Giving Shame a Shove

As we discussed last month, shame is a pervasive feeling that has a persistent way of catching us in its trap. This month, we will discuss ways to free ourselves from its clutches and begin the journey of returning to our core goodness and innate wholeness. Healing from shame is a slow process in that most of us have enveloped such a damaging emotional state into the depth of our heart and into the folds of our character. However, with courageous intentionality and plain hard work, we can undertake the process of prying our soul from the grasp of shame’s reach. The following steps might be useful as we embark on this excision:

1. Become aware when you are feeling shame. When shame hits, you need not be caught off guard. Often our heads bow, our eyes dart to the floor. Blood rushes to our head. Energy evaporates. Because shame shuts us down, all systems pause. We lose vitality, creativity and even our thinking function. We turn inward and become quiet verbally and frozen emotionally … sinking deeper into the morass of shame’s predatory consumption. Once you can discern this freefall, 

2. Pull yourself out of there!  Like quicksand, time is of the essence. Once we begin the descent into shame’s slug, it becomes harder and harder to get out. Therefore, the quicker we recognize the downward spiral, the more effective we will be at doing a U-turn. As if your pants are falling down around your ankles, do whatever it takes to pull them back up. Take a deep breathe … come back to center and stop the self-attack. Open a passable avenue from self-loathing to self-care. This move can be more effective as you …

3. Accept the totality of who you are. You are just human – no more and no less. No better than anyone else and no worse. You have a story … you have shit .. just like all the rest of us. Drop the pretense, the perfectionistic image or even the “poor victim” mentaility … and move to center. The choice to have compassion for yourself – all of yourself – is one you can give yourself, even if others are not able to and you feel undeserving. When we begin to accept and integrate the fallacy of our self, others and even life into the lens by which we experience the world, we have a mighty weapon to keep shame at bay. We ease into our okay-ness for a much needed rest. 

4. Discover the true feeling. Once you bounce from shame’s grip and recover your ability to think clearly, you can then decipher what other feelings the shame might be covering.  Shame often stands in for another, more authentic feeling which was engendered in a particular situation. Is there anger than needs to be directed toward a shaming party? Is there appropriate shame or guilt that needs to be addressed and cannot be if one retreats into toxic shame? Is there intense grief, fear, sadness or self-loathing that allow moblization as opposed to the emotional paralysis that comes with shame? Once this true feeling is identified, then one can go about the business of feeling the true feeling which moves one along the path of healing.

5. Learn – and relearn – that shame is not your fault. Perhaps one of life’s most important yet most difficult lessons is that other people’s feelings and behaviors have very little, if anything, to do with you. In other words, it ain’t personal. When you accept the fact that others have free will, you realize that you are not the cause of their feelings, behaviors and choices. This realization gives you the ability to let go of false beliefs about yourself that cause the feeling of shame. 

Additionally, your original shame experiences happened in your early life when you were small and the world of adults loomed large. Your fundamental feelings of insignificance were a response to burdens and demands that were visited on you by others. Feeling shame might have been a way for your parents and caretakers to motivate you to “behave better.” But what often happened is that this tactic only made you feel bad about yourself. You lacked the power and the ability to produce the right behavior to get back into some big person’s good graces. And the only option left was to feel bad about yourself. Furthermore, this feeling was reinforced by your dependency needs. You needed the caretakers in your life to be “good” because you could not survive without them. Thus, making yourself the vessel of the “bad” protected them which protected you. The psyche is complicated, eh? 

But fortunately, you are an adult now. And thus, you have choices that you did not have as a child. You can establish and practice boundaries. You can differentiate between what is yours to own and what is not yours – but only the projection of someone else onto you. This ability alone can move you out of shame and back to a moderated, centered feeling in the self. 

6. Expose yourself to another. Like a monster under the bed, shame dissipates in the light. Once we admit and share our shame to another, we slowly realize that it is an unnecessary feeling, a feeling that has no place in our lives. When we live in toxic shame, we have agreed to a life of delusion. In other words, our view of our self is irrational. We do not see ourselves as others see us. When we dare open ourselves up to a loving person and admit our darkness, we are most often met with the acceptance and compassion that we cannot give ourselves. Harry Stack Sullivan says it best … it takes people to make us sick and people to make us well. In the company of another, we gradually incorporate a more realistic and loving view of ourselves. Find some nurturing people … we all need them.

