Before and After: Why You Don’t Need to Shame Yourself into Change


If you are active in the fitness community, or even just active on Instagram, you are familiar with the before and after picture. These can be wonderful markers of success and an easy way to show our community what we have accomplished. When used appropriately, this type of image can help people to maintain their weight loss or muscle gains, and inspire others to change. But what happens when this kind of imagery induces the ever-popular shame spiral.

Shame is such a visceral emotion, that it is common to try to harness it to make big changes, but it can easily backfire. Shame happens at times to everyone, but the constant repetition of it to yourself is unhelpful. Have you ever seen this kind of “motivational” advice? I once saw a post that said, "If you want to lose weight, eat in front of the mirror, naked."

The message is that there is something shameful about you. What if you don’t lose the weight you intended to? It sticks you with negative feelings about yourself that can only seemingly be resolved through massive physical change. The point is, it is okay to want to change and to also love who you are in the meantime.

It is important for us to be honest with ourselves about the very real health consequences and self-esteem consequences that can come with being overweight. However, adding to the mental health consequences of a few extra pounds by berating oneself, or moralizing every food choice you make is more likely to make you less motivated.

If you use shame, your inner dialogue is very likely to include a lot of negative statements about yourself. Negative self-talk is one of the biggest contributing factors to mental health problems. Therapists call this rumination and sometimes people ruminate on negative experiences, but it is even worse if you personalize it and tell yourself you are bad for not being perfect.

If you have something negative on repeat about yourself long enough, the chances of it shifting from a simple 'You have got to get to the gym', to an insult like 'You slob, go to the gym'. Once you cross this line, you are no longer just making the thing you are trying to change “wrong”, now you are wrong. You cannot, nor should you try, to change yourself completely, and we have already talked about not trying to change things that aren’t in your control. You are inherently valuable as a human being with life. The thing you want to change is just a variable in that life. Not good or bad, just a variable.

Shame also triggers stress. and stress is a known contributor for increased cortisol which can trigger fatigue and increased appetite, which are known contributors for skipping workouts and ordering DoorDash on repeat. Adding stress to the difficult task of getting in shape (or any goal really) is likely to thwart your efforts. Then what do you do a month later when you still haven’t lost the weight? Out of habit, you say even worse things to yourself.

Weight is weight, it is not positive or negative. There is a range of weight that is healthiest for each person’s height. Despite social media and other advertisers, there is not an actual perfect body. Perfection is not real. What you need from your body is one that you feel confident in, does not endanger you with chronic health problems, and that moves you around in fun ways. That being said, if your body is not doing some of those things for you, shaming yourself will not help. Positive self-talk, help from a physician and/or nutritionist, and exercise specialists in your area of interest can all help.

It is wonderful to want to have that transformation Tuesday, and to make a goal for yourself that you feel will make you feel accomplished and happy. Just remember that the person in the before picture made the decision, had the determination, and did a lot of work to get to that after picture, so they are to be valued and not shamed.

Sarah Russ, LCSW is a mental health professional in Miami focused on practical, actionable therapeutic strategies for mental well-being in a world of overstimulation and misconceptions about what constitutes true self-care. Sarah received her Master of Social Work from NYU and has been working in mental health for seven years. She specializes in healthy coping strategies and crisis management for those with chronic illnesses, substance use, and anxiety. You can follow her @mentalhealthformillenials or schedule a session with her at Arvon & Associates in Aventura, Doral, or Virtually by calling 305-936-8000.

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