I am no stranger to the experience of shame. I bet you aren't either. Shame may not be the most universal of all human emotions, but it's common enough that Brene Brown’s Ted Talk on the subject has had over 5 million views, leading to a full-length documentary. There must be whole lotta folks experiencing a whole lotta shame out there and Brene Brown has made an entire career out of speaking and writing about it.
Why are so many people so interested in the topic of shame? Maybe because it is one of the most toxic of all emotions, shutting down the hopes and dreams of countless people, causing such despair and hopelessness that some of them even end their lives because of it. Shame usually gets its hooks into us during childhood and tends to hang around, often for a lifetime, because like all emotions, shame is habit-forming. I consider shame to be an enemy of mankind because, unlike some other unpleasant, uncomfortable emotions that actually motivate us to become better humans, shame actually serves no useful, constructive purpose.
Shame can be confused with guilt, embarrassment, and self-consciousness but each of those feelings might be pointing the way to choices or behavior that are out of alignment with our core values. When we do something that we feel self-conscious, embarrassed, or guilty about, it might be because the wiser part of us knows we shouldn't be doing it. If you get drunk at the company's holiday party and start hitting on your boss, you should be embarrassed. If you gossip about your best friend behind her back, you should feel guilty.
These emotions are like an internal GPS attempting to steer us back on course. Shame, on the other hand, doesn't have a course correction. You just feel like ass, and it feels like nothing can be done about it. The most simple way to distinguish the two is that guilt reflects on the choice, shame reflects on the person. You could also think about it this way - you feel guilty because of what you did, you feel shame because of who you are. See the difference? Guilt serves a purpose, shame is a liar and a thief. Its only purpose is to steal and destroy.
Lots of people are walking around in a constant state of shame and don't even know it. It doesn't matter if they have a mental or physical disorder or difference, are homeless, or are addicted to drugs or alcohol. I've known people who feel shame because they were adopted, are gay or biracial, have immigrant parents, or even because of their height, weight, or vision correction. The key ingredient is that they believe there is something wrong with them, a stain that can't be removed and because of it, they aren't as good as everyone else. They believe that they are less than, not enough, inadequate and they are hopeless to change it. They see this belief as a fact, not a thought or an opinion. Therein lies the cause of their suffering. They believe that they are broken and can't be fixed, ever. No wonder they suffer so much.
During my years as a psychotherapist, I worked with people who were anxious, depressed, addicted, in abusive relationships, and for any number of reasons, deeply unhappy. Those who were able to see their unhealthy behaviors as choices that did not reflect on their self-worth and value as a human being got better. Those who continued to think of themselves as disordered, defective, damaged goods or broken did not. I would patiently explain that no matter how long they had been thinking of themselves that way, they were under the influence of shame and they could choose to let that go and cultivate a new opinion of themselves. Sadly, some were not able to make that choice and I could not force it upon them.
I remember finding out that I was adopted at the age of nine. Apparently, I was never supposed to know, but a nosy neighbor discovered the secret and spilled the beans. Thankfully being adopted is no longer something shameful in most places, but at that time, it still was. I very distinctly recall forming the thoughts "My parents didn't want me and gave me away. This means I’m not as good as everyone else.” I wasn't a drama queen, and I wasn't feeling sorry for myself. It seemed like a simple straightforward statement of the facts. It was the beginning of my relationship with shame, a relationship that took me many years, several therapists, numerous self-help books, and a really good life coach to finally put an end to.
Now that I am no longer in the clutches of shame, I can see it all around me, in the faces of those who still suffer. I can hear it in the way they talk about themselves, their passive way of being in the world, the way they give up far too easily when things get hard. I try to share what I've learned with as many of them as I can and I am grateful every day for Brene Brown and the way she has brought so much attention to this very important topic, with multiple books, a friendship with Oprah, a strong online presence and alliances with other luminaries who have the reach to spread her message far and wide.
If you are still reading, and shame has taken up considerable space in your life, know that there is hope and there is freedom. You can believe in yourself once again and you will feel whole. There is nothing wrong with you, no matter what your thoughts are telling you and how long you have practiced thinking you aren’t worthy. You were born worthy and nothing can change that. If you have done things you feel guilty about, you can make amends, change your ways and forgive yourself. As for shame, no one, including me, can convince you that you have nothing to be ashamed of. You and you alone can make the decision to let go of that belief and practicing shame resiliency.
Whenever you are aware that you are feeling shame, or as I sometimes say, going into a shame spiral, do a pattern interrupt. Do something that stops the spiral by taking a simple action to interrupt the pattern. If you are alone, say or even shout STOP. If you are with others, you can say it silently to yourself. You can clap your hands together or tap your feet on the floor, the action you choose is not important. All that matters is that you take a conscious action that stops you from being caught up in the unconscious shame pattern.
Then, reverse the process of going deeper into shame, deeper into the spiral, but speaking affirmations to yourself, silently or out loud, depending on the circumstances. If you are in a Zoom meeting with co-workers, just start writing the affirmations on a piece of paper. Affirmations like ‘you are enough”, “you are worthy”, “everything is ok” give your mind something positive to hold onto and lead you back up from the spiral. This is a quick fix that you can do in the moment, but I strongly recommend that you read, or listen to the work of Brene Brown, starting with her Ted Talk on shame:
And, remember this, even if you forget everything else: You are not broken and you are not alone.