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Shame: Self-Deceiving, Self-Misperceiving, and Learning Disabling

From Science 2.0: Of 3,500 college applicants, more than a third couldn’t report their weight accurately. The heavier they were, the less accurate their estimates. “This misperception is important because the first step in dealing with a weight problem is knowing that you have one,” said Margarita Teran-Garcia, a University of Illinois professor of food science and human nutrition.

Learning about this misperception provides us a great opportunity to see how ‘shame’ can distort our learning.

The students in this study weren’t chosen  because they can’t calculate or estimate, or because they’ve haven’t weighed themselves for a long time.  The misperception here is not caused by an objective mistake in using their intellect; thinking or reasoning. First and foremost this misperception is a form of ‘self-misperception’ – a deception so good that we don’t even know we are deceiving ourselves – a self-deceptive self-misperception.

Do you know when you are deceiving yourself?

How is it that we can be so obviously and obliviously self-deceptive? Whether for love or hope; for anger or addiction, how is that we can be so good at deceiving ourselves into not seeing (or denying we see) what’s so obviously right in front of us? Again, this is not a mental error in any typical sense. Rather, its as if our minds are being unwittingly warped into the service of a primal emotional necessity like the wishful thinking that can accompany falling in love or the pathological lies of a drug addict. In this case, with this self-misperception, what is the emotional need that is warping our minds?  The need to avoid feeling shame. If these students were in a culture that celebrated obesity they wouldn’t be exhibiting this misperception.

Shame is a pain in the self that (most of us) don’t want to feel and will go to great lengths to avoid.

Imagine the feeling of failing at whatever you most fear to fail.  Try thinking about what you did that caused your most vivid memory of shame. Do you feel a kind of emotional pressure to avoid dwelling on whatever you imagined or remembered?

When we feel shame our natural response motivates us to change our behavior in one of three ways: 1) To overcome whatever we feel the shame is about. 2) To avoid engaging in whatever we feel the shame is about. 3) To demote the importance of whatever we feel the shame is about. These three often go round and round working out (learning) whether to ‘keep trying’ (overcome) or ‘give up’ (avoid or demote).

It’s not easy to pay attention to the source of our shame when our more primal emotional response is to escape from it – when our unconscious emotional automation wants to avoid it. We only have a few core strategies for coping with the feeling of shame. Essentially, each strategy is a different way of emotionally channeling our attention away from attending to the source of shame.


In such moments of avoiding shame, no matter which ‘pole’ of the compass we might be escaping into, we are also, obviously, avoiding paying attention to (and learning into) whatever it is about ourselves that we feel is the source of the shame. Precisely because shame is a pain in the self – a pain arising from the failing of some aspect of ‘me’ – avoiding shame is necessarily self-deceptive. Precisely because it’s harder to sustain attention on the source of shame it’s harder to be honest with ourselves. Sometimes avoiding shame leads to overcoming whatever we are blaming ourselves for, but most of the time avoiding shame misorients and misdirects our attention (and therefore our learning) in unhealthy and self-deceptive ways. The reciprocally amplifying relationship between unhealthy learning (maladaptive learning) and unhealthy behaviors illustrates this.

Most of our bad habits and addictions are learned. They are sustained in part, like the misperception this research points to, because our minds have been bent into the service of avoiding paying attention to what causes us to feel shame. Like a closed-loop circular logic belief system (happening emotionally faster than and beneath, our awareness), avoiding shame diverts our attention away from what we most need to learn to be free of the shame.


In this case, as the title implied, if we deny having (or diminish) our weight problem then we deny (or diminish) our motivation to lose weight.  So our avoiding of the shame we feel for being too heavy is at the very same time diverting our attention away from self-honestly realizing our heaviness and the motivation we need to learn our way to a more healthy weight. This is a case of shame avoidance self-deceptively disabling our learning. See it for yourself in yourself or in a person you know. For more on shame’s role in learning see: “Mind-Shame“.

It would be great to see a follow up to this study that looks at how this misperception correlates with how participants feel about the shape of their bodies? For example, those living in an obese family or who have otherwise come to accept their shape are less likely to feel shame about their obesity and could therefore be more honestly accurate.

The cost of this misperception is also another example of the capital value case for improving the health of our learning. Here again, unhealthy learning underlies very expensive unhealthy behavior.

Increasing our society’s recognition of Mind-Shame is a tipping point for improving the health of our children’s learning. Help us get Mind-Shame into our national conversation about education.

  • Observe children — notice the change come over their faces, voices, and body languages when shame triggers.
  • Notice how shame appears in children when they feel confused.
  • Notice how shame appears when children ‘perform’ in public.
  • Notice how children, mostly without even being aware they are doing it, avoid engaging in what causes them to feel shame.
  • Observe yourself — Notice your own shame and what happens to your attention (therefore learning) when it triggers.
  • Notice yourself ‘avoid’ thinking about things – learning about things – that trigger shame.”
  • Watch your own mind-shame. Watch it in the people around you. Watch it in the children you care about.

Mind-Shame is everywhere, let’s bring it out of the shadows and into the light. Talk about it with your family and colleagues.  Help us spread awareness of the existence and learning disabling effects of mind-shame.

PLEASE… We can’t sustain our efforts without your help. If you think we are on the right track, or even one that should be given consideration, please help us. Please forward our posts as widely as you can. Please contribute whatever you can, $5, $10… whatever you can (see “Donation” button in sidebar). Arrange for us to work with your school or organization. Your help can make a big difference in whether our work succeeds. Thank you.

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One Response to Shame: Self-Deceiving, Self-Misperceiving, and Learning Disabling

  1. Learning-Activist April 9, 2012 at 7:59 pm #

    In response to a variation of the above posted on Science 2.0, Helen Barrat wrote:

    David, I’m pretty sure that Jennifer Lopez in this gypsy flamenco dancing Youtube video made several years ago would probably have been classified as obese by this study, according to her body mass index (BMI) and weight, however I doubt if she would be classified as obese according to her hip to waist ratio as I mentioned above. Eduardo Verástegui’s hip to waist ratio also looks pretty healthy to me!

    I’m interested in knowing whether you and other people here think that Jennifer Lopez should be feeling ‘shame’ about her body weight, shape and image at the time this video was made?

    I personally think she looks like a healthy, fertile, young woman who is not ‘obese’, but obviously she does not in any way look like a slim catwalk fashion model. Is it possible that this is actually her healthy body size, weight and shape and that by dieting excessively to obtain a much slimmer more fashionable body she could actually become less healthy, at least reproductively and could also even run the risk of triggering a lifelong eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia nervosa, or at least becoming macro and micro nutrient deficient from constant dieting?

    Poor nutrition and yoyo or excessive dieting can also cause serious health problems and mental disorders in all age groups. Being made to feel ‘shame’ about being obese or having a high BMI is also not a very healthy state of mind.


    I replied:

    Hello Helen and thanks for engaging with me.

    I wrote a lengthier response to this post on my site:

    My response had nothing to do with whether someone should or shouldn’t feel shame about their body weight rather, that if they actually do, it can cause them to have the skewed misperception the article is describing.

    Personally, I would prefer not to have predatory market machinations manipulating people into feeling shame about their weight . No question weight can be a health problem. Did you see the Huffington Post piece on obesity being a greater health danger than smoking?

    The question is to what degree is shame about weight leading to a self-deceptive diminishing of a person’s ability to learn their way to a more healthy weight? I think it’s a significant and insufficiently considered dynamic in obesity (and many other) issues.

    Finally, personally, I find Jennifer Lopez’s shape very attractive and I agree with you that this is about being healthy not about being what anyone else thinks about how you look.

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