7. Act in a way that demonstrates that you are a person of worth and value. Stealing from the wisdom of the 12-Step tradition, we need to fake it till we make it. In other words, despite shame’s continued presence, as we move toward recovery, act outwardly in a way that is self-respectful. Behave “as if” you are equally as worthy as those around you. Set boundaries. Hold someone else accountable. Be assertive with your rights and needs as if yours are on an equal plane to theirs. Speak up. Use your voice. Take better care of yourself. Over time, the more you act as a person of true worth, you will create a postive loop whereby you will begin to feel true to your actions. So, go ahead. Buy a size larger shoe. Get comfortable in the space and you will grow into it. And then you will look back and wonder how the hell you fit into that smaller size to begin with.
8. Learn the difference between healthy shame and toxic shame. As we discussed in last month’s article, some shame is necessary. It keeps us human and out of that awful place of entitlement, grandiosity and needing to “one-up” others. So, keep in mind, that the objective for healthy loving and living is honest appraisal. Is shame a healthy response to an action that injured someone? If so, healthy shame serves a wonderful function of authentic living. I need to repair with the person I hurt and I need a reminder that I am a constant work in progress with yet more work to do. But if I move to toxic shame, then I am sunk. I become the victim that now needs to be taken care of. I lose my bouancy to both reach out and make amends as well as to see with reality and compassion my continued growth edge. In others words, I am useless to others and to myself. So, come to center. Like Goldilocks, not too hard and not too soft. Not too high and not too low. But just right.

I hope you enjoyed this series on shame … or at least, it made you think. Questions and comments always welcome. You know where to find me. 

I’ll Take Half-of-You, Please …

… the half with the good stuff. I just want the fun, the feel-good parts. You know the parts of you that appreciate me, compliment me, validate me, mirror me. The parts that make me laugh, that fill me up. That make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The part of you that agrees with me. That likes to do what I like to do or if not, does it my way anyway. Just give me the easy half. That is all I am interested in.

Anything else, well … you can keep that part. I don’t want to have to think anything deep or heavy – much less feel. I don’t want to struggle and be challenged. I don’t want to have to negotiate and compromise. I don’t want to have to know about or live with your imperfections. And pleaseeee, put that mirror down. I am not interested in your pointing out my flaws.
So, just half, please. No full engagement for me. No genuine contact with our cores, our true selves. No real, messy, entangled, arduous human relationship for me. No, thank you. Rather, let’s just pretend. We’ll keep it light. Create distance. Bounce back to our safe spaces. Avoid real conversations. Whatever it takes, for God’s sake … but I am not going there. To those places that regress me to an experience of longing that feels insatiable; to feelings of hurt, rage and disappointment that I would rather not know about (much less show you); to spaces of dependency that involve risk and olden pain.


Nope. Not me. I’m in for the rainbows, puppy dogs and sunshine. Make me happy and we are all good. Keep me out of the shit – yours, mine and ours – and I am on board. Don’t think about threatening my world with more for I am secure under the auspice of my protection. So, just half-of-you, please. That is all I need to feel some connection, to know that I am not alone, and yet I can be spared waters too deep and too treacherous.

Yep. Yessiree. I am in. Just keep your baggage and don’t make me work. Sign me up. All the way. Just half-of-you, please. That is all I can tolerate.

The Many Faces of Shame

If there is one emotion that presents itself as the “got you” feeling, it is shame.  We want to crawl in a hole, eat worms as our permanent diet and never face the world again unless we have a brown bag over our heads.   Shame is that feeling of being flawed and defected, that something feels, to the point of true belief, that something is inherently wrong with whom we are.  Down to the bone, at the very core of our being.  We feel as if we are a worthless piece of shit that has no rights and needs.   We are sub-par, sub-human – at least in our minds, at least compared to the rest of humankind.  

Shame is the legacy of family generations.  Like a hot potato, we pass it down from the most powerful to the least.  In blatant terms, shit flows downhill.  We cast off what we cannot tolerate in us and ask those with less protection to carry it, to be the one who suffers.  Children pick up that unwanted feeling and internalize it.  They come to believe that they are the warped, defected ones in lieu of protecting parents upon whom they depend.  It’s a bad deal … and yet, the only one we got.   Like a fast spreading cancer, shame begets shame and shame-filled parents raise shame-based kids.  They cannot do otherwise.  That is all they know about themselves and it is from this core, that they create the internal world of self-reproach in their offspring.   

