The Dirty Little "S" Word
You know the word. It's rarely uttered, but when it is, it's usually whispered in private. But it carries so much weight.
We feel it viscerally. In our stomach. In our mouth. In our bones. The word I'm talking about is shame. The emotion we all feel but no one wants to talk about. Shame is "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging" (Brown, 2008). It is human (and in our DNA) to need connection and belonging. In fact, at one time, our survival depended on it. For perfectionists, we are often caught up in a 'shame cycle' of not believing we are worthy:
Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is the belief that you have done something wrong that is out of line with your beliefs and values. Shame is the belief that you ARE wrong. Shame usually comes from our core negative beliefs (ie. "I'm unloveable, I'm defective, I'm not enough, I'm a failure, etc). And then drives our actions [Thought (I'm a failure) ---->creates feeling (shame) -----> which drives our actions-----> which creates our outcomes].
But shame doesn't have to be a big, bad, scary thing. It doesn't have to rule your life.
We can apply thought-work to shame, just like any emotion, to change our outcomes and therefore change our lives. Here’s how.
1. Notice Your Shame Triggers
Brené Brown talks about Shame Resilience in her book “I Thought it Was Just Me” (2008).
One of the first steps in building shame resilience according to Brown is identifying your shame triggers. What are the things that typically put you in shame? Brown identifies twelve typical categories of shame for women:
1. Appearance/ body image 2. Money/work 3. Motherhood/Fatherhood 4. Family 5. Parenting 6. Mental and physical health 7. Addiction 8. Sex 9. Aging 10. Religion 11. Surviving Trauma 12. Being Stereotyped or labeled
Knowing what areas you typically experience shame can be super helpful.
2. Identify Your Thoughts
When I work with folks on shame, we first get clear on their thoughts.
What are the thoughts you are having that create shame?
What are these core negative beliefs?
Then we get curious.
Where do these thoughts come from? Where did I learn them? Why might they exist in society and who benefits from me having those thoughts? Do I want to have them? Are there other thoughts I could have instead (more on this in a min). So often these are not our thoughts. These are scripts that we have grown up believing- usually about the way we should look, parent, work, have sex, etc. (ie. A good mother should be selfless and be able to complete all the tasks perfectly). Often an impossible ideal. Pay attention. If the word "should" is there, it's quite possibly a shame script.
3. Feel Your Feelings
People hate this one. But feeling our feelings is a super power.
What does shame feel like in your body? Can you describe it? You track it in your body and follow it until it dissipates. Even just in small doses if that feels safe for you (shame titration). Can you be willing to feel shame rather than running from it? Because everything we do or don't do is to feel or not feel an emotion. If we are willing to feel any emotion, there is no limit to what we can do. Shame is no exception.
4. How is Shame Driving your Actions?
Next we look at your actions. A good question to ask yourself is: What do I do when I feel shame? Many of us numb out. We ignore. We try and feel a different feeling because the feeling of shame feels unbearable (thus the power of being willing to feel it).
We might over-eat.
We might binge watch television.
We might yell at our kids (most of which create further feelings of shame).
5. Look at Your Outcomes
Then we look at what outcome this creates in our life. How is your life being driven by these thoughts?
So, for example, if I have shame around my body (shame trigger) and...
I have the thought “My body is disgusting” (thought), the feeling it creates is shame.
When I feel shame about my body I hide it, I avoid sex, I avoid situations where I have to be seen in certain clothing, I over-eat for comfort, I numb out in front of the television, or pick a fight with my partner (actions).
My outcome is that I live a life where I am hiding, avoiding situations that may create joy and pleasure, and am creating more shame for myself.
After we identify all these pieces, we can get intentional about what thoughts we need to be having in order to help with shame (hint- self-compassion is key).
I do write about this a lot, but for example, if your thought is “My body is disgusting”, perhaps you can start with the thought “I have a body”, or “I’m human” first as a way to create some relief and alleviate shame, rather than going to your immediate core negative belief or thought.
6. Seek Empathy & Speak your Shame
Additionally, Brené Brown says we need to find empathetic people to share our shame with, because shame loses its power when spoken. Is there someone you trust who you can talk to when you are in shame who you know will be empathetic?
She also identifies speaking your shame as a form of shame resilience. So if there is someone who is ‘shaming’ you, intentionally or not, identifying that this is what is happening for you and potentially talking to them about it as well can be super empowering. So, in a nutshell, in order to build our capacity to handle shame we need to get curious, critical, and compassionate. We need to be able to identify when shame is coming up for us, where it is coming from, and be willing to talk about it and feel our way through it. Being able to manage shame will Change. Your. Life.