“We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.” ~Brené Brown
“I don’t deserve to be happy.”
“I’ll never be good enough.”
“I’m not worthy of love.”
I hear phrases like this all the time in my work helping women walk through divorce. I heard it for years while I was working in women’s ministry. And it echoes back to me from my own experience. I’ve walked through a lot of broken stories from numerous aching souls.
These phrases all boil down to one core emotion: shame.
Throughout my life, I have been all too familiar with that emotion. I spent almost seventeen years in a destructive marriage, had multiple miscarriages, was diagnosed with cancer, had a hysterectomy because of the cancer, almost lost my mind, and had a mild heart attack from all the stress. On top of that, my mother committed suicide—she shot herself in the head.
And then I went through a high-conflict divorce. It was so costly, my net worth plummeted and I was left with very little.
I was a single mom and I had to choose whether or not I was going to go back to corporate and never see my kids because of the unspoken price tag of working in corporate (eighty-plus hours a week—a steep price to pay). So I went to countless interviews and couldn’t land a job because, even though I was an executive level that had managed multimillion dollar initiatives and people globally, I didn’t have that magic sheet of paper—a degree that made people think I was smart enough.
For as long as I can remember, I bought the lie that I wasn’t enough, and I believed that I deserved abuse, pain, and grief. For most of my life I was ashamed of breathing. I apologized for everything—for other people’s disapproval, for the wrong mixture of words, for my entire being. I thought I deserved every bad experience I had, thanks to my former conditioning.
We humans are good at gathering shame inside us. Victims of trauma and abuse experience a tremendous amount of toxic shame, and if that is not your story, odds are you have internalized feelings of unworthiness from shaming messages you’ve received from parents, teachers, and peers in your formative years.
Beliefs of unworthiness, then, often stem from childhood, when you have a heightened vulnerability to experience shame that either results from a harsh self-critical inner dialogue, the belittlement of efforts, achievements, or ideas, or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
Experiences, good or bad, initiate neural firing in the brain. Over time, with repetition, especially when accompanied by emotional intensity, neural circuits form our habitual responses to experience. In other words, the more we engage in certain thoughts and behavior, the more we become prone to having such thoughts. Any state of mind can become reality with reinforcement.
So, if in our childhood our efforts to be loved were met with negative responses, our brain structure would respond by developing patterns that reinforce our feelings of unworthiness. We would be conditioned to perceiving everything through a shame filter.
When we view ourselves through such a filter, we are tempted to cover ourselves for fear of exposure. We become a chameleon of sorts, adapting to identities that others place on us.
We then live in a constant state of fight or flight; from a physio-biological/physio-neurological standpoint, there’s so much cortisol pumping through the body that the brain gets foggy and you experience fatigue, frustration, angst, and dis-ease (which becomes disease). Your adrenals are in overtime.
When we cover ourselves like that, because of our shame, we tend to disconnect, isolate, and hide. We create a protective insulation of sorts.
When my kids were little they were scared of the dark, just like most kids. As a new parent I tried all the techniques to get rid of the “monster” they were afraid of so that they would go to sleep. I tried a nightlight, and I even put water in a spray bottle, claiming it was “monster deterrent” and sprayed their room to allegedly keep the monsters away.
It was stupid of me to play that game with them; young as they were, they were too smart to fall for it.
So I finally sat them down and said, “Look. Here’s the deal… if you see a monster, he’s coming to you for a reason. Next time he comes into your room, instead of being scared, welcome him in and say, ‘Hey man what’s up?’ And then you’re welcome to go downstairs and share cookies and milk with your new monster friend.”
My son was so excited. He couldn’t wait to see the monster so that he could bring him downstairs for cookies.
Every morning he’d wake up and say, “Mom, I tried staying up all night, but the monster never came…” Because he wasn’t fearful anymore, he slept all night long.
Combating shame is kind of like that. It starts with pulling back the curtain and getting real and raw, looking it square in the face. When you bring it into the open it loses its power over you. When you bring it into the light, you can deconstruct it, recalibrate, reconstruct your story, and reemerge.
Lasting change occurs in your fundamental belief system, which can be updated. The term “plasticity” refers to this capacity to change the brain. That means it is possible to “flip the script” and engage in new, empowering thoughts and behavior. Thus, transformation occurs by confronting limiting beliefs you’ve built about yourself and identities others have given you.
You can literally rewire the shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy, and inner compassion.
You can break free from shame. And, your story can become a catalyst; you can leverage your loss to serve others like I did. But first you need to own your power, and that starts with shifting your mindset, especially if you’d holding a victim mentality, as I once did.
When I was deep in the pit, I had a friend who said, “You don’t wear that look well.” I burned with shame, but it was true. I had allowed myself to become a victim who focused on how unfair life was for me.
So I started taking inventory of my life and began practicing gratitude. Before my feet hit the ground in the morning, I sit in gratitude. I’m grateful that my clients allow me to help them walk in complex situations and they trust me to guide them. I’m grateful for a chance to slow down and catch my breath.
The power of choice is the one thing that separates us from all the animals on the planet. At any moment you can choose joy, love, and gratitude. Or you can choose anger, resentment, and powerlessness.
Does this mean that you won’t have challenges? Absolutely not. You’re going to get the challenges you need that will help you live your purpose.
When I started obsessing with gratitude my life began to shift, and yours can too.
Anger and powerlessness create negative energy that attracts more negative energy. When you move into gratitude, you instantly move things into your energy that you can become more grateful for. The faster I come into gratitude the better I feel. Gratitude is a healing energy.
Of course, it took a lot more than gratitude to help me break free from shame, especially the shame that was thrust upon me. My transformation was the result of shifting mentality, understanding emotions, and changing habits. Through it all I learned we have to give up the story of not being enough. We are enough. We have to bring your shame into the light. We can create a new rulebook for yourself.
Listen, when you awaken one person you awaken generations and a tectonic shift occurs and nobody is the same. A dark room can’t remain dark when a bright light comes into it.
It’s scary bringing shame to light, but the minute you do that you step into a newfound freedom, you learn who you are outside of the identities everyone else has given you, you fully become yourself. The worthy, deserving, more-than-enough you that you have always been.