Shame is sneaky. It lurks in the shadows. Shame is secretive and compelling in it’s ability to impact the way you feel about yourself at the very core. But in your creativity and wisdom you have learned to deploy defense mechanisms against it. Imagine a primitive creature that doesn’t want to be seen because there is so much pain associated with his/her very being. This is shame.
Shame is often born out of childhood wounds leading you to create untrue stories (core beliefs) about yourself, others and the world around you. The marks are so deep you may be completely unaware of them. If you know or suspect shame has weighed your life down, has wreaked havoc on your sense of self or relationships, know that there are ways disempower shame. Here’s how:
Before you do any work around this, it’s important to have tools to get grounded if you need them. For some, shame is lurking around trauma which impacts your nervous system, making calmness challenging to find.
- What is relaxing for you? Create a list of self-care activities that work for you.
- Who can support you? Be aware of who you can turn to for support; friends, family or supportive groups.
- Create a safe place or sanctuary. This can be a physical space that has meaning for you (in your home, outdoors or elsewhere) or a safe place created in your imagination that you can find when you close your eyes and visualize it.
Identify how shame shows up for you
An emotion typically involving the way you see yourself at the core, there are many ways “sneaky shame” shows itself to be active or triggered. For example, often people who are perfectionists are driven by shame. It is actually a defense mechanism, allowing them the false sense of control when they really feel a lack of control. What they are avoiding is the profound sense that they are not good enough and any whiff of inferiority is painful as it is a reflection of their shameful narrative. Perfectionism is a brilliant strategy likely developed when much younger but clearly there are many downsides including the biggest one; perfectionism is unattainable and actually a set up for failure – and more pain.
Another sign of shame is a tendency to blame, criticize or denigrate others. When you put the focus on others in this way, you steer as far away as you can from your own sense of inadequacy. Where perfectionism tends to harm the individual, this type of manifestation of shame is typically more painful to others. You might have experienced a pattern of losing relationships or have heard that you are critical or unpleasant. Human beings have an extraordinary ability to deflect against shame, the most toxic and paralyzing emotion. Avoidance and denial are other ways.
Get familiar with your wounds
Part of the process of developing a different relationship with your shame involves bringing all relevant matters to the forefront, including painful past experiences possibly involving trauma, less than ideal parent-child relationships and other painful experiences where you might have developed a narrative that does not serve you. Do an honest assessment of your life from the beginning. Are there places where shame might have been born?
Notice your triggers
When there are unresolved wounds, there are triggers; situations that initiate a cascade of feelings that indicate something negative about you. Keep a small notebook with you and jot down times when you suspect shame has shown up. What happened, how did you feel and what did you do as a result? Look for patterns emerging.
Take the mask off of your shame
Shame can be hard to pinpoint, almost silent at times, because of the defenses erected around it like self-blame, other-blame, withdrawal or denial. Considering your life experiences. Are there possible detrimental core belief systems that arose out of them? Shine a flashlight on the “creature” lurking in the corner. The secrets of shame lose their power when they are are out in the open.
Develop a new relationship with it
Once you are aware of it’s presence you can then begin to notice when it comes up. Just notice. Connect with this part of you. What does it need? Can you befriend shame rather than hide from it? This work is less about shame eradication and more developing a new meaning around it.
Seek healing through self and others
The long term work of shame disempowerment requires attention to your inner states. Check in daily with yourself around how you’re feeling in the moment, what’s going on in your body and any other mindfulness related practices you can find that resonate. What I’ve found useful in my own work is inviting in positive emotions such as gratitude. Developing self-compassion is also very important in that it allows you to start to take care of that wounded part of you. You’ve uncovered it, now it needs to be nurtured.
Because shame is so often born out of painful experiences in relationship to others (parents, primary caregivers, friends, peers, partners, etc), it can also be soothed and moved to the back seat via positive experiences in relationships. Look for people who are emotionally equipped to provide empathy, positive regard and an authentic healing or corrective emotional experience. It might be a friend – and it might a therapist. Do not underestimate the power of your relationships to heal.
As you develop a different relationship with your shame, you are primed to learn the most important lesson of all:
Shame had it all wrong in the first place.