Shame is sneaky. It lurks in the shadows. Shame is secretive and powerful in it’s ability to impact the way you feel about yourself at the very core. It creeps into your sense of self and can negatively impact your perceived worth and lovability. But being wise and adaptive as we are as humans, defense mechanisms are deployed against shame. Imagine a primitive, vulnerable being that doesn’t want to be seen because there is so much pain associated with his/her very existence.
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. They show up in depression, feeling unworthy, struggle to trust others or believe that things can work out for you, etc. If you know or suspect shame continues to play a role in your life, has wreaked havoc on your sense of self or relationships, know that there are ways disempower shame. Here are a few ways:
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 is wrapped up in trauma and impacting your nervous system. A sense of calm and peace may be hard 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
Problematic behaviors connected to how you view yourself can provide clues to how shame exists in your life. For example, people who are perfectionists can be shame driven. It is actually a defense mechanism, allowing them a false sense of control when they feel they have none. 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, commonly developed during younger years in your family of origin. The problem is the coping skill is maladaptive; 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.
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
Where there are unresolved wounds, there are triggers; situations that initiate a cascade of feelings that perpetuate your negative story. 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.
Unmask 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 shame “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. Invite positive emotions such as gratitude and joy. 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 healed by positive relationships with others that tell a different story. 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 may even learn the most important lesson of them all:
Shame had it all wrong in the first place.
If you’re interested in doing some of your own family of origin work check out my mini guide ebook to help you think like a therapist, Family of Origin: Untangle Your Unhealthy Roots.1