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Breaking Free of Shame

We’ve all been there at some point in our lives. It comes on suddenly at times and seemingly out of nowhere. It’s that feeling that you just want to shrink into a hole. Maybe you said something you wish you hadn’t, maybe it was the response of silence to your self-disclosure, maybe it’s just a look that sends you instantly to a place where you feel worthless and rejected. This is shame and it is as common to the human experience as breathing. It often has its root in childhood experiences when our identity and connection to the world is still forming. As a therapist, I often have clients who are dealing with chronic shame, something that becomes a part of their daily life and is evident in the way they speak about themselves. Chronic shame usually has it’s root in childhood trauma and emotional abuse and neglect and when a shame attack comes on, it feels like you’re drowning in it. I want to help you recognize shame when it happens and give you some tools for combating it.

Brene Brown defines shame as “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”. Shame is debilitating and paralyzing. It keeps us from growth and healthy connections. We feel unlovable and may be afraid if people really knew who we are, they would reject us. Shame is very different from guilt but they are often confused with one another. Guilt is uncomfortable but motivating. Brene says it is “holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” Simply put, guilt says “I failed”, shame says “I am a failure”. When your inner dialogue starts a statement with “I am…” and ends with a negative label, you can tell that shame has shown up. Often we feel shame for things we did that we honestly shouldn’t have done, other times we feel shame for things that we should never have to feel shame for like our emotions and our very human needs.

Individuals who have grown up in healthy, loving families encounter shame from time to time and when they encounter shame there are a few things they do to break free of it. This is something they learned because it was modeled to them and because they were disciplined with kindness and compassion rather than shame. Those who didn’t have that experience learn these tools within a therapeutic relationship and healthy adult relationships. The two tools I’ll be talking about are self compassion and connection.

Self compassion might be a new term for you. We often think of self esteem as the opposite of shame or a negative self image. Self compassion, however, is starkly different than self esteem. Self esteem is that stubbornly optimistic view of yourself. It is that belief that we can do anything we put our minds to and that we are generally pretty awesome to be around. The trouble with self esteem, when we view it that way, is that at some point the curtain comes down and we are faced with our mistakes, our challenges, and the part of ourselves that we would rather bury far underground – hint, that’s the shame. Self compassion on the other hand, sees our whole selves and believes we are worthy of love and belonging anyway. Compassion steps in when life gets tough and we don’t measure up. Compassion is not excusing the hurt that our decisions may cause, it is understanding that we have bad days and seeking a deeper understanding of the feelings and thoughts that led us to this point. Compassion means we acknowledge when we are struggling and define it as a moment rather than labeling it as a character trait. When we are parented with or shown compassion in other formative relationships, shame has no oxygen to grow and the shame that is already there begins to weaken. When you recognize those shame thoughts, take a step back and try to have compassion for yourself. Write down the shame thoughts and then write down an alternative interpretation.

The thing about self compassion is that it is not something that grows in isolation. Where shame grows stronger in isolation, self compassion is something that is learned within emotionally vulnerable and safe relationships. When we are shown compassion, and when we show compassion to others, suddenly we can see that we are not alone. We know that we are not the only ones who feel this way. If I can see that you sometimes struggle with life, and I see you as someone worthy of love and belonging, then I can open myself up to viewing myself as worthy of love and belonging. This is why connection is so important to breaking free of shame. You might find this in a therapist, a support group, friendship, social or religious group, or even an online forum, although there is no substitute for that face to face connection. If you are dealing with chronic shame, let me encourage you to reach out to a therapist or research support groups in your area. If you don’t deal with chronic shame but do have the occasional attack come up, let me encourage you to resist the urge to hide away in that moment and find a friend that you can reach out to who you can be vulnerable with and who is likely to understand. Yes, you may encounter rejection along the path but the rewards of self compassion are too important to miss out on.

If you found this useful and want to know more, take a look at the works of Brene Brown and Kristin Neff. These two clinicians have spent their life work researching and educating others on shame and self compassion. If you are a parent and want to know more about parenting with compassion, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook Gifts of Imperfect Parenting by Brene Brown.

Hannah Lindsay, MSW provides individual and family therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Hannah!