We’ve all felt shame. It’s that feeling when you want to tuck yourself into a tight little ball, pull the blanket over your head and just disappear. You are a bad person who is unworthy and unlovable.
Shame feels like you’ve done something wrong- so wrong that it affects your self-esteem and you begin to see yourself as a seriously flawed individual. We often confuse shame with guilt, but they aren’t the same. As shame and vulnerability author and speaker Brene Brown says, “The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad.'”
Not surprisingly, shame is rooted within in our family. As a result of not feeling seen, loved, valued and understood, we developed the belief that we were not being loved because there was something wrong with us. Children develop their identity based on their parents reactions to them, if you grew up in a neglectful, abusive, controlling or otherwise dysfunctional family, then shame is an inevitable consequence of those painful experiences.
How could you not feel shame if you were mistreated or ignored by the very people who were supposed to protect and care for you? Something must be wrong with you if your parent(s) can’t show you love. When we are made to feel inadequate and unlovable, we begin to see ourselves that way.
How we’re treated by others when we were children becomes the way we internally treat ourselves. The experiences which we were shamed as children become the unconscious triggers for feeling and expressing shame as adults.
If you were a little boy shamed for being sensitive or crying, then you’ll feel deeply embarrassed or even humiliated when you cry as an adult. Thus propelling you to do everything in your power to repress feelings that might make you cry.
We develop multiple unhealthy coping mechanisms to hide our feelings of shame, all which have a negative impact on our most intimate relationships. Control, blame, anger, withdrawal, perfectionism and people pleasing are all strategies that temporarily relieve the feelings of inadequacy and unlovability.
Step off the shame cycle by practicing these strategies and working toward healing.
Overcome Shame and Restore Your Self-Esteem:
1. Revisit your childhood
As painful as this might be, it’s important to understand that shame is not your fault. You are an adult, with an adult perspective and judgment. Take a look at the small, innocent child you were and how you were incapable of understanding and processing the hurtful behaviors of your parents. You desperately needed their approval and unconditional love, and if that wasn’t available to you, you grew to feel unworthy of anyone’s acceptance and love. This was NOT your fault. Remind yourself of this whenever you feel your shame triggered.
2. Recognize your triggers
Pay attention to what triggers your feelings of shame. This may be difficult at first, as we often bury our feelings under layers of unhealthy coping mechanisms. So start with the behaviors, the way you react to the feeling, and then ask yourself what happened to make you react.
Did someone say something that made you feel vulnerable? We’re you rejected in some way that reminded you of your childhood? Once you know what trips you up and envelopes you in feelings of shame, you can begin to learn healthier responses.
3. Practice self-compassion.
When you feel shame, it can be difficult to be kind and loving toward yourself, but try talking to yourself and treating yourself with the same loving-kindness you’d show to a child or a good friend until you begin to change your thoughts and feelings about yourself.
Based on groundbreaking research by Kristin Neff, it’s been discovered that self-compassion can act as an antidote to the self-criticism that comes with shame. The three key components of self-compassion are self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and balanced mindful awareness. Kindness opens our hearts to suffering, so we can give ourselves what we need. Common humanity opens us to others so that we know we aren’t alone. Mindfulness opens us to the present moment, so we can accept our experience with greater ease. Together they comprise a state of warm, connected, presence during difficult moments in our lives.
4. Challenge your thoughts.
Rather than believing every thought that flows through your mind, find evidence to the contrary. Part of you knows you aren’t a bad, unlovable, unworthy person and that your thoughts aren’t the entire truth. Your job is to weaken the grasp shame has on you and you can do that by challenging your thoughts when they try to control your mind. Put up a mental fight by reframing your thoughts and focusing on the positive.
5. Accept love and kindness.
The feelings of unworthiness attached to shame make it very difficult to accept love from others. In fact, you might even distrust people who are kind to you because they can’t discern that you are really “bad” and unworthy.
This is a dysfunctional reaction to loving behavior from others, but you have to be open to teaching yourself a new way of responding. Accept compliments without diminishing or deflecting them. Allow yourself to trust the judgment of the person who sees the good in you. This will take practice, but over time it will feel more natural to relish in the love and appreciation from others.
Finally, you may need the support of a professional counsellor if your shameful feelings are debilitating. If so, don’t hesitate to contact us. Working with a counsellor is positive step that puts you back in control of your future happiness and well-being.