(Photo: Andrew Neel)
How to deal with shame
I’d like to talk about a sensitive emotion: shame. Shame comes up often in my sessions for many reasons. Childhood upbringing. Traumatic experiences. Failed relationships. Bad decisions. And so much more.
Shame can create self-limiting beliefs that trap us in a prison of the mind. The more shame persists, the smaller the prison gets, until it seems like there’s no way out… literally.
To believe in that is really painful. So to avoid getting crushed by it, how do we deal with shame and the other feelings that come with it? Like humiliation. Defeat. Depression. Despair. Anxiety. Fear.
In the first part, I’d like to explore the emotion of shame a bit. The second part will cover how to deal with it. This article is longer than usual, so feel free to skip to the parts most relevant to you!
Why do we feel shame?
As I thought about shame, some questions came to mind. If shame is such a strong, negative emotion, why did we evolve to feel it in the first place? What’s the point of experiencing shame if it makes us want to escape it even more?
Well, here’s an interesting explanation why.
It’s to protect ourselves from being devalued by others. Sometime in our early evolution, we learned that our community doesn’t support us if we do something that makes us unworthy of their care and protection. If we get cast out of the tribe, our very survival is threatened. So shame is like a deterrent (a super strong one!). See this article for more reading.
Next, I turned to Brene Brown, well known for her shame research, to see what she had to say.
She says shame has its roots in the “not enough” mentality. Like, not smart enough. Not talented enough. Attractive enough. Popular enough. Fit enough. Successful enough. And so on.
Shame has accomplices: comparison, perfectionism and judgement. Together, they push the narrative of scarcity. Not just in our minds, also with each other.
As mentioned earlier, we’ve evolved to seek connection, belonging and acceptance. But when we succumb to the tension shame’s accomplices create, shame will let us know. Painfully.
Shame is real pain. The importance of social acceptance and connection is reinforced by our brain chemistry, and the pain that results from social rejection and disconnection is real pain. In a 2011 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers found that, as far as the brain is concerned, physical pain and intense experiences of social rejection hurt in the same way. – “Daring Greatly”
If shame hurts so much, why even bother dealing with it?
… it is human nature to want to feel worthy of love and belonging. When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. When we’re hurting, either full of shame or even just feeling the fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and to attack or shame others. – “Daring Greatly”
Because it’s destructive to ourselves and others if we don’t.
Shame is so uncomfortable and painful, we shut down. Lose empathy and stop caring about others. Distance ourselves by becoming a screen zombie. Watch Netflix. Scroll social media. Game mindlessly for hours. Numb our feelings by binge eating comfort food. Drinking. Taking drugs. Doing risky things for the adrenaline rush. Or deflect the pain by blaming, gaslighting and/or shaming others.
Left unchecked, look where these behaviours lead… There has to be a better way!
Our challenge now is to become wiser about shame and learn how to be shame-resilient.
Developing shame resilience
According to Brown, this resilience can be developed. But it’s not possible to be Teflon-like and shame-resistant, unless we want to be a sociopath!
She explains how to build shame resilience in “Daring Greatly” and her later books. This diagram gives a good summary of her advice. To learn more about her recommendations, click on the image to see the article.
Basically what she says is, learn how to be open to shame. That takes a certain willingness to be vulnerable. Which requires some bravery on our part.
But we can make it more bearable by not going it alone. Create a support network and talk about shame. Use this support, name the shame and tame it to own it.
What else works for dealing with shame?
While I was pondering shame, I was studying a subject called Interpersonal Neruobiology (INPB for short) by Dr. Dan Siegel. He’s written many books such as “Mindsight” and “Brainstorm” (highly recommended for parents with teens!).
INPB lays out 9 key areas to integrate and balance for better wellbeing. Consciousness. Bilateral (right and left sides of the brain). Vertical (brain and body). Memory. Narrative. State. Relationships. Time. Identity.
Each area has its own process for integration. They work really well for processing shame and other kinds of emotional pain. For the sake of brevity, I’ve illustrated just two of them using myself as an example.
I’m well aware that my level of shame is insignificant compared to what some of you have experienced! So feel free to look past the story and just take note the process.
My shame trigger
Actually, it was during this course that a small incident flipped my “shame switch”.
It happened when I asked a question during Q&A time. Dr. Siegel acknowledged the question with a brief but polite thank you. Then without another word, he moved on to the next person and answered their question instead.
