Shame Prevents Learning

Blog, Wellness

By: Madeleine Ortiz

Imagine a child, despite her mother’s urging, touching a hot stove. She cries out in pain, realizing the heat is too much to bear only after she’s already been burned. Her mother rushes to her side and helps her tend the burn. A blister and a bandage will remind her of her mistake for a week or two to come, and she will forever remember not to touch a hot stove.

Many of life’s lessons happen through this sometimes painful trial and error process. A person stubs his toe a few times on his night stand before moving the nightstand or finding a new path to the bed. Perhaps someone is late to work a couple mornings before she decides to set her alarm clock earlier or find a new route. The examples are virtually endless.

Why is it then, that a person might, more than just a few times, eat to the point where they feel sick? Or eat so much they are gaining weight? Or choose a less nutritious snack over a healthier one and feel tired and sluggish at work? How can someone repeatedly make a mistake that hurts them physically and emotionally without “learning their lesson?”

Registered health psychologist Dr. Michael Vallis says that it comes down to shame. When people make poor food choices, a feeling of shame almost always follows the last bite, and, according to Dr. Vallis, “shame always prevents learning.” When shame is in the picture, the immediate response is to forget about whatever just happened– erase the memory to ease the embarrassment.

Dr. Vallis wants to let all people experiencing food related shame know, “it’s not your fault.” While you may be suffering from a problem, YOU are not the problem. He suggests to replace the usual feelings of shame with non-judgmental curiosity. As guilt subsides and curiosity grows, self-efficacy grows with it. Some questions to ask yourself when you have an eating episode that you feel bad about;

  1. What happened? (Try to be as non-judgmental in describing the incident as possible.)
  2. What were the circumstances that led to these choices?
  3. How did I feel afterwards?
  4. If I could wave a magic wand, how would I have wanted this situation to go?
  5. If I were counseling a friend on how to avoid this situation in the future, what would I say to them? Is there a plan I’d suggest they develop?  
  6. What small step can I take to make that plan a reality going forward?

With a little curiosity and some objective thinking, it becomes easier to get back on course and the food world suddenly feels more manageable. It’s possible to build on your successes and feel more in control of your day to day choices.

When non-judgmental curiosity takes over, people learn about their behavior and adjust accordingly, just like the child who burns her hand on the stove, and without judgment, decides not to touch it again.

Watch these videos to learn why shame prevents learning:

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