I was reading a novel in which one of the characters (a female psychiatrist) wonders if she should be humiliated or angry about her husband taking up with another woman, and started thinking about these alternative reactions. Her confusion reminded me of the uncertainty some overweight clients feel when people comment on their size. In that split second after a remark, it may be hard not to feel overwhelmed with shame, but I’m here to tell you that you can choose a far more effective response.

Just think about the difference between the two states of shame/humiliation and anger. With shame and humiliation, you turn your disgust/upset/rage inward and with anger, you turn it outward. When someone makes an unkind comment about your weight or eating, you may feel upset with yourself for your eating and believe that what you’re doing or how you look is bad or wrong. In all likelihood, you are already angry at yourself for alleged defects—you eat too much, you eat the wrong foods, you don’t look right, you’re too fat or flabby, etc. This is precisely why remarks can be so hurtful—you already believe them and feel as if someone is rubbing salt into your wounds.

On the other hand, if you don’t believe you have a specific defect—junk food eating or being plus-size—your natural reaction to a remark about either might generate anger at the commenter because you think they’re wrong, not right. For example, if you’ve really given yourself total permission and are fine with having a few bites of a cookie and someone chides you for eating a high-calorie treat, you likely won’t view your behavior as shameful and won’t be humiliated. Instead, you might feel annoyed at the person for butting into your business and being critical of you.

How you take in a comment about yourself is, in large part, based on how you feel about yourself and the situation, and your reaction will develop from it. If you’re unaccepting of self, you’ll feel ashamed. If you’re accepting of self, you might feel angry at someone. What you do with anger towards others is up to you. You might choose to say nothing, challenge the comment, or refuse to personalize what’s been said and get bent out of shape. You even might consider that the person commenting means well. Depending upon the relationship and circumstance, different responses are appropriate.

My point is that you don’t have to be humiliated when someone speaks poorly about you. In many cases, anger is more appropriate than shame. It may not feel natural at first and it certainly may not feel comfortable, but it’s often the healthier reaction.