I was on my feet for roughly 13 hours Saturday, busing tables, passing appetizers, pouring wine, scraping dishes, and loading, unloading and moving heavy stuff around. On Sunday morning I was beat and really wanted nothing more than to lie around watching Netflix. But the lawn needed to be mowed, and I’d made a biking date with a friend that I felt too guilty to cancel, and so I did not succumb to my desire for rest.
Of course, the ride was fun, and it was good to get outside. Of course, I was tired and slower than normal, but my friend didn’t care, and we had a good time catching up. Of course, it was worthwhile, and I’m glad I went. And, yet, it got me thinking about just why I went. What motivated me? Guilt about standing up my friend? Shame about being a couch potato? Or discipline and my commitment to a fitness regime? And what is wrong with a day off on the couch? Why do I find that I need to defend that choice as if it were not a perfectly valid way to spend a Sunday?
I’d like to say it was discipline that drove me out the door, but I know that often I am motivated more by my sense of guilt or shame than I am by any structured workout routine. The reality is that I often do things less because I want to do them than because I think I should want to.
Feelings of guilt and shame are different. Guilt is usually triggered by actions that can result in harm to another person. Shame, on the other hand, is an internal emotion. It arises when we feel bad about what we have done and about what those actions say about us as a person. With shame we condemn not just our behavior but also our very being, which can create some pretty deep psychological wounds. It’s shame that drives people to hate themselves for their appearance, their failed relationships, their unmet goals, their unfulfilled dreams, their poor decisions and so forth.
So, when it comes to exercise, I don’t think it’s really guilt I feel about my failure to live up to my goals although I often call it that. It’s shame. I’m not hurting anyone but myself by sitting on the couch, and in our world of fitness fanatics, such sloth is almost a mortal sin, or so I have convinced myself. Because, you have to admit, in a community where everyone is doing something rad all the time, it can be hard to be the couch potato.
Interestingly, psychological studies, including one by Brian Licket from the University of Massachusetts Amherst published in the journal Emotion in 2015, have found that shame can actually be a pretty strong motivator for positive change. Shame shines its ugly light on the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, and, as a result, creates incentive for us to modify those parts. So I guess shame has a silver lining, despite the discomfort it can cause us. I certainly can attest to its power. It’s what got me on my bike on Sunday.
And yet, the emotional baggage of shame can be detrimental, especially if we never give ourselves a chance to really take a break — to really allow ourselves to sit on the couch and eat that proverbial bag of bonbons without feeling like we are a bad person. (By the way, I looked in the Urban Dictionary to find out where the phrase eating bonbons comes from, and one of the references cited mentions housewives watching soap operas with a bag of sweets instead of performing their given tasks, e.g., cleaning the house. How perfect!)
Most of the time, I have a hard time succumbing to my lazy voice even when I really, really want a break. For the most part I think that’s a good thing, and I’m grateful that shame can get me out the door, but aren’t there also times when I should tell that voice to shut up and let me veg? Do I really have to always keep up with my radical friends who are out pushing their limits 24/7?
In fact, according to what I surmise from my internet search, it can actually be healthy at times to listen to the tired voice that begs you to stay home and watch television or play video games, because sometimes we really do need a day off. Ask any athlete, and even the most dedicated take rest days to recharge their bodies and their brains. So why do some of us feel shame when we do just that? Why around here are we apologetic for taking a day or two off? Why do we feel less-than if we aren’t training for a big race? A huge bike ride? Or an expedition to a remote mountain range on the other side of the world?
At the Jackson Hole Writers Conference in the end of June, author Ben Percy talked the perilous effect on one’s writing of “going to the zoo and eating cotton candy.” The zoo is different for each of us. It could be your workout; it could be the ice cream in your freezer; it could be a sudoku game on your phone. Whatever it is that calls you, it’s the thing that takes you away from your work and goals. And yet, we can’t work all the time — whether our work is at the computer or in the gym. We all need to be able to pause, rest, recover and wallow a bit in our successes or failures. But it’s a balancing act. Obviously too much time at the zoo limits our productivity. But on the flip side, how much is productivity limited by fatigue, ennui and the need for a simple break from routine? How much does our addiction to athletics undermine our actual performance?
It turns out that self-control, will power, drive or whatever you call that part of our brain that resists the allure of the zoo, actually needs to rest sometimes. A study in 2014 found that our feelings of guilt or shame over wasted time and procrastination can prevent us from benefiting from a well-deserved break, even if we physically take that break. In other words, my guilt for going on a Netflix binge could undermine any rest and relaxation that binge might have given me if I’d just embraced the hedonism rather than feel guilty about it.
The study’s author, Leonard Reinecke, who is an assistant professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz’s Department of Communication, told The Washington Post, “You can think of self-control as a sort of muscle, which is exerted every time you use willpower over the day.” And, he said, like any muscle, to truly get stronger and more powerful, you need to give it a break.
And so, I’m thinking about my motivation. If shame is getting me to exercise for a good reason, it’s worth listening to that call, because I truly believe getting outside and moving is critical for my mental health. But if shame is getting me to exercise because I am worried about how I stack up against others, it’s time to give that muscle a day off.