Shame differs from guilt.  Guilt focuses on behavior – I should or should not have done something.  I shouldn’t have eaten the box of cookies. I should have gone to see my Grandmother before she died.  I should not have cheated on my income taxes.  Guilt surrounds an action – it is about a behavior, a thought, a feeling – something I did or did not do.  In that sense, it is situation specific.  A moment.  

Shame, on the other hand, is a feeling that surrounds the “I.”  It is a deeper, longer-lasting feeling that is about who I am as a person, as opposed to an action I did or did not do.   It is a feeling that describes my relationship with myself and dictates how I act in relationship with others and in my life.  I go out into the world in a one-down position, as if others are more important and acceptable than lowly me.  I am the imperfect item in the markdown pile … inferior to all the perceived bright and shiny ones.   I am living in humiliation and mortification – far from the value I perceive others to possess.

You have probably experienced the feeling.  At its extreme, it is called toxic shame.  And boy, is it ugly!   It makes you want to hide, turn off the lights, turn off your phone (not that it rings anyway) and go back to bed.  Stick a fork in you for you are done.  In that moment, you are amnesiac to any other feeling, much less a good one.  You are shrouded in a dark cloud that has invaded your sense of self and any purpose or joy that you might have.  You, as a person, are wrong and owe someone somewhere an apology for your even existence.  
A similar feeling – one that is in the same ballpark as shame but certainly plays in the minor league by comparison- is the feeling of embarrassment.  In a moment of embarrassment, we also feel exposed.  Someone or something (such as making a mistake) is shedding light on us in a way that moves us to a state of greater self-consciousness.  Such attention – whether it be positive or negative – makes us squirm with discomfort.  We are being seen.  And with that, comes all the possible outcomes of being seen – such as being criticized, being judged, being rejected, being made to feel different or special, above or separate from the crowd. Or even, perhaps most difficult for some of us, the opportunity to be loved.  This spotlight is suddenly being cast upon us and the stage is set for something to happen.  We could be admired or we could be judged – either one brings potential threat.  

But moving down the continuum away from the normal feelings of embarrassment, we move into the more pathological or toxic shame state which is burdensome and self-limiting.  As you can see in the continuum below, we can be in and even fluctuate between feeling states around the “I.”

Grandiosity          Healthy Shame     Embarrassment       Toxic Shame Attack      Shame-Based

Thus, shame can rear its ugly head in many forms.  We can have a shame-attack whether it is triggered externally or internally.  Something can happen in our life which causes our head to drop, our heart’s spirit to deflate and our sense of rightness with the world to be dislodged from center.  Fortunately, this is most often a temporary state which we can get better at catching and correcting with practice.  

But for many of us, shame is not just a feeling with fleeting half-life.  Rather, we build a home, a permanent residence for this feeling of shame inside us to the point that we are shame-based in our sense of self and in our relationships.   Every thought, feeling and interaction gets milled through the wheel of our shame.  Like an old raggedy overcoat that wears heavy on our weakening and drooping shoulders, we walk around the world with a weight that seems unforgiving.  This type of toxic shame becomes the baggage we carry around that interferes with our life’s work and love in a way that limits our potential and growth.

Another concept that needs to be mentioned at this point is the flip-side to shame and that is the feeling of grandiosity.  It is that aura of entitlement that somehow I am beyond the norm, better than others, superior to any rules and limits that are only meant for other people – certainly not for me!  I am the exception that can think, buy and act my way out of the parameters of all things human.  If I fall in this category, humble pie is not a tasty treat I have choked down often in my life.  I have so avoided it, that my need to be right and above others has dominated my life and interactions.  Ironically, grandiosity compensates for what is the true underlying feeling of toxic shame.  They have only learned how to defend against  the intolerable shame feeling by pretending to be more than they are.  It’s a protective move that allows him/her to function in the world by appearing shame-less.  That I am not like you – a flawed human being with many imperfections and capable of many mistakes.  I am above and beyond that with supra-human expectations of both self and others.  

