Anatomy of a Shame Attack: Exercise Increases Energy

September 14, 2015
Kelly Coffey

Why Hearing “Exercise Increases Energy!” Might Make You Want to Sit on the Couch and Never Move Again – and What You Can Do to Change the Story

Stop me if you’ve lived this one.

You’re having a rough day, just because you’re you, or because you’re you and there’s only so many hours in a day.

You’re ricocheting from point A to point B when a well-meaning acquaintance squares up for a check-in.

“Hey! How are you doing?” she asks. You already know what her answer’s gonna be, and you’re already ready to tap out of the conversation.

But you vaguely remember that answering honestly will help you feel like you’re living a more authentic life...or whatever.

So you take a chance on this whole answering honestly thing.

“Things are busy. I’m tired.” you say, already wishing you could take it back.

Why didn’t I just say fine? you think.

“Oh, I know!” she says. “You know what gives me more energy?”

Here it comes. you think.

“Exercise!” she says, clearly manic.

Then she goes on and on about how her exercise class / new hiking habit / gym membership / yoga practice is giving her “more energy than she ever thought possible!”

The longer she goes on, 1 the more repulsed you are by the idea of ever moving again.

Loath to witness even one more of her peppy vocal cartwheels, you suddenly remember you left the oven on, and bolt.

Your acquaintance wasn’t lying. Exercise does give her more energy. That’s what it does for almost all of us. The more we move, the more energy we have. 2

Despite what you believe, you aren’t immune to this and myriad other short-term benefits of exercise.

Like mental clarity.

Sounder sleep.

And general well-being.

So if exercise would bump up your energy, why does her suggestion make you want to camp out on the couch?

Or, at the very least, end the conversation promptly?

The answer, in a word, is shame.

Shame can be defined as the internalized belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. If you have shame like I have shame, you learned this young, and repeatedly. Like proper verb conjugation, it became a simple, subconscious knowing.

I’m wrong. What I do is wrong. This is not something that can be fixed.

Why Hearing “Exercise Would Give You More Energy!” Might Make You Want to Sit on the Couch and Never Move Again - and What You Can Do to Change the Story


Jump ahead 35 or 40 years, and you subconsciously interpret your acquaintance’s well-meaning suggestion to exercise as evidence that you’re fundamentally broken.

She says “I feel better when I…”

You internalize I feel like hell because I deserve to feel like hell.

She says “Exercise is just so great!”

You internalize I don’t exercise like she does, therefore she’s better than me.

She says “I used to be exhausted, but now I have more energy.”

You internalize Lack of energy was her problem, she fixed it with exercise. But I’m my problem, and there’s no fixing that.

How Does Shame Keep Us Stuck In Inaction

Odds are this woman is just sharing her experience.

Instead of simply taking in what she says, we shame-based folks use it as a basis for comparison. And inevitably, we come up short.

We feel judged, inside and out.

Then again, maybe she’s trying to be helpful.

Instead of feeling inspired by her experience to take action, we get bogged down in a torrent of memories of all our efforts to ‘get more active.’  

We feel suffocated under the lead blanket of our own ‘failures.’

Until we recognize shame’s power over our thoughts and actions, whatever she says, and whatever her motive may be, it can feel like torture.  Those shame-based ideas  hurt, and we’ve been numbing those suckers out almost as long as we’ve been alive.

We’re more uncomfortable with each passing second. We want to feel different, or less, or better, or nothing.

Hence feeling magnetized to the couch – to the promise of rest and relaxation.

Why Hearing “Exercise Would Give You More Energy!” Might Make You Want to Sit on the Couch and Never Move Again - and What You Can Do to Change the Story

I’m fine.

On the couch it’s easy to drown out how we feel. We’re not standing on achy joints. Our legs, feet, and back aren’t getting fatigued. Focused on a screen or a snack or both, we’re completely free from having to experience these, or any other, thoughts and feelings.

That is, until we have somewhere else to be. And then the sensations, thoughts, and feelings come back, and we feel even worse.

Thankfully, we have the power to change the story. There are steps we can take when we’re in the midst of a shame attack that can help us feel better and make stronger choices.

Step One:

When you catch yourself comparing or rolling your eyes or being critical, 3 recognize that the voice you’re hearing in your head may well be the voice of shame, the voice of the sabotaging beast. This voice was given to your when you were too young to say no. Just because this voice is loud or convincing or familiar doesn’t make what it says true.

Step Two:

Use the beast as a prompt to ask yourself a question you might have very little experience taking seriously: What are you feeling?

I feel like I hate small talk.

Not what are you thinking, what are you feeling?

I hate myself.

Is that anger?

I hate that I’m still not where I want to be physically.

Is that fear?

I’m scared that I’ll never be able to walk down the street feeling good about my body.

Good work.

And I’m hungry.


Step Three:

Armed with the facts, respond in a way that actually meets your needs.

You can take a deep breath. 4

Why Hearing “Exercise Would Give You More Energy!” Might Make You Want to Sit on the Couch and Never Move Again - and What You Can Do to Change the Story

You might even end up hiking together.

You can become curious about her and her process. She’s a woman, just like you. By sharing her truth, she’s making herself vulnerable to you, your judgement, and your reactions. Depending on how you choose to respond, this conversation could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 5

You can go home and do something that will make you feel cared for, like clean or make your bed.

You can act as your own best caretaker by doing something to make you feel cared for. 6

Take it from a shame-based personal trainer who uses these steps every day – you can make strong choices for yourself and your health, even (especially and specifically) when you’re under attack by the beast.

