What to do about shame

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I woke up on Tuesday morning intending to post the blog I had prepared for this week. I started my morning as I always do by checking the news headlines. I discovered that it has been one year since the death of Robin Williams. I read a touching tribute by Sarah Michelle Gellar, and then I read this blog, “Losing a Parent to Suicide“. As I read the article, I could feel the pain and agony from the writer. Also, as I was reading this blog I had one of those “stunned” moments. It came when I read the words, “I think my father died from shame”. My blog this week is about shame. I thought to myself, yes, shame can cause death, it can be terminal. There are no words to describe the tragedy of dying from shame. My blog is late this week because I wanted to work on it a bit more. I hope that it helps with the shame that all of us experience in our life. Here it is:

Last week I wrote about “self-compassion”. Maybe it’s a coincidence (or maybe not) but I’ve been finding that the subject of many recent therapy sessions has been the appearance and subsequent discussion of shame. I think that self-compassion and shame should go hand in hand, but first, many clients ask me: What is shame and how is it different from guilt? Guilt is when you feel you’ve done something bad, and you feel awful for doing something that you regret. On the other hand, shame is when you feel you are something bad. You may question your self-worth or feel as if you are a bad person. As I see so many struggle with shame, in this blog I want to focus on “what to do about shame”.

Shame is sometimes self-imposed, or it is imposed on you by another or a mix of both. There are many different reasons why we might struggle with shame e.g. when we’ve hurt someone; when we make mistakes; when we are imperfect, embarrassed or humiliated; when we do poorly in school, or are reprimanded at work; when we are not able to pay our bills; when someone did something to you, hurt you, or took advantage of you; or when someone criticizes you harshly. We feel shame if we feel we are disappointing or letting down the ones that we love. We feel shame when we feel that we are not ‘good enough’, a good enough person, spouse, student, son/daughter, employee, and/or person in general. We feel shame about aspects of our physical appearance, and so on. Oh my, the list goes on and on. Okay, enough! Let’s talk about healing from shame.

When I am working with someone who struggles with shame, I ask the question, “How do you counteract the shame?” meaning, how do you manage it in a way that you can move out of feeling shame? Most people struggle to answer this question. I think many of us simply endure the dreadful feeling until it goes away or is at least buried within us. Although there are different reactions to shame, men tend to lash out in anger or withdraw when they feel shame, and women tend to beat themselves up and simply feel awful. Of course, women can lash out and withdraw as well, and men feel awful too. Keep in mind, reactions to shame are not always recognized as “a reaction to shame”. Meaning that one may withdraw or lash out because they are upset, hurt or angry, but they do not identify the actual feeling of ‘shame’.

As I began to think more about shame, I was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to blog about it because I write mostly about relationships. Then it occurred to me – I’ve had a long-term relationship with shame. When I was younger, the relationship was more intense, but it still reappears from time to time.

I’ve been a perfectionist for much of my life (to a lesser degree now) and now, in reflection, I recognize how I was terrified of shame and tried to avoid it at all costs. I did everything imaginable to not incur the shame I associated with making mistakes, any mistakes. I tried to be the best Mom, wife, student, daughter, and worker (geez, how exhausting!) all in an attempt to avoid shame. But again, I did not recognize at the time that I was avoiding the actual feeling of ‘shame’.

The question that I asked myself is “How and why does shame appear less now than when I was younger? How did I counteract my shame then and how do I do it now?” I think there are many reasons that I want to share with you in the hope that you will counteract your shame as well. First, I have been stunned by the reaction of others when I have made mistakes – I have been forgiven for mistakes that I thought were huge and they turned out to be minor mistakes in the eyes of those who were impacted. The struggle to get A’s in college means nothing to me now. I see imperfection in others, and often it is what I love about them. I have learned that imperfection is what makes a person unique. And I have learned to accept and sometimes embrace “most” of my imperfections. And probably most important is to identify shame. You cannot counteract it if you do not recognize it. All of us need to become shame experts, recognizing when we self-impose shame as well as when someone is shaming us. Recognize that shame is felt in degrees, e.g. on the lower end of the scale, for a minor mistake someone might say “you should know better”. At the higher end someone might say to you, “you are a disappointment to me”. These are ‘shaming’ statements.

Don’t get me wrong; shame continues to be part of my life. Sometimes it catches me off-guard. Sometimes another imposes shame on me. But here is my suggestion when that happens to you…..recognize that when someone shames you, it is most likely because they are consumed with shame, it is all that they know. It is not your shame; it is their shame. If someone is mean to you, shakes that shaming finger at you, or shakes his or her head at you in that terribly shaming way (it just happened to me over the weekend), counteract it with anything and everything to work your way out of it! It took time for me to talk myself out of the shame that I experienced this past weekend. But, if you work at it, you can do it.

If you don’t recognize your shame, you can’t do anything about it. It is possible that the blog that I shared about the father who committed suicide may not have recognized that he felt shame. And men find it challenging to talk about their feelings, which will compound the challenge to counteract shame.

Anticipating possible shaming can keeping us in hiding. For example, writing this blog has been terrifying for me. I want others to read it and possibly be inspired, yet at the same time I am terrified that people will read it. Silly, I know, but it isn’t so much that I am terrified of people reading it, I am terrified of reactions to my writing. I am terrified of being shamed. I anticipate it and wonder how it will impact me. Brene Brown in her Ted Talk (Listening to shame) mentions “staying small”. I understand how staying small is easier and safer than taking the risk to put yourself out there. But I decided I would rather work toward counteracting any shaming that might come my way than regret never putting myself out there in the first place.

One last thought… when I thought about shame in terms of “being in a relationship with shame”, it occurred to me that shame never benefited me – so why stay in this destructive relationship? So….I decided that I am “breaking up with shame”. I know, it sounds kind of silly. But I decided that when I feel shame I’m going to try to replace it with a more productive feeling and a healthier relationship. Here is an idea on how you can replace your relationship with shame with a healthy relationship, if you’ve hurt someone, shame can be replaced with remorse and then empathy. This can then be expressed to another person if you’ve hurt them or made a mistake that affected them. Shame can also be replaced with self-empathy and self-compassion. Shame can be replaced with understanding. Understanding can lead to self-awareness, insight, and growth.

There is nothing good that can come from shame. It is an anchor that will weigh you down. Cut the tie with that anchor and replace it with something kinder, gentler and more productive. I know it is not always easy, but if you work at it, you’ll be glad that you did. You are worth it.

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Photo Credit: Alan Levine @flicker.com



What to do about shame
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What to do about shame
I see so many struggle with shame, in this blog I want to focus on “what to do about shame”.

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