Self-Loathing Is A Shitty Motivator (And What To Use Instead)
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
*** Before I get ahead of myself, I want to make clear that I'll be focusing mostly on fat loss examples as our society fixates on being thin, so most self-destructive behavior I see around fitness tends to be about fat loss. I will throw in muscle-gaining fixations here and there as I don't want to leave people out who feel inadequate in that way, but please know that self-loathing is self-loathing, and it's counterproductive no matter what your goal is. Enjoy the article! ***
*** I'm not a doctor. None of this is medical advice. I cannot and do not intend to diagnose or treat any medical issue. If you struggled with disordered eating, please talk to a medical professional. Also, consult a medical professional if you intend to make drastic changes to your diet and/or exercise routine. ***
. . .
You're already OK and attractive and worthy of love exactly as you are.
You don't need to lose fat or build muscle for people to like you, and you certainly don't need to do it in order to like yourself.
You know what's sad? Many of you read that and thought, "yeah, fuck you, I want fitness advice, not to feel better."
What if I told you, though, that I'm not just trying to help you feel better?
(How lame would that be?)
What if I told you that hating the way you look, though motivating for a little while, is actually shitty motivation and probably going to mess up your progress in the long run?
What if learning to love yourself as you are could help you to lose fat, gain muscle, get into the best shape of your life, and stay that way?
Well, it will, and it can .
I'll explain . . .
Fat loss, as we know, requires consistent effort over a long time. You need a calorie deficit. You should probably incorporate a progressively-overloaded training routine. You might need to count your calories or, if you're trying to get really ripped, track your macronutrient intake.
This stuff is hard. And if you're new to these things, you will fuck up. Many times.
Here's the first way (of many) that self-loathing will fail you:
Reason 1: If you are trying to change your physique because you dislike yourself and then you fuck up (and you will fuck up), you are only going to dislike yourself more.
That's not just a bummer; it leads to self-destructive thinking that negatively affects your progress. I instead of thinking, "I'm a capable person! Even though this setback was disappointing, I'm going to learn from it and plan ahead so I'm better able to handle it in the future," you might think, "God, I suck. This is the only way I'm going to feel good about myself, and I can't even muster the willpower to do it. No wonder I'm so fat (or skinny, or weak, or whatever else you have decided makes you suck)!"
What sucks about reason 1 is that it's far more likely to happen when you work from the perspective of "fixing" yourself because . . .
Reason 2: If you are trying to change your physique because you dislike yourself, you will invariably take too aggressive an approach, making it more likely that you fuck up and thus reinforce your self-loathing.
Think about it for a moment: if you suck right now, your'e going to want to change fast. Unfortunately, fitness doesn't happen quickly. Most people shouldn't lose more than 1% of their bodyweight per week when losing fat, and muscle growth happens even slower than that (assuming you're not using illegal substances).
Whereas an objective plan would take into account the fact that these changes take time and work, tortoise-style, to get you there in the most linear fashion, the self-loathing individual needs to change fast.
This leads to extreme dieting (e.g. severe calorie restriction, eliminating entire food groups, "juice cleanses," extended fasting, or a number of other fad diets). Extreme dieting leads to extreme bingeing. Bingeing is closely associated with shame and guilt, which further reinforces the self-loathing, which exacerbates the feeling of urgency to "fix" yourself, which leads to more extreme behavior, which leads to more bingeing . . .
Now, you've not only reinforced your negative self image, but your fat loss has stalled (you might even have gained weight), and you've gotten yourself into a cycle that borders on disordered eating.
But let's say you avoid this trap. Some people manage to hate themselves into abs (I've seen it happen!). What then?
Reason 3: If you self-loath your way into your goal, you will either find another reason to dislike your body or yourself, or you will lose the only motivation you had to get there, leading to a massive rebound.
This is a two-for-one, so I'll break it up. The most common thing that I see when guys reach a long-desired fitness goal: the goalposts shift.
You got ripped? Now, your'e too small.
You got strong? Well, your'e looking a little fluffy.
Or, worst of all: you got where you wanted to physically, but it wasn't worth the trouble and it doesn't feel like you'd hoped it would.
I have a strong feeling that any reader who has gotten super ripped will be able to relate to that last one. When we fixate on a goal for a long time (and if you've gotten remarkably lean, then you've done this), we tend to start giving it power it doesn't have. This is even more true if we don't like ourselves and we think that a physical "transformation" will fix that.
It won't. The issue is deeper than that, and abs won't help fix it.
How do I know? Here's a pic of me in 2018:
The day before having this picture (and many others, which you can see scattered around my website) taken, I felt so bad about myself and my physique that I considered cancelling the shoot. My wonderful photographer, Matt Madison-Clark, encouraged me to just come as I was and take the photos.
