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Dealing with Shame: How to Weaken its Destructive Hold over You

by Harinder Ghatora

Have you ever felt shame?

I’m sure you have at some point in your life. All of us have.

Shame is that awful feeling of being worthless, rejected or cast out. Deeply painful, it brings humiliation and distress in its wake.

Its close cousin is guilt.

Guilt shows up when you believe you have done something bad; shame shows up when you believe you are bad, so much so, that you are totally unlovable.

Shame’s toxicity does not end there though. It also carries with it a sense of helplessness, that there is nothing you can do to purge yourself of its burdensome and soul-crushing presence.

Shame is an emotion that often comes up in my discussions with clients, but rarely in a straightforward manner.

Occasionally a person will explicitly say that they feel shame. Most people however will manifest the symptoms of deep shame without being able to identify or articulate it as such.

These symptoms include:

  • low self-worth
  • an overly critical inner voice
  • a lack of self-belief
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • addictions
  • anger
  • violence
  • perfectionism
  • and, other compulsive and self-sabotaging behaviours.

Shame can also be at the core of many physical and emotional illnesses, including eating disorders, digestive problems and chronic pain.

It has the potential to destroy relationships and cause endless misery and despair.

Do you recognise yourself as someone who is carrying this toxic energy around with you?

If so, it is time to let it go.

It has absolutely nothing positive to contribute to your life. Nothing.

If you want to overcome shame and restore your self-esteem you can start by trying these powerful strategies:

1. Revisit your childhood

Shame has been used for millennia to control people and keep them in line. If you do something wrong in the eyes of the group you belong to it won’t be long before a variety of mechanisms are used to make you feel bad about your actions so that you conform.

If you come from a culture or family that actively uses shame as a control mechanism then your shame is likely to have its roots in your childhood.

We all know that children need loving attention and positive regard if they are to develop a healthy sense of self. Children will actively seek out positive attention, and if caregivers do not give it in an appropriate and timely manner then psychological damage occurs.

Children make sense of persistent parental criticism, ridicule, neglect or abuse - in any of its forms - by concluding that there is something wrong with them, that they are to blame in some way. Over a period of time, these thoughts turn into beliefs like “I’m worthless”, ”I’m bad”, “I’m incapable of doing anything right”, “I don’t deserve any good in life”. And, thereby are planted the seeds of deep shame.

So how do you turn this around?

You begin by reflecting on your childhood.

What messages did you receive when you were growing up?

How did those around you manage your behaviour?

What expectations did they have of you?

Were those expectations realistic?

Were they achievable?

How much positive attention did you get?

The answers to these questions will help you to understand where your shame may have originated.

This is important because you have to arrive at a realistic understanding that the shame you feel is not your fault.

You have to look at the small, innocent child inside you who is holding this toxic energy and realise with your adult perspective that you were a child who was incapable of understanding and processing the expectations and neglectful, or even hurtful, behaviour of your caregivers.

You have to understand that their behavior was a reflection of them, not you.

Look back and try to find the original source of your shame. Write about the experience, and review it from an adult perspective. Through this exercise, you are aiming to adopt a new perspective that helps you to reframe the experience and arrive at an understanding that it was not your fault.

2. Recognise your triggers

Self-awareness is a vital prerequisite for personal change. Start to notice what triggers your shame.

This can be difficult at first because we often bury our feelings under layers of coping behaviours. If this is the case with you then start to notice the behaviours that are related to your shame i.e. the way you react when something painful happens. For example, do you start to withdraw, reach for a drink, get angry, feel physically sick?

Then ask yourself what just happened to make you react in that way.

These reactions will alert you to the presence of shame so that you can then explore what triggered these feelings.

Did someone say something to make you feel vulnerable?

Were you rejected in some way that reminded you of childhood rejection?

Were you caught in looping thoughts about an event that feels shameful? (This is where you have unwanted and repetitive thoughts.)

If you know what trips you up and mires you in feelings of shame, you can begin to manage the triggers and learn healthier responses.

3. Practice self-compassion

When you feel shamed, it’s hard to be kind and loving towards yourself. But you can practice self-compassion even before you really feel it.

Talk to yourself and treat yourself with the same kindness and love you would show a good friend or a child.

Pretend you are a cherished and valuable person until you begin to change your thoughts and feelings and actually believe it to be true. This is a ‘fake it until you make it’ opportunity!

Shame is usually accompanied by severe and persistent self-criticism. If you are able to show yourself some compassion this will act as an antidote to the harsh critic inside your head, simply because self-compassion triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calmness, safety, emotional stability and connectedness.

4. Challenge your thoughts

If you are one of those people that can get caught in a thought loop about a shame-inducing event, where you keep mentally revisiting conversations or situations where you felt shamed, you need to work at weakening the grasp the shame has on you.