This brings us to the idea of healthy shame.  Healthy shame is that feeling of acceptance – where we wisely admit that indeed, we are not god-like.  We are imperfect, messed up humans.  We make mistakes.  We act impulsively.  We sometimes, many times, say the wrong things.  We cannot do everything perfectly.  We cannot do everything solo – we actually need others.  We are not always right.  We can at times, in fact many times, be wrong.  We are no better and no less than anyone else.  Indeed, we are human beings.  

Without a sense of healthy shame, we might as well commit to a life alone.   On the toxic shame end, I am incapable of showing up as a fully engaged partner that can stand my ground.  I too easily fold into myself which means I am not available to be a true participant in relationship.  
On the flip side, those that are grandiose, do not have connection to their own vulnerability and thus, cannot form real relationship.  It is their way or the highway.  There is one truth, one way of doing things and theirs is the right way.  There are human words that soften the space between two individuals struggling to make a connection – words such as “I am sorry,”  or “I was wrong,” or “it was my fault.”  Someone who does not have an interior space for a dose of healthy shame cannot say these words and mean them.  Defending and protecting their self is the highest goal, even at the expense of relationship.

Shame is costly.  It is rampant and painful.  In a following article, we will discuss ways to move out of toxic shame and into a more kind and generous relationship with ourselves.

Until then … go easy, my friend.  And remember, we are all in this together.   


My Shabby, Chic Dresser

Ok.  I admit it.  I either am – or on the brink of being – an Ebay addict.   Whenever I can find something for cheap, my juices start flowing.  I somehow have “beat” the odds and found a deal – or so I think.

And then there was the case of the dresser.  They warned me that one of the drawers needed fixin’.  But they praised its charm – “chic and shabby” was the description.  Sounded perfect – just my style.  And only $20.00!  How can I go wrong?  But then they said you had to pick it up.  Hmm … last I looked, Memphis, Tennessee was quite a drive from Washington, D.C.  Could they ship it?   Of course!  But that would be another $150.00.  My cognitive wheels started to quickly justify – that only makes it a total of $170.00, right?  That’s still a good deal – even if one out of three drawers is dysfunctional.  Greyhound was the best way to go, said the Seller.  Ok.  Never heard of that, but why not?  Oh, but then I have to rent a truck to go to the bus station to fetch it.  Chink, chink.  Another $50.  And then the box is so heavy …  I have to have the bus driver help me load it onto the truck.  And he needed a tip for the years I took off his backside – chink, chink.  So, $250 later … yes, I could have bought a brand-new dresser with all of the drawers intact and in working order.  And had it delivered at that!  But it certainly would not have been so “shabby and chic” – of course not.   Or so I told myself.

So, we finally got the $20-turned-$250 dresser into the house.  But that was only the beginning of the story.  My friend took one look at the unwrapped monstrosity and asked me what color I planned to paint it.  Paint it! – I screamed.  It is shabby and chic, one step short of falling apart – and I absolutely love it.  She ignored me and strained  as she took take a longer look.   She then admitted that with a little of this and a little of that, it could be fixed up real nice.  Hold on – I said.  You can’t criticize my dresser.  I just got this great deal from Memphis, Tennessee.  It traveled by bus all the way to the haunts of my closet.  It’s old, Deco, half in pieces and I already adore it – just the way it is.

So, after she left, the first thing I did was to get out my hammer and start to nail the broken drawer together.   She was right – sort of.  It’s not perfect the way it is.  It’s an old piece of furniture that does need some rehabilitation.  (I guess there was a reason that it was only $20!)  It is a work in process – and I do absolutely love it just the way it is.  

Perhaps, it reminds me of me.  I too am showing some wear-and-tear.  The signs and stresses of my humanness – the wrinkles, the years, the mistakes, the regrets, the character imperfections, those cracks in my inner workings that just can’t ever get it right.  So,  I’ve got some work to do.  I have yet to become what I would like to become.  But yet, I want to be loved for the way I am.  I am chic and shabby and I want to be accepted for who I am in this moment in my life – even if I too traveled the long road from Tennessee by way of many bumpy detours.  And just maybe that is what we all long for – to be loved enough for who we are today, while being loved enough not to stay that way.

Every time I look at that dresser, I smile.  My friend even says that she has grown to like it just the way it is.  Granted, I have to be a little careful opening those fragile drawers, but our relationship is growing solid.  We are in this for the long haul and I wouldn’t dare paint it now.