The Argument Against Shamespiration

Everyone is insecure about something; weight, height, looks, personality, and even mannerisms can act as areas of embarrassment and shame. Insecurities can result in the want to improve, which can lead to either positive change or perpetual obsession with one’s faults. Either way, everyone has different coping mechanisms with their insecurities. Some ignore them completely, some chip away at them by making steady progress over time, and some decide they need an immediate change and choose to pursue a path of focused improvement. This is where “shamespiration” comes in.

Shamespiration is defined in this article as the act of making yourself feel shame for something you perceive as negative, in order to motivate change. This often includes comparing yourself to others. Common examples of shamespiration center around weight loss, including counting calories and looking at photos of beautiful people in magazines to motivate a workout or healthier meal. Some forms of shame-based motivation can be extremely positive; for example, hearing a friend say they’re going to the gym may prompt you to go yourself and get in better shape. But there are other times when shamespiration can be dangerous; namely, when it becomes a source of significant self-deprecation that does more damage to your self-esteem than yielding beneficial results.

There are many studies that advocate for using guilt-centered motivational tactics, as these strategies can be more effective than positive affirmation. However, not everyone who practices shamespiration does it productively, and even those who found shame a successful motivator could be negatively impacted. As one study stated in their findings, “self-hatred is psychologically damaging but it can also make you more motivated to change.” Even if completely successful in producing results, there are varying negative impacts of shamespiration on self-image that are ignored in the effort to succeed, or to “fix” areas of insecurity. And if people are using making themselves feel worthless from negative reaffirmation, it is clear that the merits of the practice should be questioned. Yes, it’s important to be open to change, but it should not in any way be considered necessary to be the best version of yourself you can be. And once it starts negatively impacting your happiness and self-image, it is important to reevaluate whether it’s really worth the results.

Limiting the negative tendency to blame oneself for a lack of improvement is going to require an ideological change around our understanding of failure. By shifting its definition to include effort as a measure of relative success, more people can realize that even trying to make positive changes is a success—EVEN if you don’t reach your ultimate goal. Furthermore, we should also stop considering failure an inherently negative thing. The complete denial of failure is just as unhealthy as the self-deprecation incited by failing, so being okay with making mistakes is key in order to understand that “failure” and “success” are wholly relative terms. Acknowledging failure allows you to learn from it, which is just as important as achieving success. The binary nature of the “success vs failure” mentality contributes heavily to the motivator behind shamespiration: it causes people subscribe to the “if I’m not first, I’m last” view, needlessly blaming themselves for not achieving goals that might not even be realistic. Baby steps are the only way to get anywhere. By seeing effort as a success in itself, even if meeting the final goal isn’t achieved (yet!), people may not be so quick to resort to guilting themselves for not seeing immediate change. And by acknowledging and accepting failure, we can grow from our mistakes and learn to be more kind to ourselves.

Attempting to achieve a personal goal is often an inherently positive practice, but there are times in which using shamespiration can turn it into a negative one for you and those around you. There needs to be discussion as to at which point motivation can become damaging or ineffective, so we can continue to facilitate positive change while limiting the need to use guilt as a motivator. Shamespiration encourages defensive competition with others instead of mutual respect, results in needless self-deprecation that inhibits self-confidence, and reinforces the “success vs failure” binary that makes us see those who cannot meet their goals as stubborn, unsuccessful, or weak. We are not all born with the same abilities, so the concept of “normal” is inherently flawed and cannot continue to act as a standard to which we constantly aspire to. Trying to make positive changes is fantastic, as is accepting who you are, as is recognizing your failures as partial successes through the effort you put into them. Personal growth and improvement is incredibly important to pursue, but not when it comes at the expense of your mental or physical health.