“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” – C.G. Jung
I have felt shame. You have felt it too.
It's that emotion when you want to tuck yourself into a tight little ball, roll into dark corner, and disappear. You are the bad little girl or boy who is unworthy, unlovable, and cast out.
Shame feels like you've done something very, very wrong — so wrong that your self-esteem withers and you see yourself as seriously flawed. We often confuse shame with guilt, but they are not the same. As shame and vulnerability author and speaker Brene Brown says, “The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad.'”
Not surprisingly, shame generally has its roots in our family of origin. If one or both of our parents were bound in shame, they passed that painful legacy to us through their feelings about themselves and their treatment of us.Children are particularly vulnerable to shame because they develop their identity based on their parents' reactions to them. If you grew up in a neglectful, abusive, controlling or otherwise dysfunctional family, then shame is an inevitable consequence of your painful experiences.
How could you not feel shame if you were mistreated or ignored? Something must be wrong with you if your parents (one or both) can't be there for you or show you love. When we are made to feel deficient, inadequate, and unlovable, we begin to see ourselves this way.
Sadly, how we were treated by others when we were children becomes the way we internally treat ourselves. Over time, the experiences around which we were shamed as children become the unconscious triggers for feeling and expressing shame as adults. For example, if you were a little boy shamed for crying or being overly sensitive, then you feel deeply embarrassed and humiliated when you cry as an adult. You'll do everything in your power to repress feelings that might make you cry.
We develop a myriad of unhealthy coping mechanisms to muffle our feelings of shame, all of which have a negative impact on our close relationships. Anger, withdrawal, blame, contempt, control, perfectionism, and people pleasing are all strategies that temporarily alleviate the pain of feeling inadequate and unlovable. However, these strategies don't address the root cause of our shame. Recovering from shame and rebuilding self-esteem and self-love takes time and patience — but it can be done.
Here are 8 strategies for overcoming shame and restoring self-esteem:
1. Revisit your childhood.
As painful as this might be, it's important to have a realistic understanding that shame is not your fault. You are an adult now, with adult judgement and perspective. Look at the small, innocent child you were and how incapable you were of understanding and processing the expectations and hurtful behaviors of your parents, even benign behaviors that were “well-intentioned.”
You so desperately needed their approval and unconditional love, and if that wasn't forthcoming, you grew to feel unworthy of anyone's acceptance and love. You were NOT at fault. Remind yourself of this whenever you feel your shame triggered.
Try to find the original source of your shame. Describe or journal about the experience, and review it from an adult perspective. How does this perspective help you reframe the experience and understand it was not your fault?
2. Recognize your triggers.
Start to notice what triggers your feelings of shame. This may be difficult at first as we often bury our feelings under layers of coping behaviors. So start with the behaviors, the way you react to the pain, and then ask yourself what just happened to make you react.
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? Once 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 toward 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 show a good friend or a beloved child. Pretend you are a cherished and valuable person until you begin to change your thoughts and feelings.
Compassion researcher and social psychologist Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin discovered that self-compassion can act as an antidote to the self-criticism that comes with shame. Self-compassion triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, emotional stability, and connectedness.
4. Challenge your thoughts.
As I mentioned before, looping negative thoughts are often a trigger for shameful feelings. When you mentally revisit conversations or situations where you felt shamed or if your thoughts are a series of self-criticisms, you are only strengthening your shame. Your job is to weaken the grasp shame has over you, and you can do that by challenging your thoughts.
Shame-based thinking is often based on dire predictions, doubt in your ability to cope, selective focus on negative aspects of events or the behavior of other people, and rigid ideas about how people should behave.
Rather than believing everything your mind tells you, find evidence to the contrary. Part of you knows you aren't a bad, unworthy person and that your thoughts aren't the truth or the entire truth. When your shamed-based thoughts try to control your mind, don't allow it. Put up a mental fight by reframing your thoughts and focusing on the positive.
5. Don't double-layer shame.
No one likes feeling shame and the weak, unworthy feelings shame fosters. When we live with shame, we add to our pain by feeling shame about our shame. We are embarrassed that we aren't the confident, positive, happy people we want to be.
Give yourself permission to accept that you feel shame when you feel it. 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? It might be your parents who continue to say and do things to control, belittle, or hurt you. Sometimes our shame leads us to be in relationships with people who repeat the dynamics we experienced in childhood. Our spouses or partners and even some friends might unconsciously or consciously reinforce our feelings of shame.
You have 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, go to counseling together so your partner can better understand your history of shame and you can create boundaries to protect yourself.
It is 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 you must 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. In fact, you might even distrust people who are kind to you because they can't discern that you are really “bad” and unworthy. You feel like a charlatan accepting goodness from others.
I'm sure you can see the dysfunction in this reaction to loving behavior from others, but you must teach yourself a new way of responding. When someone is kind to you, 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 judgement 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 relish kindness and appreciation from others.
8. Practice forgiveness.
You may not really need forgiveness for anything, but it probably feels like you do. You want absolution for all of the “badness” that shrouds you. You want all of the shameful feelings to be washed away so you can finally feel good about yourself and enjoy your life.
The only person who can really offer that absolution is you. You are guard holding the key to your own internal prison. Whatever failings you might perceive in yourself, why not just give yourself a pass? Every person on the planet is flawed and has made mistakes. We all want and deserve forgiveness. This is 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 OK. You are OK. Put your shame in a little box and place it on a mental shelf in a locked closet. You know it's there, and if you must revisit it from time to time, then do so. But otherwise, leave it on the shelf so you can live your life and like yourself. There is no rule requiring you to examine it and stir it up every hour of the day.
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. Step off the shame cycle by practicing these strategies and working toward healing.
You may need the support of a professional therapist if your shameful feelings are debilitating. If so, don't hesitate to do so. Working with a counselor is a life-affirming, positive step that puts you back in control of your future happiness and well-being.
Are you dealing with feelings of shame? What strategies have you discovered to help you heal your shame? Please share them in the comments below.