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How to Release Shame and Stop Feeling Fundamentally Flawed

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“But shame is like a wound that is never exposed and therefore never heals.” ~Andreas Eschbach

Shame. Everybody has it. Nobody wants to talk about it. The less we talk about it, the more power it has over us.

Shame goes to the core of a person and makes them feel there is something inherently wrong with them.

I remember when I was a young girl, I struggled so much with feeling I was ‘less than’ others.

There were many nights when I would say prayers to help change me. I didn’t like my freckles. I was so embarrassed by my body. I hated the fact that I had a lisp. My skin was either pale as a ghost or the color of a tomato. I would get blotchy when I was the center of attention. This list could truly go on and on. What I was really experiencing was a strong sense of shame.

Shame is often the trademark in hurting families, and almost always part of the underlying matrix of psychological conditions.

It may start with someone not owning their own feelings and making it about someone else. I was such a sensitive kid. I would get made fun of for having emotions, and this eventually led to my own struggles with insecurity that surfaced as depression and anxiety.

In our society, shame and guilt are often intertwined. However, these two emotions are quite different.

Guilt’s focus is on behavior. It’s about what we do. When we experience guilt, we have gone against our own code of ethics.

Guilt tells me that I am not doing what has been expected of me. This emotion usually serves as being an internal conscience. It helps me to not act on harmful impulses. The great thing about guilt is our values get reaffirmed. There is a possibility of repair. We can learn and grow.

Shame’s focus is on the self. It’s not that I did something bad, but that I am bad. It gives us the sense that we do not measure up to others. We are defective. We are damaged goods.

A person cannot grow while they are in a space of shame, and they cannot shame others to change. This concept is like saying “you are worthless and incapable of change, but change anyway.”

When we’re in shame, we don’t see the bigger picture. We feel alone, exposed, and deeply flawed.

Oftentimes, we will respond to shame by moving away from it, moving toward it, or moving against it. Moving away from it means to withdraw, hide, and/or stay silent. Moving toward would be appeasing and/or pleasing others. Moving against suggests we try to gain power over others. We use shame to fight shame.

As human beings, we are wired for connection. We come into the world needing connection in order to survive. When we are in shame we unravel our ability to connect. Our first reaction to shame is to hide.

This may mean we work all the time, attach to someone in an unhealthy relationship, or withdraw from our community. More so, we may have difficulty with healthy levels of self-esteem. We may fluctuate between arrogance, grandiosity, and low self-worth. As a result of this dynamic, we are either one up or one down in a relationship. Relationships lack substance, honesty and meaning.

According to the research of Brené Brown, shame needs three things to survive: silence, secrecy, and judgment.

Shame thrives on being undetected. The only thing shame cannot possibly survive is empathy.

We have to find courage to talk about shame. When we dig past the surface, we find that shame is what drives our fear of rejection, to not take risks, to hate our bodies, and to worry about the judgment of others.

We are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors or to attack others. When we are honest about our struggles, we are less likely to get stuck in the black tar of shame. Shame cannot hold on when we name it.

So, how do we become aware of shame? And, what can we do about it?

Well, we first have to name shame when we are feeling it.

When I make statements like “I am an embarrassment” or “I am such a failure,” what I’m really feeling is shame. When I attack my being, I need to recognize the shame and reframe the belief. “I am not an embarrassment, I just did an embarrassing thing.”

The next step is to develop more awareness about when I am experiencing shame.

We have to become mindful of our triggers to shame. Our feelings, beliefs, and actions are motivated by these triggers whether we acknowledge them or not. So, when we are feeling shame, we want to interrupt it with more positive thought patterns.

Ego repair comes next.

We have to track and replace that negative internal dialogue, and put ourselves around positive and meaningful influences. It’s important at this stage to practice loving-kindness to ourselves and others. A great practical tool is talking to and treating yourself the way you would someone you love dearly. You would never call someone worthless, right? So, why do that to yourself?

Name and return shame.

I was picked on a lot as a kid for being overweight. I experienced shame in my gut and in my chest. I would often feel sick to my stomach. Eventually, I developed beliefs that I was “worthless and unlovable.” These came from an ample amount of being hurt by my peers.

