Shame, shame, double shame

I’ve been thinking a lot about motivation lately; both for myself with trying to get more exercise and for my students. We’re doing a unit in heath on healthy habits and I’ve been trying to use what I’ve learned about habit forming for myself to help them to change small habits to build up their healthy choices. For the most part, I have a group of students who are relatively active and eat pretty well with a few exceptions. It’s hard to know how to motivate those few who just don’t want to be active other than, well, what I’m doing already I guess, sharing positive stories, encouraging and celebrating their successes.

What I want to stay away from at all costs is shame. There’s too much around body image and so called “motivation” that is shame based. Sometimes it feels like if there’s anything “wrong” with our health, then it is our fault because we’re too lazy to exercise to fix the thing that’s wrong. Not getting enough sleep? Exercise more. Feeling depressed? Get more exercise. Gaining weight? Get off your couch and move!

It’s this whole weird complicated mess of emotions when it comes to body image and fitness and health. It’s hard to get motivated to start and hard to help others get motivated to exercise more while skirting things like shame. “It’s my fault that I feel like this”. Putting a positive spin helps, thinking about making positive choices and making it more about responsibility to yourself and your health rather than blame, but it’s a hard and mucky emotional bog.

One reason I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last few days is I’ve had some success with getting more exercise this past month and I noticed an interesting benefit that brought back an old memory. This month, I noticed that my cramps and my period were much milder than usual. Normally they’re extremely painful and unimaginably heavy (approximately 4 times heavier than an average woman’s period) and this month has been surprisingly easy. No pain killers needed. But it’s not like I’ve never been this active before and one month doesn’t actually prove anything. It does however, make me think of a time that a teacher used shame to try to “motivate” me to be more active and how much that backfired.

When I was 16 and in grade 11 I took this course called PAL – Physically Active Lifestyles. At that time I was walking to and from school, about half an hour each way, dancing 4 times a week plus practicing at home, and was active generally, biking, ice skating, swimming, lots of walking, not sports or anything but dance was pretty intense so I was very fit. One day I started having cramps at school so badly that I could barely walk but I wasn’t one for missing school. In PAL that day we were going to play tennis but I told the teacher my stomach hurt and I didn’t feel well enough to play. I sat out and watched the class play.

At the end of the class, one of my classmates came up to me and asked why I hadn’t participated that day. The teacher overheard and in a loud voice said that “Jeannie is not physically active enough to help alleviate her menstrual cramps.” I wanted to fall into a hole and disappear. Why would a teacher do something like that? There was so much wrong with that whole statement. It’s amazing how something like that can stick with me for almost 20 years that even now I feel ashamed just thinking about it and it’s not an easy story to share. And 16 year old me was a lot more easily embarrassed than 34 year old me. 34 year old me would have stood up for myself.

Teachers are people, and people make mistakes. I wonder if that teacher knew that I didn’t take her class seriously and thought that somehow this would motivate me to change that. I didn’t respect her much as a teacher, and after that, well, my respect for her went way down. After all, not only was her statement incredibly inappropriate and rude, it was also false. I was physically active. I wish I was half as strong and in shape as I was back then. Did that motivate me or any of my classmates to be more active? I doubt it. It certainly didn’t motivate me.

So when I’m doing a fun, on your feet moving kind of video or exercise, I try to encourage them all to try rather than telling specific kids to get up and move. I hope none of them ever feel ashamed of how they look or if they’re out of shape because I know that shame is not a good motivator.