Wait, what just happened? Did I get ignored? I was stunned. I felt this old, familiar shame wash over me, hot and cold at the same time. My heart started beating fast, my face felt hot, my hands became clammy. The rest of the Q&A I couldn’t even hear. Silly as it sounds, it took me a few days to get over it.
Later on, I realized that my reaction was WAY out of proportion. So it was clear there was still some unfinished business going on.
(Photo: Liza Summer)
My self limiting belief
It didn’t take me long to see where the shame was coming from. It was a limiting belief I had since I was young: “You don’t belong here.”
When I got ignored, my limiting belief was quick to tell me, “See, you’re not smart enough to ask questions worth answering! That means you’re not qualified enough to be in this course. You don’t belong here, so stay in your lane and keep quiet!”
This self-limiting belief influenced a lot of areas in my life. In the past, my strategy for dealing with it was: 1) don’t let anyone find out, 2) put up a good front, 3) get on with it. But that didn’t really work. All I managed to do was put a lid on it and hide it. I burned a lot of bridges in my relationships and burnt out in my last job because of that belief.
How I dealt with my self limiting belief
This time around, I handled the belief a little differently. I used two of the integrative processes of INPB: memory and narrative.
The recent shame incident was surprising to me because, for something that lasted only a few seconds, I had such huge reactions. Fast heartbeat. Flushed face. Feeling hot and cold. Shame and shock. Mind gone blank. Knocked flat for a few days. Why did I react so strongly?
INPB says there could have been a first-time, shocking experience of shame that happened a long time ago. So long ago that I don’t even have a clear memory of it. But my body remembers. Because it reacted before my brain did.
As I recalled those reactions and sat with them, snippets of a very old memory came to me.
It was from when I was about 2 or 3 years old. I was at a park with my mom in the fall. The park had these animal rides on a spring that you could ride like a horse. They were my favorite rides. When I tried to go on one as usual, a boy slightly older and bigger than me came and pushed me to the ground. I wasn’t hurt because the leaves cushioned my fall.
But I was shocked. Here I was, minding my own business. Then with no explanation, I suddenly get pushed over. Why? What did I do to deserve this? Not only that, no one intervened. Neither my mom nor the other kid’s parent said anything. They probably didn’t see it happen.
Suddenly, I got an insight about why I might have created the belief “You don’t belong here”.
When no one came to my rescue or my defense, somehow I made the connection that I wasn’t worth saving or defending. What I also learned that day was, I wasn’t welcome. I was rejected just for being me. So my feelings of shock turned into shame.
When I did this process, I felt something unwind deep inside.
Thanks to these new insights, I had more understanding and compassion for my past self. For why I never felt like I was accepted or I belonged no matter where I was or who I was with. Why I believed I wasn’t good enough or worthy enough. Why I maintained a distance from people. Why I quit jobs and ended friendships.
Because of this belief, I made a lot of poor decisions and passed up many opportunities. But now that I knew where the belief originated from, a new narrative started to form. I belong as much as anyone else!
As I changed my narrative, the way I talked to myself began to change also.
I began using less of the ego mind and more of the wise mind. The ego mind makes judgements, comparisons and criticisms. It uses language like “should”, “must”, “need to” or “have to”. The wise mind gently tells us things we know deep down to be true, good or bad. It is always kind.
Oh, the shame incident during the course? Maybe I did ask a bad question. Maybe he had his reasons. I’ll never truly know why it happened, but that’s ok. I’ve moved on.
Brown is right: when we shine a light on shame and feed it with compassion, it has no more room to grow.
(Photo: Andrea Piacquadio)
Shame is an emotion we feel precisely because we’re human. Social connection and acceptance are fundamental to who we are. So when we experience rejection or devaluation, our hardwiring lets us know. Painfully!
Because shame is so painful, we haven’t mastered how to be more resilient to it. Good news is, it’s possible to learn this skill. Brene Brown offers her advice in “Daring Greatly” and her later books.
Shame comes with a high emotional charge that makes it difficult to face. There’s a good reason for that. It could be due to very old memories that only the body remembers. Integrative processes based on Interpersonal Neurobiology (INPB) could help us access those memories and create a new narrative.
Rewriting our past and our narratives helps free ourselves from the prisons of our minds. We start to have more compassion for ourselves and open up more possibilities. We use more of our wise mind over the ego mind.
Eventually we replace our self-limiting past with a self-empowered present. And open the doors to a more fulfilling future.
I hope this was helpful! Would you like to explore further how to deal with your shame, or anything else that’s blocking you from moving forward? If so, please feel free to connect with me here.