“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” ~Brené Brown
A special kind of shame activates in me whenever I’m near family members. It’s the kind of shame where I am back in my childhood body, feeling utterly wicked for being such a disaster of a human. An awful child, that’s worthless and stupid. And maybe even more disgusting, if I’m honest.
My body has a feeling of shame that makes it feel like my soul is being crushed from within. It’s like I feel sick about myself.
You might attempt to make yourself more friendly to your friend in an effort to avoid shame. Making myself more appealing, more humane, and less terrifying. Maybe I can become more argumentative in an effort to drown out the voices that seem to activate the sensation.
These were like shame vortexes that shaped my entire life. This was the place that my soul, regardless of self-love and self-esteem, got pulverized by a pit filled with torment. This is a reminder of how disgusting and horrible I was.
Family dysfunction is a great source of emotion activation. Generations of repressed emotions—of blame, shame, guilt, resentment, rage, frustration, etc.—constantly simmering, occasionally boiling up, being thrown at each other, activating more emotion.
Yet, family is often where we most long for unconditional love and acceptance. But they’re often the people who find it the hardest to give it to each other.
My journey with shame has been lengthy because for a long time, I didn’t know how to work with it. Many years ago, I felt that I was constantly being raped by shame. There were so many.
My struggle to get noticed, be the person I desired, and do my job well was a result of my career.
In my relationships, I struggled to relax because I was ashamed about being a pudgy woman who wasn’t wild, free, and fascinating.
In my friendships, I was often the helpful, problem-solving friend—because to be the messy, chaotic human that I was would jeopardize who I thought my friends wanted me to be.
It was overwhelming in my parenting. I wasn’t a calm, healthy-eating, active, patient goddess. I hated having to be with my kids and was impatient.
Because perfectionism gripped my heart so strongly that it made me unable to take on any other tasks, I felt terrified about being rejected and bitter of people using me.
All of it was shame. Shame that I was getting life wrong on a number of levels, and really, I just wasn’t trying hard enough. It didn’t work when I tried harder. I would lose energy, fall apart, and then I’d want to hide alone in a room, where no one could see me.
I didn’t even realize that it was shame. At first, I believed I was self-conscious and shy. But, I had to do something. Perfectionist I was. High standards were my norm. I was determined to do the right thing.
It’s clear that my shame was evident now that I am more familiar with emotions. It was my own fault that I had failed to grasp the basic concepts of what was wrong with it.
Shame can be found in the desire to be invisible and disappear.
It is the desire to hide that makes you feel shame. To be ignored. Being looked at can reveal our true selves. This is the mask we don’t want to be seen.
Shame often breeds when it becomes unsafe to be who we are, usually as little children, or when things are happening around us that we don’t understand, that don’t feel normal. We feel like we need to conceal who we are and who our families belong. When our parents don’t feel comfortable being who they are, there we see shame.
The thing about shame is that we don’t realize how much of it there is around us. As Brené Brown says, it thrives in secrecy and judgment. Most people aren’t walking around saying, “Hey, look at my shame! Come see the deep, dark crevices of my soul that feel so wrong and awful.”
Many people aren’t aware that shame is even present for them, as it hides underneath other emotions like anger, fear, or sadness.
But even though it is hiding, even if we can’t see it, it can control our life like gravity controls us on this earth. We don’t think about gravity, but its powerful force keeps us rooted to the ground. Shame has the same effect, acting in similar ways, and dictating what we do. But it is not for us as authentic, free-spirited people we desire to be.
Shame only serves shame. Shame doesn’t care about your desire for authenticity and for being calm, zen, peaceful, joyful, and in love with life. This sounds too scary to be true.
Shame would like us to remain small, hidden and inauthentic. It sounds much safer.
It doesn’t want us to leap up and say, “Look at me! Look at me as an individual, doing things that are new and wonderful!”
It doesn’t want us to be free and happy and full of love and light.
It is there to protect us by reminding how awfully terrible we are.
Shame is at the root of so many things that plague us—a lack of intimacy in our relationships, an inability to go for what we want in life and have relaxed, authentic friendships, and a sense of stuckness in work.
This can manifest as persistent rejection, feeling inadequate, drowning deep in feelings of inadequacy or a feeling of shame.
Shame is your worst nightmare. It talks to you constantly about your ever-present limitations.
