“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” ~Brené Brown
There is a special type of shame that activates within me when I am around some family members. It’s the kind of shame where I am back in my childhood body, feeling utterly wicked for being such a disaster of a human. A terrible child that is worthless, stupid, and perhaps, if I am honest, more than a touch disgusting.
The feeling of shame in my body feels a bit like I am drowning and being pulverized from the inside at the same time. I have a deep, awful nausea too, like a literal sickness about who I am.
In an effort to save myself from drowning in shame, I might try to ingratiate myself to the person I am talking to. Make myself sound more palatable, more decent, less dreadful. Or maybe become argumentative to try to kill the feeling in my body by drowning out the voice that seems to be activating the sensation.
These experiences became like shame vortexes in my life. The place where my true spirit, whatever self-love or esteem I had, went to get pulverized in a pit of torment. A reminder of what a truly dreadful and disgusting person I really was.
Families are such incredible quagmires of emotional activation. Generations of repressed emotions—of blame, shame, guilt, resentment, rage, frustration, etc.—constantly simmering, occasionally boiling up, being thrown at each other, activating more emotion.
And yet family are often the people we yearn to receive acceptance and unconditional love from the most. But they’re often the people who find it the hardest to give it to each other.
My journey with shame has been lengthy because, for a long time, I didn’t know how to work with it. For many years I felt like I was bumping into shame in every corner of my life. And there were many corners.
In my work, I struggled to be seen, to be what I wanted, to do what I wanted.
In my relationships, I struggled to relax because I was ashamed about being a pudgy woman who wasn’t wild, free, and fascinating.
In my friendships, I was often the helpful, problem-solving friend—because to be the messy, chaotic human that I was would jeopardize who I thought my friends wanted me to be.
In my parenting, it was overwhelming. I wasn’t a calm, healthy-eating, active, patient goddess. I was impatient and distracted, and I dreaded having to play with my kids.
I was terrified of being rejected, resentful of feeling used by people, and scared of going nowhere in my life because perfectionism gripped me so tightly that I struggled to get started on anything.
I see now that underpinning all of this was shame. Shame that I was getting life wrong on a number of levels, and really, I just wasn’t trying hard enough. But when I tried harder, it never worked. I would lose energy, fall apart, and then I’d want to hide alone in a room, where no one could see me.
I didn’t even realize that it was shame. I thought I was just self-conscious, a bit shy, needing to get my act together. I was a perfectionist. I had high standards. I wanted to get things right.
But now that I know more about emotions, I can see I was drenched in shame. Utterly drenched around this basic concept that I was doing it all wrong, and it was all my fault.
Shame is in that desire to be invisible, to disappear, to remain unseen.
Shame is in that desire to hide. To not be looked at. Because being looked at means people might see who we are underneath the veneer. The mask we put on.
Shame often breeds when it becomes unsafe to be who we are, usually as little children, or when things are happening around us that we don’t understand, that don’t feel normal. When we feel we have to hide who we are or who our families are. When our parents don’t feel comfortable being who they are, there we see shame.
The thing about shame is that we don’t realize how much of it there is around us. As Brené Brown says, it thrives in secrecy and judgment. Most people aren’t walking around saying, “Hey, look at my shame! Come see the deep, dark crevices of my soul that feel so wrong and awful.”
Many people aren’t aware that shame is even present for them, as it hides underneath other emotions like anger, fear, or sadness.
But even though it is hiding, even if we can’t see it, it can control our life like gravity controls us on this earth. We don’t think about gravity, but its powerful force keeps us rooted to the ground. Shame can act in a similar way, its force dictating our actions and behaviors, pulling us in directions that work for shame, but not for the authentic, free-spirited people that we yearn to be.
Shame serves shame, and only shame. Shame doesn’t care about your desire for authenticity and for being calm, zen, peaceful, joyful, and in love with life. That sounds deeply scary and awful to shame.
Shame wants us to stay small, to stay hidden, and to be inauthentic. That sounds way safer.
It doesn’t want us to leap up and say, “Look at me! Look at me as an individual, doing things that are new and wonderful!”
It doesn’t want us to be free and happy and full of love and light.
It wants to keep us safe by reminding us how terribly awful we really are.
Shame is at the root of so many things that plague us—a lack of intimacy in our relationships, an inability to go for what we want in life and have relaxed, authentic friendships, and a sense of stuckness in work.
