilitating shame.