I promise you: the way I felt then is not unique to me. If you don't address whatever else is going on and you think that fitness will do that for you, you will be sorely disappointed . . .
So, you put in all that time and effort, and you don't get to enjoy it! How demotivating!
This is hardly the biggest issue here, but from the perspective of a body composition coach (me): how on Earth will you motivate yourself to stay lean once you've realized it doesn't fix your self-loathing?
The second part of reason #3 that self-loathing is a shitty motivator is more thought exercise than reality as it's not something I've seen in real life:
What if you do end up liking yourself once you reach your goal?
Sure, that sounds nice, but if the only motivation you had was self-loathing, you've lost your carrot to chase! How do you maintain that motivation once that happens?
Spoiler: you don't.
And fitness is a life-long endeavor, so that's probably gonna fuck up your gainzzzz.
OK, OK, Daniel! You've made your point. I don't think that I believe you, but I'm willing to entertain the idea that you're not just trying to make me feel better and that I should maybe find motivation other than the fear of being my terrible, [insert source of self-loathing] self. Whaddya got?
- You, right now
Thanks for asking, you smart, talented, lovable individual!
What can you do to find better motivation:
Talk to a therapist.
I told you about my 2018 experience. I actually look about that same way right now (maybe a little leaner), and here's something wild: I like how I look!
I also didn't find it nearly as difficult to get to this point or to stay here.
Now, to be fair: I have fewer social eating engagements due to the pandemic, but I have made a real effort to balance my fitness pursuits with dating and as active a social life as one can have during a global pandemic/winter hellscape (lots of 30-degree dates over hot soup!).
The trick this time has been addressing other things going on so that my fitness goals could be fueled by other stuff. I can't tell you what will be your "why," and I strongly encourage you to consult with a therapist before embarking on a fitness journey (it really helps!), but here are some ideas . . .
This is my favorite one, and it's one I try to encourage my clients to take on: "what happens to my body when I do [insert specific, achievable goal]?"
You know what's cool about curiosity? You don't fail, so the stakes are super low. Low stakes tend to make things more fun and lead to better performances (see; Jamal Murray in the NBA Bubble; actors before someone says "action"; everyone singing in the shower).
Question: "What happens when I try to eat X calories per day?"
Answer 1: I get a little hungry, but it's manageable, and my weight goes down consistently!
Answer 2: I get super hungry and I end up eating way more than I wanted to in the evening!
Answer 2 might be what happened to the self-loathing you before, but now, you've reframed the situation as an experiment. You didn't fail a challenge; you learned something!
"Hmm, so when I tried to do that, I got too hungry and ended up overeating. Do I need to up my calories, change my food choices, or both?"
Even if you wanted to be uncharitable and say you "fucked up," you are able to figure out where things went awry and make adjustments so you can get back on the saddle.
2) Feeling Good
This one doesn't really work for getting super lean, as that's not a terribly pleasant experience, BUT if you're looking to take BMI from clinically obese to a healthy range, or if you're looking to get into the habit of regular exercise and eating well, this is a great motivator!
Eating well and moving regularly feels good. So does getting lots of quality sleep!
And you know what's really cool about feeling good?
It doesn't take willpower.
Set yourself up for success by observing, "when I eat lots of fruits and veggies and I go to bed on time, I feel great!"
"When I exercise consistently, my back doesn't bother me and I sleep better!"
"When I find 10 minutes in my day to meditate (I'm looking at you, Daniel!), I feel like I can breathe easier the rest of the day!"
Do things that feel good and take time to observe how good they feel. Even if you choose to do more "hardcore" fitness stuff later on, recognizing how these basic habits add pleasure to your life will serve you when motivation is low in other areas
3) Personal Growth
When shooting for more extreme fitness goals, you will feel less-than-great at times: you'll be hungry, you might feel lethargic, and often, sleep issues will arise.
If you know this going in, but you like the idea of a challenge (risky, I know, as we all know how I feel about challenges), viewing it as a temporary act of discipline to test yourself can be a productive exercise.
Keep in mind that you will need to move the goalposts in order to keep this source of motivation engaging or you might run into he same problem as the unicorn described above who gets in shape, loves themself, and then loses all their motivation.
Motivators #1 and #2 have been the ones I find most effective with both myself and with my clients, but I've had a few people respond to #3.
I'm curious: have you found some positive carrots to chase in your pursuit of physique-related goals? Were they similar to the ones I listed, or totally different?
If you've got a second, please share your experience in the comments!
Thank you for reading!