Do you remember those weight-loss reality shows that were popular a few years ago? As you may recall, the trainers used shame tactics and humiliation to motivate contestants to lose weight.

Unfortunately, some contestants lost more than pounds. They also lost their dignity.

As a health and exercise professional, you probably don’t scream in your clients’ faces, but you may be inadvertently and subtly shaming your clients without realizing it.

As an example, imagine a trainer starts working with a 45-year-old woman who wants to lose 30 pounds. The trainer creates for her the following SMART goal: Walk 60 minutes, six times a week at a heart rate of 145 to 160 bpm (after the warm-up and before the cool-down). The trainer also urges her to follow recommended nutrition guidelines and asks her to keep a food diary.

Week after week, however, this client consistently does not meet her exercise goal. She also forgets to keep her food diary. In response to this, the trainer decides it is time to take a “tough love” approach, and says something like, “I thought you came to me for help. It’s your responsibility to follow through on the goals I set for you and the diet advice I give you. You hired me for my expertise, and I know what’s best for you. You can do this!”

This Is Your Brain on Shame

Most of us have had clients who seem to be more resistant than others. And many of us have taken a tough-love approach at one time or another when we felt helpless and frustrated, especially if we equate our clients’ success to our success and a reflection of our value as professionals in this field.

But does this tough-love approach work?

When we feel shame, there are certain areas of our brain that are stimulated. For example, a 2014 study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that when one feels shame, areas of the brain that are stimulated include the frontal and temporal lobes, which are involved with processing, memory and emotions.

In another study, published in the journal Social Neuroscience, researchers presented participants with different scenarios that evoked feelings of happiness, anger or humiliation. Using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to get a peek into subjects’ brains, researchers found that humiliation produced significantly more pronounced reactions in the brain than those produced by happiness and anger. They concluded that the study’s findings supported “the idea that humiliation is a particularly intense experience that is likely to have far-reaching consequences.”

O.K., so shame shows up in the brain, but does that mean it’s a negative thing?

Some studies actually show that feeling shame can be a motivator for change, depending on the circumstances, and other researchers have tried to explain this paradox. However, other studies have concluded that shame is destructive and doesn’t motivate one toward positive change. In fact, it may motivate the shamed to try to avoid the situation that made them feel ashamed. Applying this to your clients, in addition to being potentially destructive to their self-esteem, it’s also bad for business. When you shame a client, he or she may quit working with you to avoid being humiliated again—and tell their friends about it.

Currently, it appears more studies lean toward shame and humiliation as being destructive. So, is it time to take a softer approach, rather than tough love?

Set Your Clients Up for Success (Without Shaming Them Into It)

Let’s go back to the client we described earlier and the SMART goal the trainer set for her. What do you think is one of the problems with it?

“Though a trainer or coach can help tweak goals, his or her role when it comes to goal-setting is to help coax out what the client wants,” explains Jenn Krusinski, CTNC, a wellness coach in Chicago, Ill. “In order for clients to truly stick with all the actions it takes to reach their goals, they need to want it for themselves and with a big reason—their why. They need to be able to see themselves at that goal, feel into it and believe in it. In order for it to be tangible, the client must be able to set it for him- or herself."

Clients own their goals when they set them for themselves. “Asking clients to set their own goals is empowering [to them],” adds Leslie Hadley, a transformational teacher and coach and founder of A New Light Yoga and Wellness in N.J. “They are making the decision to do the work. Supporting clients and guiding them through their transformations enables them to feel a confidence they might not have felt otherwise. I prefer to allow clients to feel like it is their decision rather than mine. I’ve found that there is much less stress and they actually do the work to make the changes.”

But what if clients still have a difficult time meeting the goal, even when they’ve developed their goals themselves?

As a health and exercise professional, you are there to guide and support your clients, so be sure to assess whether a client’s goal is realistic and offer up options that may be more likely to steer him or her toward success.

And remember—it’s about progress, not perfection. Making clients feel as though they have failed if they don’t fully meet their goals encourages an all-or-nothing mindset. Instead, celebrate what they did do, no matter how small or how seemingly “invisible.” Sometimes, the change is being made internally in the form of mindset and beliefs.

“Find out why the goal wasn’t met. Perhaps the initial goal was really a stretch goal and what they’ve accomplished really is progress,” says Krusinski. “Maybe something was going on in [the client’s] life that was an obstacle to doing more. Ask questions. Don’t assume.”

And don’t forget that any forward progress is cause for celebration. “Celebrate the mini-milestones,” encourages Hadley. “[Perhaps they’re not fully meeting] the goal, but they are doing more than when they started. Encouraging the client will usually help raise his or her self-esteem and release the negative thought patterns so the client is more apt to keep moving forward.”

“Be compassionate and acknowledge what [the client] did accomplish and help him or her celebrate that,” suggests Krusinski. “Most of all, remind the client of his or her why.”

A mentor of mine taught me that people do not purposely resist. They are simply doing what their brain has been wired to do for a long time and are running on auto-pilot. However, if they sought you out and are paying you to help them, they want to make changes in their lives. They just don’t know how to or can't identify what is stopping them despite their desire to change. 

It often comes down to one word: fear.

Fear can appear in many forms: fear of failure, fear of losing people if you change, fear of rejection, fear of judgement, fear of success. While some of these may sound silly, any change can pull a person out of his or her comfort zone. For instance, if your client has struggled with weight most of her life, she knows who she is as a person with obesity; it’s part of her identity. But who is she as a healthy, fit woman?

“Sometimes uncovering the actual fear is difficult for clients,” says Krusinski. “It feels silly to them. Like, maybe she fears that if she gets thinner, she’ll lose her old friends, the ones who bond with her over drinks and food.

“Some fears will be obvious to you as the trainer or coach,” continues Krusinski. “Since we don’t want to make assumptions, try saying something like, ‘Suppose a person was feeling [fill in the blank] because of past experiences. What do you think about that? Is it true?’”

This type of questioning often works well, because it can be easier to see other people’s barriers. “You can also share with them stories from other clients—anonymously, of course—or from your own life when specific fears got in the way,” suggests Krusinski. “Connecting on this level helps break down barriers where the client feels that he or she is the ‘only one’ or that what’s been happening is embarrassing or bad. The more you are able to help your clients see these mental blocks—their fears—the easier it will become for clients to notice the fears themselves, and say, ‘Back off, fear. I’ve got this!’”

Understanding more about their intrinsic barriers to change and being assured that it’s all normal will, in turn, help your clients feel less ashamed.

“People who come to you [for help] most likely already carry shame and guilt from their past,” concludes Krusinski. “It’s often these very feelings that have added to or even caused the physical problems they are trying to change. Your job is to see them as they cannot yet see themselves. This is what motivates them, not confirming limiting beliefs from the past.”

Expand Your Knowledge

Health Coach Certification [certification program]

Weight Management: Changing Behaviors to Change Lives [online course]

Nutrition Coaching: Changing Habits, Not Diets [online course]