As I grew into an adult, I lost a good amount of weight, but still held onto those beliefs. Of course, I learned that weight has nothing to do with worth and love. I was able to name where that shame came from, and put it back on my peers who hurt me out of their own ignorance, pain, or confusion.

If we are unable to put shame back in its place, we will continue to attract people and situations that validate those negative beliefs and recreate shame in our lives.

Avoid negative situations and build positive supports.

It is crucial to place yourself around healthy and loving people. When I am active in my shame, I often want to cocoon. During these times of isolation, I feel more alone and shameful. If I am able to simply communicate what is happening with me to someone who loves me, the power of my shame diminishes.

In order to understand where we are and where we want to go, we have to have self-acceptance about who we are. Shame can make for discomfort in relationships with others. If we could work on developing a loving relationship with ourselves, our ability to be intimate and authentic increases.

It is vital that we learn to separate shame from the person.

We need to understand that shame is an emotion. The concern, though, is many people have turned shame from an emotion to a state of being. We want to be able to transform it back into a feeling. All of our emotions have functions. Shame, similar to other feelings, is attempting to protect us from some sort of threat. However, it often is a misperceived threat.

We cannot become resistant to shame, but we can develop resilience to it.

We have to help one another know we are not alone in our experiences and in our feelings. It is helpful to have corrective, validating, and emotional experiences with someone we love. We have to understand that part of our shared humanity is having parts of ourselves we are scared to show, but we have to be brave enough to show them anyway.

About Lauren Golombek

Lauren is a therapist specializing in co-occurring disorders. She helps people process their shame and their pain, aids in stopping self-defeating patterns, and helps others build resilience and hope.

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  • Great article, Lauren. I’ve dealt with shame quite a bit during my life but didn’t really understand that’s what it was until later on in life.

    I like how you pointed out the fact that we are not the shame itself, but it is something that we are ashamed of. I’ve found the best thing to do, and at sometimes the hardest in the moment, is to simply accept that I’m not feeling so great about something. It’s the resistance and struggling against the feeling itself that becomes the bigger problem.

    After I’ve worked on acceptance, I find that nurturing myself is some way is good. A lot of the times our pain just wants to be heard, and I think when we shove it away it’s similar to telling a child who is asking for help to shut up. It’s what keeps us hurting inside, and this hurt I believe manifests in other ways later.

    I wish I could get right to the acceptance and nurturing part sooner than later more times than not, but I just have to accept that also. 🙂 I’m not a perfect person, but reading articles like yours here shines a bit more light on these kinds of things. It’s always helpful to see things from another perspective. I appreciate your article. 🙂

  • Lauren Michelle

    Sean, I am so glad to hear you found of some this helpful. I appreciate your point on self-nurturing. I believe that is a crucial component of working through shame. I, too, wish I had gotten to the acceptance/nurturing part sooner. However, that’s the beauty and curse of being human…we are ever-changing works in progress. We will get there if we are willing to do the work <3

  • Casey

    I think I was meant to stumble on this article this morning. I’ve been having a tough time lately and this was a great read and wonderfully written! It helps to put some things into perspective. Thank you for sharing!

  • Aelio

    Thank you

  • Harriet Smith

    myself as well !…I seem to cope quite well till age 60…then a physiological issue brought me crashing down and most of the flaws mentioned in your article came out ( oh I was already in a fertile relationship for this to happen..perfect storm)Therapy at the Local Women’s Sexual Assault Centre has helped me with many “Ah Has”. lightbulbs what ever you call them, and now at 65 I begin to heal myself. Your article reinforced these moments almost to the letter.Thank you.

  • Lauren Michelle

    Thank you, Casey. I am happy to hear this was helpful.

  • Lauren Michelle

    My pleasure.

