SHAME. It’s the emotional equivalent of an oil spill that pollutes our thoughts:
“You’re not good enough”.
“There’s something wrong with you.”
“You don’t belong.”
“No one could love you.”
As a counsellor, my job is to help my clients learn to dissolve their shame. As a human, my job is to dissolve my own. Personally, I find the latter significantly more challenging.
So what is shame exactly? Shame is ultimately the fear of rejection. It’s the fear that if we were wholly, truly, and completely seen that we might not be loved or accepted. It’s the fear that we are somehow too flawed to have value. We have all experienced shame because, at times, we have all feared the potential of our own intrinsic unworthiness. Well, I suppose some people haven’t experienced shame…but those are the few and far between (thankfully) that have no capacity for empathy or connection and most definitely prefer puppy kicking and old lady robbing to therapeutic reading material.
Most of our shame develops during childhood simply because it is the role of our parents/caregivers/society to socialize us and teach us how to behave. When this teaching is done in a way that confuses “your behaviour is not good enough” with “you are not good enough”, we might end up with nice manners but we also end up with the belief that love and acceptance are super conditional. Safe people unintentionally teach us to feel shame through a lack of awareness and poor communication. Unsafe people intentionally teach us to feel shame so that they can have power or control over us (essentially acting out their own shame in an abusive way).
To know something in our mind is one thing, but to know something in our heart is totally next level. This week a client asked me what action she could take to face her shame head on. Next level requires experiential learning over cognitive understanding. Next level requires conscious responding over automatic reacting. And, as my client cleverly predicted, next level requires action over avoidance.
Through our conversation we explored the importance of being able to identify the authenticity of our own truth versus the version of truth that shame will try and sell you. Once we learn to separate the I AM from the SHAME…we can then begin to take action. We must constantly ask ourselves, “what does shame tell me?” and “what do I actually believe?”.
The remedy to shame will always feel completely counterintuitive to what it tells you to do. Shame tells us to try and appear perfect. Conceal our flaws and mistakes. Keep secrets. Stay small. Be dishonest. Conform. Avoid being truly seen. Hold people at a distance. Sidestep risk. Blame and judge others. Control, control, control. Compare ourselves. Silence our feelings, needs, opinions, thoughts, and ideas.
So what do we need to dissolve our shame? Coles Notes version:
1. AWARENESS: to recognize the difference between shame propaganda and the truth of your own heart.
2. COURAGE: to be able to do #3.
3. ACTION: to do the opposite of what shame tells you to do.
When shame tells you that you have to earn your worthiness? Practice unconditional love, compassion, and radical self-acceptance.
When shame tells you not to try something because you might fail, or everyone else is better than you, or you have nothing of value to contribute? Try that very thing.
When shame tells you to hide, lie, or mask your insecurities? If you’ve just recently joined the ‘War on Shame’: share your truth with someone you trust. If you’re a veteran on the battlefield: share your truth however you feel called to.
I work with all sorts of clients. Some of them, initially, don’t know very much about who they truly are or what gives them real meaning or purpose. Some of them only know themselves as a version of what they thought they “should” be. For many of my clients, as they begin to know themselves…a very common and overwhelming fear emerges: “What will other people think of me?”. And while it sounds like a very cute idea to just not care what other people think, that is a) likely impossible to do and b) highly problematic (remember the puppy kickers and old lady robbers? Yeah they don’t care much about what other people think. Not a solution). Ultimately, we can still care what other people think AND not let their opinions of us define our own sense of self-worth. In other words, you do not have to identify with the opinions of other people (thank God).
When we are just beginning to unravel our shame, it is important to take baby steps outside of our comfort zone to build confidence. As we develop resilience and realize that shame is not attached to who we truly are, we can risk going even further. This is not easy work. It’s not comfortable. But I promise you, it’s worth it. And what’s the alternative? A lifetime of feeling not good enough? No thanks. A lifetime of avoiding emotional discomfort at all costs? Yeah that sounds okay except when we cannot fully experience pain we also cannot fully experience love, peace, or joy. A lifetime of disconnection? Better find a suitable addiction as a replacement. You get the point.
Shame can only exist if we refuse to talk about it. So let’s talk about it. This will feel terrifying at first…and then really fucking liberating.
***For anyone interested in learning more about how to overcome shame, I would highly recommend Brené Brown’s TED Talks (she is legit the Kung Fu Panda of shame and an inspiration to my own practice).***