I spend so much of my life thinking about shame and all of the ways it impacts our lives and relationships. I see the presence of shame in my therapy office (or on my screen, via Telehealth therapy) often. It shows up in my own life, too. In fact, I’ve yet to meet another human who doesn’t have a close, personal relationship with shame. Shame is a palpable thing. There are many signs of shame in a person: I see it in slouched posture, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting hands, hugging and hiding behind pillows to create physical distance. Shame is a shrinking sensation. Shame is the thing that sustains suffering, because it convinces us that if anyone sees the messy, dark, scary parts of us, we will be unsafe, unlovable, unsuccessful, and wrong. In fact, shame often keeps people away from counseling and other types of support. Therapy is all about being truly seen and heard, and shame wants nothing less than to be seen and heard. Shame wants us to be hidden and alone.
Guilt vs. Shame
When I talk about my working definition of shame, I like to contextualize it in my working definition of guilt. Guilt is our North Star. It is a compass. Guilt is that feeling inside that says, “I acted out of line with my character, and I need to make a change.” Guilt shows us where we’re out of integrity and gives us a nudge to get back in alignment. Guilt says, “I am not bad, but I did something that isn’t okay. I must do better.” Guilt is certainly not a pleasant or comfortable feeling, but it’s an important one. It is not debilitating. It is temporary and eases as soon as we make amends, take accountability, and change our behavior.
If guilt is our North Star, then shame is a black hole. Shame sucks us into heavy darkness, where no light can get in and no light can escape. Shame says, “I am bad. I am broken. What’s the point?” It says, “I did something bad, therefore I am bad.”
Pride & Shame
Shame also has a really interesting relationship with Pride. Think of Shame & Pride as flip sides of the same coin. Most of us have experienced people in our lives who flip-flop between deep shame and seemingly egotistical pride. It’s the switch between “I’m not good enough” and “I’m better than all of those people.” On the surface, this can look confusing and strange. In reality though, it makes perfect sense. Shame and Pride serve the same function: They are hiding places. Shame says, “I’m not as good as anyone else, so I don’t really have to show up in vulnerable ways.” Pride says, “I’m better than everyone else, so I don’t really have to show up in vulnerable ways.” Shame and Pride look different, but keep us protected from real vulnerability. It can feel scary to show up in our lives with both confidence and humility, boldly stepping into our emotions and humanity, knowing we will get things wrong. So instead, we choose the hiding place of Shame or the hiding place of Pride, or we run back-and-forth between the two.
The Impact of Shame
Now that we’re on the same page about what shame is, let’s talk about the impact shame has on our lives. I probably don’t have to convince you that shame is unpleasant. We all know what shame feels like. It is lonely, defeating, and so painful. However, shame doesn’t just feel uncomfortable for us. In fact, when we’re in our shame, the people in our lives lose us. It keeps us cut off from connection and community. It makes us completely inaccessible to our partners, families, friends, and communities. We get sucked into that black hole and we become unable to hear and acknowledge the pain of those we love. We become incapable of taking accountability when we’ve done wrong. We wind up making someone else’s hurt all about us. This is actually an incredibly common theme in both individual therapy and couples therapy: One person’s shame pulls them offline from their partner. That is not a fun place to be. So what do we do about it?!
Healing Shame Exercises
Shame is like a cockroach. When we shine the light on it, it flees. In order to get rid of shame, we have to pull the shameful stuff into the light. Here are 5 healing shame exercises to help you step outside of shame when it shows up.
Both individual therapy and couples therapy are amazing ways to begin healing shame. Therapy is a focused, intentional space where you get to be seen, heard, and supported by someone who believes in you and wants you to be your best self. Good therapy will help you step outside of shame and more fully into your life.
Opening up to a trusted loved one:
This one will probably feel scary. Like we discussed, shame wants us to hide. It takes a massive amount of courage to open up to a loved one about something we hold shame around. However, when we open up to someone we love and trust, shame goes away. Here’s a tip: When you open up to someone, clearly communicate what you need from them. Do you need reassurance? Validation? A hug? Be clear with them so they can support you in a way that feels good.
Especially during COVID-19, online forums and social media are fantastic (and socially distanced!) ways to connect with other people who may be experiencing something similar to what you’re experiencing. The experience of community is an antidote to shame.
Spend some time each day on affirmations. When shame shows up, talk back to it. Try one of these affirmations: “I am whole and lovable;” “I am allowed to make mistakes;” “I am allowed to show up in my full, imperfect humanity;” “I am enough.”
Inner child work
Imagine that shame voice as a scared younger part of you. If it’s hard to visualize yourself, visualize someone in your life who you feel compassion toward. Then, imagine that person feeling the same shame you’re carrying around. Imagine what you’d say to them. It might sound something like, “I know you’re going through xyz. I still care about you and love you. You’re safe with me.”
Healing shame is not an easy process, but the more we practice it, the easier and less scary it becomes. If you take away nothing else from this article, please remember that you are not alone in your shame. The rest of humanity is right there with you.