Can we live a good life alongside shame?

If we are to aspire to the positive psychology goal of a good life to flourish and thrive, we need a conversation about the role of Shame, and in particular, society’s obsession with the body and the impact that message has on happiness and our health.


Shame is now seen as having a strong link to a plethora of mental health problems and is described by Brene Brown as: “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging” Humans are hard wired for survival and in our tribal past, Shame and stigma played a critical role, keeping members in line and on message. Not following the tribal norm would risk danger or demise.

It’s all Tribal

In 2019, tribes are no longer so distinct and well defined. Our core rules are not clear and many of the messages we receive today can be unrealistic and unattainable. Media portrayal of the “ideal body” is often based on filtered and airbrushed imagery.

How does that work with the part of our brain responsible for keeping us safe, and coded to teach us that not attaining such unattainable targets will put us in grave danger?  Swan & Andrews describe shame as an “…. intense & Incapacitating emotion”, resulting in a desire to be unseen and to have faults and imperfections hidden from public view.  An impossibility when the shame is directed at the body.

When it comes to the body, shame is a misplaced emotion that makes matters worse.  The social narrative being played out, that one must conform to a given look to fit in and be socially acceptable, has led to one of the one of the most shame producing mazes.

Messages from everywhere

If one is to believe the unrelenting message from the diet & food industries, health professionals, the mainstream and social media, one might well believe that the only path to happiness and acceptance is “an ideal weight”.  Our preoccupation with our bodies, appearance and weight has become so normalised as to be, for so many, a daily narrative; weaving in to every conversation.

Shaming messages and images with the external body shaming matched only by the internal body shaming, resulting in high levels of stress and anxiety.

Is it hurting us?

The impact on health and well-being is profound, and often with overwhelming consequences.  Social isolation, and living half a life, the belief that being fat is a marker of not being good enough. Research undertaken by the Mental Health Foundation that over a third of Uk adults felt anxious or depressed due to their body image.

For many people taken in by those daily messages and imagery, the stigma and shame of not having the ideal body triggers a stress response.  A psychological chain of events follows, that lead to eating, causing more shame, and so the dance continues.

The Diet Dilemma

The go to solution for many when realising their body is not “ideal” is to go on a diet.  And now, if shame didn’t have enough air time, it really becomes centre stage.  Research strongly suggests that diets don’t diets work and they negatively affect self-worth and increase shame and stress.  That doesn’t stop all concerned behaving as if this research doesn’t exist.

The Good News

If shame makes leaves us rejected, small and exposed, then according to Professor Paul Gilbert, the practice of self-compassion leads us to feel content, safe and connected. Self-Compassion or becoming your own best friend enables us to respond to our mistakes and pain with warmth, support and understanding.  Research suggests that this approach reduces the constant self-critical internal dialogue, the fat talk, and body shaming.  This increases personal motivation for self-care, and health promoting behaviours. Becoming more resilient to shame through the practice of self-compassion provides us with a pathway to befriend our bodies and create authentic and sustainable change.

Daily Intentions

Imagine, if you began each day with the following intentions:


  1. Nourishing yourself with kindness, with your thoughts, actions and decisions.
  2. Pay attention to how much time you spend on thinking, talking about, focusing on, looking at anything to do with food, dieting and self-deprecating body chat…. and change the subject.
  3. Practice being grateful for your body… in the shower, when you look in the mirror, when getting dressed.  Say Thank you.
  4. And know you are worthy of loving and belonging


About the author: Helen Golstein


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’

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