Shame will be your harshest critic and an instrument for evaluating your achievements in every area.
The reason shame feels so horrendous is that it’s not like guilt, which induces feelings about what we’ve done wrong. Shame can be more widespread than this. Shame can be a feeling. We ourselvesThese are false.
It is extremely depressing to feel shame
How can shame be eliminated? Well, it’s not something that is quick to shift. It’s a process, and it takes time and emotional safety.
An awareness that an emotion is safe in the body, brain, and nervous system is known as emotional safety. Many of us don’t have emotional safety, so we run, hide, suppress, ignore, and distract ourselves or try to propel ourselves in any way away from an emotion. Many people learned early on that some emotions were not safe. Shame is often one.
We must confront shame to be able to deal with it and to make our lives more enjoyable. You must expose shame to love and acceptance. Each little bit at a time.
You can do this by sharing a small amount of your shame with the people you most trust and love. Once the shame comes out, it’s out! This is the end of shame.
Talking about shame with others is something we only do with those who feel completely secure. We don’t talk to people we don’t feel safe with. This includes the person sitting next to you, the passenger on the bus or the acquaintance who chats with everyone.
You only give people access to your shame if they have shown you that they are completely responsible with your trust; if you can tell them things and they won’t blame or judge you (which is a re-shaming experience). These people are filled with compassion, love, and acceptance.
It is an honor to share your most intimate secrets with them. They will accept the responsibility.
And if we don’t have a person like that in our life? When we feel so shameful, it is sometimes difficult to build these intimate, trusting and vulnerable relationships. Shame wants us to be apart and isolated. That’s how it keeps us alive and safe, by never showing anyone who we really are. Because probably once, long ago, we learned that being ourselves wasn’t safe. And so we chose a safer path—to hide.
We can begin this journey together, even as we tackle shame. Discuss with yourself what you find in your shame. Talk to yourself in tender, loving, and generous ways. Keep a record of your memories.
We do this because we are able to empathize with others.
Because we all know those conversations when we are down in the depths of shame and we talk to ourselves and make it so much worse—we add more shame, more judgment, more guilt.
“Why did I do that? “Why did I do that? Why didn’t I show up at work on time, why did that guy sleep with me and why did that briefing get sent in so late to the client? I know why— because I am such a loser. This is what I do all the time. Always.”
That’s not an empathetic conversation.
Conversations like this can breed shame.
You need shame to do this:
“Why did I do that! I can’t believe it! Oh wow, now that I think about it, I am feeling ashamed that I slept with that guy / didn’t show up for work / was late with that client brief. It hurts. Shame, you say? You know what, shame? I’m going to be here for you. That’s so painful.”
We can’t de-shame ourselves by constantly re-shaming ourselves.
We can’t remove shame by improving either. You can do more to become the best version of yourself. Empathy, love, acceptance and connection are the only way to remove shame.
This is the pill that we must be willing to swallow. We are worthy of compassion, love, connection and acceptance.
It is time to stop listening to the shame.
Shame’s advice is that we should just spend the rest of our lives trying to become better humans. But let’s be honest, we’ve followed that advice our whole lives, and look where it’s gotten us—deeper in the shame well.
Instead of constantly blaming ourselves, how about we stop our shame spirals by showing love and empathy?
How about we decide that maybe it’s just a feeling, and not an indication of a deep flaw in who we are as humans? Let’s not punish ourselves for any small blunders.
The first step to loving yourself is working with the powerful, judgmental force of shame.
But it’s work that can be done. It’s completely possible, and I know because I have drained a ton of shame from my body these past few years.
When we feel shameful, it is important to keep our eyes on ourselves. It is important to only take small steps, just one touch at a moment, in order to bring the shame out. Share with someone, with ourselves, become familiar with it, look at it, feel it, touch it—and hear it.
It is important to show love and support for our shame. Acceptance and understanding are key.
It is this that our shame yearns for. When we see it differently, we can shift its power over our lives.
Diana Bird is an author and neuro-emotional coach. She helps people release deep overwhelm and unblock their emotional triggers. Register for her newsletter to receive the free mini-workshop on emotional processing. You’ll also receive her free trainings, ideas, and support for building more emotional resilience in your life. In her online coaching business, she works with clients. She lives with her husband and two children on the southern Spanish coast.
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