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  • Writer's pictureSarah Covey

Ask a Therapist: On Shame-Based Goals

Q: At the beginning of the year I often feel like I SHOULD have some resolutions to be healthier in some way but, even if I start to make changes, I find those thoughts are not enough to motivate me to keep taking action and sustain a change in my life - why might that be?

A: It sounds like shame might be the motivation behind your goal setting. When we hear a voice inside our head that says we need to do better or that we aren’t enough, we tend to feel like we have to change because we are disappointed or even disgusted with ourselves. When we feel shame we want to do whatever it takes to get away from those yucky feelings of inadequacy and judgment. Sadly, that gross feeling becomes the motivation to change but it’s not a helpful motivation at all. The challenge is that a shame-based motivation is only sustained if we stay consistently in the space of feeling like a terrible person who is unworthy of love and that is not a space that we will naturally want to stay in for very long.

People with shame-based goals often see a cyclical nature to their attempts to change where they do well for a while but then relapse back into the same patterns. That relapse in behaviour builds up the feelings of shame again and will lead to another burst of motivation to change and so the cycle starts again. Perhaps the most prevalent example of this is the way that diet culture is designed to activate shame and put people into perpetual cycles of yo-yo dieting so that they will continue to purchase the next diet plan to try to fix what is broken - according to what they have been told about body image and health, anyway. Shame-based goals are designed to keep you in your shame, to keep you stuck.

They are designed and destined to fail because they are rooted in activating our crisis response to “run away” from the shame (that feels like a threat or predator). When you double-down on shame-based goals it will only lead to hopelessness. If you have thought to yourself, “I’m never going to get this right” or “it’s impossible to change” or “I might as well give up”, you are likely operating from shame which is not going to be healthy for you in the long term. Essentially, you are relying on a mood that is often perpetuated by negative self-talk or self loathing to activate your behaviour - and moods always shift and change.

Shame is a complex thing to understand and it can be helpful to talk to a therapist about how shame is a factor in your mental, emotional, and relational wellbeing so that you can devise some solutions to overcome its grip on your life. Ultimately, shame is a mood, inspired by an environment, that is held up by core beliefs and insecurities. It can be hard to determine exactly why shame comes up for you, specifically, without some exploration of the topic with a trusted professional. To get started in your exploration of shame, you may want to look into Brene Brown’s work and research around this topic as described in her TED talks, podcasts, and books.

Recently, I have been studying the importance of dream-based goals rooted in psychological research and explained so well by Matthias J. Barker (an excellent psychotherapist to follow on social media). Unlike shame-based goals, dream-based goals are rooted in values and connect deeply to meaning and that solid foundation becomes the motivation for real, sustainable change. In the next column, I will attempt to outline the key components of dream-based goals so that you can move away from shame into freedom and success in the areas of your life that are keeping you down. Stay tuned!

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