By Dr Nikki Stamp. This article first appeared on 29 August 2016 on The Huffington Post Australia.
Calling someone fat, disgusting, useless or lazy doesn’t change them, it destroys them.
You’ve seen them. You might have seen them at the local mall. Or at a restaurant. Eating a large fries and a huge burger. Then you guess their weight and you may even point them out to your friends.
Or perhaps it’s the guy smoking outside the office building, leaning against a non-smoking sign. You give him a dirty look and shake your head at him.
Maybe you’ve even watched an overweight person sweating it out on the elliptical trainer at the gym. And you wonder what someone of that size is even bothering for.
Don’t forget about the person who is struggling with life who you’ve just told everyone copes with hard times and they will feel better when they just pick up and move on.
It sometimes crosses your mind that they should be ashamed. Whether it is an obese person or a smoker or maybe someone who simply has a bar of chocolate in their hand and not a cold pressed juice, we love to judge and shame these people. Is it because we have been conditioned to find their appearance or behaviour unacceptable or because we think that by shaming them we might give them the motivation they need to change their lives?
You could probably pick up any popular magazine and read a story of how a woman who was very overweight saw a picture of herself on holidays and that made her lose 20 kilograms. There are popular television shows where contestants are broken mentally and physically until they become a shadow of themselves.
Strangely, we seem to think that making someone feel ashamed of themselves or their behaviour will give them motivation to change. Your snarl or joke or harsh comment changed their life for the better.
It is not uncommon to think that if someone feels lousy enough that they will take the necessary steps to lose weight or quit smoking or take their tablets. Unfortunately, this rarely works. Shame is such a powerful feeling that when we try and shame someone for how they look or act, what we are actually doing is shaming them as a person. And what will someone who has a habit do when they feel ashamed? They will keep right on doing it because it feels good.
It feels great to bury those emotions of shame in a tub of ice cream or a bag of takeaway. As the first drag of a cigarette hits the brain, you can forget about the way someone told you what an idiot you are for smoking. The booze that you feel ashamed for indulging in really takes the edge off that dark cloud of shame.
You see, shame is such a big emotion that goes to the very core of who we are… it attacks our sense of self-worth. The thing that anyone who is embarking on a major overhaul of their health and lifestyle needs is self-worth and self-belief. Not feeling like they are failures as humans. When you call them fat, disgusting, useless or lazy, you don’t change them, you destroy them.
Shame has been widely researched in psychology and particularly as a motivator for behaviour. While guilt, a fleeting feeling of not measuring up, can absolutely make us change something about ourselves or our behaviour, shame shakes us so much to our core, we’re almost paralysed and do nothing. We can’t.
Imagine if you helped yourself to a tub of ice cream and nobody saw but you were trying to lose a few pounds. I know I’ve said to myself “I really should not have eaten all that”. And then you don’t. Now imagine someone catches you in the act and says: “It’s disgusting that you’re shovelling that tub of ice cream into your mouth like that”. I might put the tub back in the freezer but I promise you I’d want that ice cream really badly after that.
I am a big fan of being honest and sometimes telling it like it is. My dad has high blood pressure and every time he reaches for the salt, he gets an earful. I’m frank with my patients when I tell them that they will be healthier if they lose weight or stop smoking. Healthcare professional or not, however, trying to make someone feel small about themselves is not going to make them pass on the salt or the ice cream.
For people like me, in our professional lives, it’s about being supportive and educating people to motivate them to want to make the changes themselves, not make them feel crappy. In everyday life, it’s about mentally (or openly if it’s appropriate) patting someone on the back for running, even if it’s one lap around the park or taking steps to give up the smokes. Reach for support not for shame, whether it’s someone you meet at work, see on the street or share a roof with.