  • Lauren Michelle

    Oh how I love and appreciate the “Ah Ha” moments in life <3

  • D

    Beautiful article and it has quite magically appeared at the right moment in my life. Every failure in life keeps adding on to my hidden pile of shame. There’s no way to get rid of it except to realize that I am greater than the sum of my experiences. I went through this to help out another soul who I will meet, who is on this same journey

  • A Jones

    This is interesting. I was in a yoga class today and I was called out for not being present. I wasn’t in the same position as the rest of the class. I immediately got very upset and spent the balance of the class crying while completing all the poses. I think it triggered in me, “not good enough.” You’re not doing a good enough job in my own head. I suppose for next time could make it not about myself in general and my worth, but just about an action. And then, being emotional didn’t help, however, I have decided that if I feel something, I am not going to feel ashamed to feel and express my emotion as it can occur in moments where I am not alone and by a number of things I can’t always predict happening. So I decided to put my ego aside and be courageous and finish out the class regardless of my personal response, even though my self talk told me to flee and not let anyone see my weaknesses. Shame definitely played a part in that and I have been trying my darndest to accept all of me just the way I am. I read an article about a week ago in regards to parenting that I felt conveyed self acceptance of your emotions and it really resonated with me. This has come up for me in many instances in my life in general, has been on ongoing struggle, but one that seems to be getting me further along slowly in the area of self acceptance. 🙂

  • Victor

    Great article…
    Coming from the male experience, it saddens me to see that shame is so prevalent among men. It saddens me even further to know that our society actually condones and encourages a shame based narrative by encouraging the competitive nature of many boys and men. The fact that men commit suicide, drink, abuse drugs and live miserable lives in such high numbers is clear proof that something is not working. As a conscious man who seeks to treat myself and those I come in contact with in a mindful way, it pains my heart to see such needless suffering. The saddest part is that many men are so deep in the denial encouraged by our “man up” culture, that to even acknowledge to themselves – let alone their friends and family – their own shame is somehow shameful. The fact that many men and women actually encourage them not to open up by saying this simply shows an “unmanly weakness” is tragic. I have learned so much as a member of a men’s group and through my own Buddhist practice. I can only hope that this perspective continues to grow in our current toxic society.

  • Lauren Michelle

    Hello Victor. I couldn’t agree more on the stigma with men. The least we could do is continue to educate our culture. It makes my heart hurt the amount of stigma that remains in the present. I have always said shame can be lethal. Thank you for sharing.

  • Lauren Michelle

    I appreciate you sharing your experience. I know the “not good enough” all too well. Fortunately, I have practiced self-acceptance and self-compassion, and the power of that voice is much littler now. I pray you will continue to do the same.

  • Lauren Michelle

    Or as I like to say “you’ve been assigned this mountain to show it can be moved.” Your story definitely can be the testimony for someone else.

  • Mary So

    Reading this article gave me goosebumps. Thank you so so much for writing this and sharing your experiences 🙂

  • Greg Kiernan

    Great article. So useful for me to reflect on and use in my support of Men Who date Men. Shame is such a huge part of the story for these guys. Naming the shame and owning their story is a large part of my work with them. Thanks for the clear and supportive way you have shared about a challenging topic. I’d like to share this on my LinkedIn if possible giving you full credit. Let me know if that works for you. Take care.

  • Howard

    I was raised in a large narcisistic family. I was painfully shy and introverted. I’ve always hated the extreme fear and pain of it all.
    I’ve been through most of the self medication there is. I’ve also stumbled onto methods of real healing, all the while, not understanding the real causes and effects. I’m 57 years old and only recently became aware of toxic shame and it’s role in it all. However, I’ve never known what to do about it.
    Over 40 years of hit and miss and a guzzillion detours, it’s nice to find an actual map to take me there 🙂
    Once again, back on the road to home, simply, H

  • Lauren Michelle

    Hello Howard! I am so glad to provide you with some helpful guidance. I wish you all the luck on your brave journey.

  • Lauren Michelle

    Hello Greg. I am completely open to the share. I am happy to hear you found some benefit it the reading! Take good care 🙂

  • Lauren Michelle

    My please, Mary. Thank you for taking time to read it.

  • LearningToLoveBN

    I love what you’ve written, Lauren, and would like to add one more critical component: Over the course of our lives, everyone suffering from shame has done things to overcome or to distract ourselves form feeling shame or to restore connection and at least some of those things disgust us about ourselves. We see these behaviours, actions, beliefs or comments as being unforgivable. I find that the self-rejection associated with this secondary layer of shame constitutes a near-insurmountable impediment to self acceptance, or in other words, the “final frontier” in the process of unwinding shame. We finally get to taste the sweetness of self acceptance when we can finally accept this aspect of how we have Been.