Is Shaming Ourselves an Effective Strategy for Productivity?

Guest post by Megan G. Brown, Ph.D., HSPP, Interim Director of the Rev. James E. McDonald, C.S.C., Center for Student Well-Being.

 

So this is a research study I would totally sign up for! It is about eating cake; my favorite dessert! Participants were randomly assigned to three different groups. What each group had in common was that each individual was seated in front of a huge piece of the most beautiful, layered chocolate cake you could imagine. The kind you see at the Cheesecake Factory. Can you see it? What was different about each group were the instructions they were given. Group #1 was asked to think about how bad they would feel about themselves after eating the piece of cake. Group #2 was asked to think about how good they would feel about themselves if they resisted eating the cake. Group #3 was given no instructions (that’s the group I would want to be in). Researchers wanted to know, Who would resist eating the cake? (That would NOT have been me). Here’s what they found. Ten percent of participants in group #1 (shame group) resisted eating it. But get this, 40% of participants in group #2 (pride group) resisted eating the cake. And the control group? Only 18.8% resisted eating the cake. This simple study confirms a lot of research out there. How we talk to ourselves matters. When we shame ourselves and think about how bad we will feel about something (about not going to the lab, about not working on the dissertation, about not working out, etc.) we make tough things tougher. Have you ever tried to shame yourself into doing or not doing something? Very common human strategy. But scientific evidence suggests this does not work. But just flip it into values-centered pride. That works!

Although attempting to shame ourselves into doing something is a common strategy, scientific evidence suggests it does not work.

As a counseling psychologist who has worked with Notre Dame students for the past 10 years, I have struggled to help students believe that self-criticism and self-shaming do not work. I have often heard, “If I’m not tough on myself, I won’t do anything!” Fortunately, recent neuroscience has helped me make the case more convincingly. What fMRIs show is that shame shuts down the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the part of the brain that helps you make hard decisions that are in-line with your values. Shame activates the amygdala, the alarm center of your brain, and makes your brain look the same as someone whose leg was just broken. If you haven’t experienced that before, it hurts! The automatic, impulsive, reward systems of the brain that say “Watch Netflix instead, that’s more fun and you’ll feel better!” keep working and drive us to do what feels good (i.e. not work).

When we experience shame, the reward systems of the brain drive us to do what feels good (i.e. not work).

I know what some of you are thinking. “I don’t TRY to make myself feel bad, it just happens!” You’re right. Most of our thinking is automatic and it is not easy to change. So don’t try! Instead, just notice those critical thoughts and feelings without trying to change them. Just the act of noticing and naming helps bring the prefrontal cortex back on-line and calms the amygdala.

Practice noticing and naming your critical thoughts and feelings. This practice, also called mindfulness, changes the brain over time.

Pausing and noticing can also help you remember to intentionally imagine how proud you will feel if you do what is in line with your values. And practicing noticing, also called mindfulness, changes the brain over time. When we develop a different relationship with “bad” thoughts and feelings and they become less powerful over us. And get this, when we practice values-oriented pride and self-compassion, the reward centers of the brain light up and look like we are going to eat a piece of chocolate cake!

Values-oriented pride and self-compassion are helpful ways of talking to ourselves.

Is It Procrastination or Is It Self-Care?

Guest post by Megan G. Brown, Ph.D., HSPP, Interim Director of the Rev. James E. McDonald, C.S.C., Center for Student Well-Being.

 

With your research constantly hanging over your head, do you ever feel like normal life activities such as exercise, hanging out with friends, or reading fiction are procrastination? Or maybe you have an advisor who gives you the impression that if it doesn’t relate to your research, you shouldn’t be doing it! It is true that good things can be used to escape from doing the hard things. But how do you know when you are procrastinating or when you are practicing self-care?

 

There isn’t an easy answer, but there is an answer. And it starts with a question. Who or what is important to you? If your research and why you are doing that research is on the list, then you are off to a good start.  But there are other things and people on that list as well, right? (I hope so!) What about friends, family, health, adventure, faith, laughter, “me”, to name a few possibilities? These are the people and things that energize us in life. When we move toward them, they provide meaning and purpose even if they cause stress at times. (They are stressful because they matter!)

 

Friends, Family, Health, Adventure, Faith, and Laughter Can Provide Us with Purpose

 

But if you are anything like me, you are never always moving toward who or what is important to you because stuff shows up and gets in the way. And the most challenging stuff that gets in the way is on the inside: fatigue, guilt, insecurity, fear, sadness, stress (to name only a few). When these gremlins rear their ugly heads, I automatically do some stuff to try to get rid of them. I watch Netflix, take a nap, get snippy with people, or eat chocolate (or some combination of these). Most of these activities are not bad, but it is a matter of timing and purpose.

 

So the second question is, Does this activity move me toward who or what is important to me or does it move me away? Often, when we do something to escape uncomfortable feelings within ourselves, the activity moves us away from our values, not toward them. In the moment, the activity feels great; we are comforted and soothed. That’s why we continue doing it and why it is so automatic. It works! But how do we feel after watching three hours of Friends while consuming the box of chocolates that was for a friend’s birthday gift?

 

Feelings Such as Fatigue, Guilt, Insecurity, Fear, Sadness, and Stress May Move Us Away from Activities and People We Value

 

The key to knowing whether something is procrastination or self-care isn’t how it makes us feel, but whether it is moving us closer to who we want to be, what is best for us and who/what is important to us. It takes some practice, but there is evidence that suggests that just asking, “Is this a toward move or an away move?” can slow us down and turn off our autopilot so we make better long-term decisions. Research also suggests that contemplating our values increases resilience and decreases stress.

 

Research Suggests That Contemplating Our Values Increases Resilience and Decreases Stress.

 

Both of these happen in one simple question, “Is this a toward move or an away move?” Try it! You may be re-energized to keep working on your research because it is what is most important to you or you may end up taking a much needed, guilt-free nap.