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.