I hope the next time shame whispers in your ear, you remember that the beast inside you is spinning lies specifically to keep you stuck. You absolutely can choose in that moment to focus on the truth – maybe that you need a snack, or maybe that you’re precious and beautiful and deserve a stronger sense of self-worth than what you were handed in childhood – and then you can respond by doing whatever it is you need to do to make it so.


  1. Not long at all, really, but it feels like forever.
  2. The less we move – I’m looking at you, office workers – the more useless and exhausted we feel.
  3. Of you or your well-meaning acquaintance.
  4. Yeah yeah, I know it’s cliche, but g’head and do it and tell me you don’t feel better. I double dog dare you.
  5. Hell, you might even go on a hike with her!
  6. As opposed to numb.


 We all feel stuck in the cycle of self-sabotage, out of control and powerless. I put together a workshop to give you practical, actionable next-steps to ensure that you feel healthier and more in control, starting now.

See the Schedule

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Showing 16 comments
  • Emily

    Thank you so much for breaking this down Coffey! This type of situation feels a little more manageable now that I can understand why I’m reacting a certain way and how to take a step back and recognize what’s happening. I wish that more people would understand that this cycle of shame is why being mean to overweight people (i.e. people they perceive as being unhealthy)/pointing out our flaws absolutely does not motivate us to be healthy or lose weight, it does the complete opposite. Your advice definitely will help manage situations where people are purposely being mean or well intentioned friends like the woman in your story above. Thank you.

    • Kelly Coffey

      Thank’s for taking the time to comment, Emily!

  • Tammy K

    I swear, Coffey, we’re kindred spirits. Every one of your posts speak directly to my heart. I just feel stuck and unmotivated. I have so much knowledge and tools at my disposal, yet do very little to benefit me. I am weighted down by that lead blanket you talked about and fear change, for whatever crazy reason. I want to sign up for Pleasure Principles, and plan to once my schedule slows down a bit, because right now I’m too drained to be able to get anything out of it. Hopefully in October. Thanks for sharing such raw posts and baring your soul to us fellow sufferers. Blessings.

    • Kelly Coffey

      I say this with nothing but love: there is no good time, because now is all we have. Of course, I’ll be here when you get here. sending you love and patience and strength.

  • Sheryl

    Yes. That was me 6 months ago – exactly me. I actually got to the point where I thought I would have a heart attack if I began exercising! Just awful. I hired a friend who is a health coach and got myself a personal trainer 2 times a week with some surprise gifted money from my parents and took my ass to the Y every day -pretty much- since! I am on my own without a trainer as of a couple of weeks ago and still going. I am down several sizes and on top of thyroid and adrenal stuff with supplements, see my chiropractor every few weeks and I feel like a new person. My favorite is strength training – I like intensity and being strong! I also do different types of classes with fun names like Steam and Insanity and I do power yoga at least twice a week. I go 6 days a week and usually my day off is cleaning the house or mowing the lawn/doing outdoor work. This is a gift to my grown son (he now comes to Body Pump classes with me and makes me laugh), my toddler and my husband, but most of all ME. Thank you for writing about this. I only got so far to write about needing help and have been too much on my path, barreling forward, to write about it as I go! Shared this post on FB – it is perfect.

    • Liz Shemitz-Smith

      I am there – I am pushing that damned lead blanket with all my might!!!! I made a date with the trainer – and praying I make it!! I am famous for last minute dissolves!

  • Judy

    I loved this, as I sat on the couch reading it! I won”t go in to the gorry story, but have been working on my eating disorders and finding my way back to me, or whoever she is. The brilliant sentence in this writing was the caretaker line. Perfect, difficult, and necessary, I love your insight, and am happy I stumbled upon your place.

    • Kelly Coffey

      I’m glad you’re here, Judy. Take good care of you.

  • Robin

    This made me cry. This speaks to me. I am full of shame. I just can’t figure out where I got this in my childhood. It was fairy tale happy. Where did the beast come from?

    • Kelly Coffey

      Hey there, Robin. I don’t know where yours came from, of who or what gave you that voice in your head. Thankfully, it doesn’t matter. It’s still possible to make choices that are in your own best interests and act from a place of love, traceable beast or not.

  • Amanda

    One of my challengers shared this article, and I’m so glad that she did (hi JaVonna!) As a fitness coach, I too fall into the pit of comparison. I look at others sometimes and think, “I live so healthy, heck, I tell people how to do it! Why don’t I look like her?” I’ve never understood why this thinking spurred me into INACTION, rather than motivated me. Now, I get it. Thank you.

    • Kelly Coffey

      Amanda! I fall into the same rut more often than I care to think about. I’m buddies with all the trainers in my area, and the truth is I can’t ever look like them because My Body Has Been Through Things Their Bodies Simply Have Never Been Through. I can’t look like them, and I shouldn’t, because my body tells my story. And my story is my strength.
      The same goes for you.
      Thank god we look just exactly as we do, and are being called on to support just exactly the women who search us out. We’re just right to help them, and the universe knows it.

      thanks for taking the time to write!
      Kelly Coffey

      • Carolyn

        I need to use this as a personal mantra.. “My Body Has Been Through Things Their Bodies Simply Have Never Been Through. I can’t look like them, and I shouldn’t, because my body tells my story. And my story is my strength.”

  • Carolyn

    What a great post! 🙂 I’m *that* girl.. the one saying come to crossfit with me! No? Ok.. Come cycling with me! No? Ok.. how bout a nice run? AND I grew up in the shame factory! Lol! You absolutely nailed it with this one! <3 me some Strong Coffey!

    • Kelly Coffey

      Thanks, Carolyn!!

  • Florence

    It was great to wake up to this in my inbox this morning. Thank you, I really appreciated it.

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