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.

Advice for Academic Writing from Wendy Laura Belcher

If there is one book I wish I read at the beginning of my graduate studies it is Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher. Although Belcher provides a detailed plan for completing and submitting an academic article, she also offers honest, useful, and more importantly, realistic advice which is applicable for other sorts of writing such as seminar papers, notes for comprehensive exams, dissertations, and even creative endeavors. Belcher acknowledges that scientific writing generally has other parameters, so she mainly addresses scholars in fields such as the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Here are some of my favorite suggestions from the book:

  • Identify your feelings about writing.
    • Are you experiencing guilt, fear of failure, impostor syndrome? It is actually very common to have negative feelings about writing. It is important to acknowledge these feelings and even talk about them rather than repress them.
  • Prepare a realistic writing schedule.
    • Work on a writing schedule and anticipate weeks when you might not be able to write.
    • Pick a time of day that works with your other responsibilities and habits. Consider if you are a morning or an evening person before deciding on the best time to write.
    • If you cannot write at the same time every day, try to come up with a regular pattern for your schedule.
  • Make writing social.
    • Writing does not require isolation. In fact, it should be done in community. Join a writing group or attend a writing class. A good conversation about your manuscript will help you think further about your argument and will teach you how to respond to feedback and criticism.
  • Write every day.
  • Do not wait to write. Do not wait for:
    • Inspiration
    • The last minute
    • Big blocks of time.
  • Do not wait until all of your research is done to start writing.
    • It is not possible to read every book which might be related to our topic.
    • Start writing and this will help you determine what information you actually need.
    • Leave holes in your manuscript. These can be filled up later.
    • Approach writing and thinking as simultaneous tasks.
  • Persist!
    • Rejection is common, do not take it as a measure of your worth. The best writers get rejections as well, but they persist.  

Overall, Belcher’s book encourages graduates students to persevere, even when we feel we do not have the time to write. She also offers practical solutions to common internal and external obstacles. If you would like to know more about her approach or if you are interested in following her 12-week plan, you can find her book at the Hesburgh Library. (The Spanish edition is also available for online access).

Did you enjoy Belcher’s book? Do you have any more questions about it? Ask the Salmon! Submit your questions to gradlife@nd.edu or go to the Ask a Question tab at the top of this page.