It can come out as a sense of persistently feeling rejected, drowning in deep wells of inadequacy, lashing out in anger as a way to hide the shame response, or hiding behind crippling shyness or social anxiety.
Shame is your worst nightmare talking to you all the time about the ever-present list of limitations in your life.
Shame is your worst critic analyzing your performance in all things.
The reason shame feels so horrendous is that it’s not like guilt, which induces feelings about what we’ve done wrong. Shame is so much more pervasive than that. Shame is a feeling that we ourselves are wrong.
To experience shame is a tremendously reducing experience
How do we get rid of shame? Well, it’s not something that is quick to shift. It’s a process, and it takes time and emotional safety.
Emotional safety is an awareness in our bodies, brains, and nervous systems that it is safe to have an emotion. Many of us don’t have emotional safety, so we run, hide, suppress, ignore, and distract ourselves or try to propel ourselves in any way away from an emotion. Many of us learned at a young age that certain emotions are not safe, and shame is usually one of them.
But to work with shame, to reduce its presence in our bodies and our lives, we need to bring it to the light. We need to expose it to love, acceptance, and empathy. Bit by bit, little by little.
One effective way to do that is to share little bits of our shame with our most trusted and loved people. Once the shame comes out, it’s out! We are free of it.
We talk about our shame only with people we feel utterly safe with. We don’t talk to people we don’t feel safe with. Not the stranger on the bus, the friend who gossips to everyone, or your blind date.
You only give people access to your shame if they have shown you that they are completely responsible with your trust; if you can tell them things and they won’t blame or judge you (which is a re-shaming experience). They come with empathy, acceptance, and love.
They are honored that you would share your deepest secrets with them. They are prepared for the responsibility that that entails.
And if we don’t have a person like that in our life? Sometimes when we have so much shame it can be hard to form these types of intimate, vulnerable, and trusting relationships. Shame wants to keep us apart, and separate. That’s how it keeps us alive and safe, by never showing anyone who we really are. Because probably once, long ago, we learned that being ourselves wasn’t safe. And so we chose a safer path—to hide.
So while we work on shame, we can start this journey with ourselves. Talk to ourselves about what we find when we think about our shame. Have tender, generous, and loving conversations with ourselves. Write or record remembrances.
And we do this when we know we can be empathic with ourselves.
Because we all know those conversations when we are down in the depths of shame and we talk to ourselves and make it so much worse—we add more shame, more judgment, more guilt.
“Why did I do that? Why did I sleep with that guy / not show up for work / send that client brief in late? I know why—because I am such a loser. I always do stupid stuff like this. Always.”
That’s not an empathetic conversation.
Shame breeds in conversations like that.
Shame needs this:
“Why did I do that! I can’t believe it! Oh wow, now that I think about it, I am feeling ashamed that I slept with that guy / didn’t show up for work / was late with that client brief. And this shame really hurts. So you know what, shame? I am going to stay with you, give you some love, some support, some tenderness, because wow, shame. That’s so painful.”
We can’t de-shame ourselves by constantly re-shaming ourselves.
We can’t remove shame by improving either. By doing more things, becoming better incarnations of the humans we are. We can only remove shame with empathy, love, acceptance, and connection.
That is a pill we have to be willing to swallow. That we are worthy of empathy, love, connection, and acceptance.
We have to start ignoring what the shame is telling us.
Shame’s advice is that we should just spend the rest of our lives trying to become better humans. But let’s be honest, we’ve followed that advice our whole lives, and look where it’s gotten us—deeper in the shame well.
So how about instead of castigating ourselves on a constant basis, we try to interrupt our shame spirals with a bit of love and empathy instead?
How about we decide that maybe it’s just a feeling, and not an indication of a deep flaw in who we are as humans? How about we try out not whipping ourselves for every small transgression.
Taking a step toward loving ourselves means working with the vicious, judgmental, potent force of shame.
But it’s work that can be done. It’s completely possible, and I know because I have drained a ton of shame from my body these past few years.
We need to not abandon ourselves when we are in shame. We need to take a little tiny bit at a time, just a touch, and bring it out into the light. Share with someone, with ourselves, become familiar with it, look at it, feel it, touch it—and hear it.
We need to bring love and support to our shame. Bring acceptance and understanding.
That is what our shame is yearning for, and when we shift our way of seeing it, we can start to shift the power it has over our lives.