This is done by noticing and then challenging your thoughts.

Shame-based thinking is often based on dire predictions, doubt in your ability to cope, selective focus on the negative aspects of events or other people’s behaviour, and rigid ideas about how people should behave.

Rather than believing everything your mind tells you, find evidence to the contrary.

There is a part of you that knows you aren’t a bad, unworthy person and that your thoughts aren’t the truth, or at least not the entire truth.

When your shamed-based thoughts try to control your mind, simply don’t allow them to. Remind yourself that your thoughts are not real.

Put up a mental fight by reframing them, and then consciously choose to focus on the positives.

5. Don’t doublelayer shame

No one likes to feel shame and the weak, unworthy feelings that shame fosters. When we live with such feelings, we add to our pain by feeling shame about our shame.

We’re embarrassed that we aren’t the confident, positive, happy person we want to be.

Give yourself permission to accept your feelings of shame when they arise. Don’t layer on more pain by kicking yourself for your feelings.

We all experience vulnerability and shame at times, and by accepting that you can stop struggling against shame you can begin to heal the root cause of it.

6. Avoid shame reinforcers

Are there still people in your life who reinforce your shame?

Perhaps it’s your parents who continue to say and do things to control, belittle, or hurt you.

Sometimes our shame leads us into relationships with people who repeat the dynamics we experienced in childhood.

Your spouse or partner, and even certain friends, may unconsciously or consciously reinforce your feelings of shame.

You can make a choice to be in relationships that are emotionally healthy. You can avoid immature, dysfunctional people and choose to surround yourself with supportive, understanding, and loving people instead.

If you are married to someone who triggers your shame, going to counselling together can help your partner to better understand your history of shame and help you to create boundaries to protect yourself.

It’s painful to let go of relationships, even if they are harmful, but if someone in your life is using your shame to manipulate or hurt you, then maybe it’s time to say goodbye if you want to escape the cycle of shame.

7. Accept love and kindness

The feelings of unworthiness attached to shame make it very difficult to accept love and kindness from others.

You can always tell how much self-worth someone has by the degree to which they are able to accept compliments.

If you hold the energy of shame, when someone offers a nice word or gesture it’s likely you’ll find it hard to accept it graciously. In fact, you might even distrust people who are kind to you simply because you think they can’t see that you’re actually really ‘bad’ and unworthy!

It’s not difficult to see the dysfunction in this reaction to loving behaviour from others. In order to deal with it, you need to teach yourself a new way of responding.

When someone is kind, don’t diminish their act by rejecting their kindness. Practice accepting it openly and with gratitude. Accept compliments without deflecting or diminishing them. Allow yourself to trust the good judgment of the person who sees the good in you.

This will take conscious, concerted practice, but over time it will feel more natural and pleasurable to enjoy kindness and appreciation from others.

8. Practice forgiveness

In reality, there’s probably nothing you need forgiveness for, but you may feel like you do. You want absolution for all the ‘badness’ that shrouds you.

You want all of the shameful feelings to be washed away so that you can finally feel good about yourself and enjoy your life.

The only person who can really offer you that absolution is you.

You are the guard holding the key to your own internal prison. Whatever failings you might perceive in yourself, why not just give yourself a break?

Every person on the planet is flawed and has made mistakes. We all want and deserve forgiveness. This is a part of the human condition that will never change.

Can you accept that being flawed is acceptable?

Can you forgive yourself for that?

You can. It’s okay. You are okay.

9. Talk to someone in confidence

One of the most effective ways of eradicating shame is to speak about your feelings and the events that caused them.

Shame is a very hidden energy. It likes to lurk in the shadows. If for a moment we imagine it is something tangible, it would be a loathsome, wispy creature that roams in the darkest corners of a room.

In fact, shame’s power comes from its secretive nature. When exposed to the light it simply disappears.

Talking to someone openly about your feelings and the event(s) and situations that led to them is the best way to not only loosen the hold that shame has over you, but to eradicate it all together.

As Brene Brown said:

"Here’s the thing about shame. The less you talk about it, the more you’ve got it."

It goes without saying that you need to choose your confidant very carefully. If your shame is debilitating and linked to childhood abuse then it’s best to work with a trained professional who can offer you the following essential requirements: strict confidentiality, a non-judgmental attitude, and the ability to hold a safe therapeutic space for you while you process your feelings.

A therapist can also help you to reframe your thoughts and beliefs, and if need be, do some inner child work.

Shame is a soul-crushing emotion. No matter what you think you have done to deserve it, no amount of shame will make you feel better. It will only create more shame and ultimately end up ruining your relationships and your experience of life.

It is time to step off the shame cycle and work towards healing and well-being.

If you need the support of a professional therapist then I am here to help. Give me a call.

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