What Is Shame?
Updated: Mar 31
You know that one thing you are always set up to accomplish but keep delaying?
Well I do, I keep putting off sitting down in front of my computer to write a blog post on either this topic or that intervention. I conveniently come up with excuses as to why I haven’t been able to move it to my complete list on my Trello app. Most of the excuses are valid ones too, -I mean, I have to convince myself as well- but excuses nevertheless. I need to commit to a deadline in order to motivate me enough to sit down and write. No further do I sit down and I feel a wave of restlessness, a sensation of heat in my checks, and pounding in my chest, thoughts of all the ways this blog post could go wrong, and a desire so strong to run that my chair starts to move before I catch myself. Lo and behold, I’m in the grips of shame!
I happen to be very familiar with shame because:
I’m trained in a model called the Daring Way ™ that explores different thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that hold people back from living more authentic lives. Spoiler alert: Shame is one of them.I am a human being who experiences it on regular basis -like most other human beings.
You have most likely experienced shame at some point in your life whether it showed up when you were considering expressing your feelings first in a relationship or deciding to go back to school. Dr. Brené Brown describes shame as the “painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” for whatever reason. We often think that shame is only present when we are ashamed of some deep, dark, terrible skeleton in our closet but in reality, shame is a more common day experience than we realize. Shame shows up in our lives whenever we start to question our sense of worth, belonging, and/or ability to connect with others and therefore makes us question our lovability. Shame is present when we fear disconnection and rejection from others -known or unknown. Hence why shame shows up more frequently than we would like. The fear of disconnection is a very tangible and petrifying one for us mammals because we are hardwired to connect from the day we’re born. When we’re babies we literally need a connection from others to survive and this need to connect is ever-present in our lives. So the possibility that we might get rejected can trigger some primal fear in us.
Shame tries to convince us to do whatever it takes in order to protect ourselves from being rejected/hurt. It compels us to armor up and defend ourselves from disconnection. It tells us that we don’t have what it takes to put ourselves out there and be vulnerable. The part about these messages is that there’s a chance that you can be vulnerable and fall flat on your face. That’s the real scary part about vulnerability; there are no guarantees that it will work out. FYI, vulnerability is defined as emotional exposure, risk, and uncertainty according to Dr. Brené Brown. So why make the choice to forego shame and be vulnerable?
Vulnerability is the way you connect with others. It’s a vehicle for forming relationships with others.
Life is full of uncertainty and risk. Learning how to be courageous when it matters is part of the deal.
When we lead a life based on our shame messages, we forego our values in the service of being “safe.” In an essence, we live an inauthentic life. Just think about that, do we want our legacy to be one of inauthenticity?
Showing up in your life means taking small acts of courage when it matters to you.
If you decide that it’s worth it to live an authentic life based on your values, then it’s important to know how to handle it so it doesn’t run the show. The first step in learning how to manage shame is to recognize that you’re in it. The good news is that shame is a visceral experience and there are typically warning signs that you’re experiencing it. A helpful tip to is to start recognizing your physical symptoms of shame.
When I experience shame, I feel ______________ (fill in physical symptoms) in my body. For example, when I experience shame, I feel an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.
It’s also helpful to understand what are common shame triggers so you’re aware when it comes up for you.
I start questioning my worthiness when it comes to my ________________(fill in blank with a shame trigger). For example, I start questioning my worthiness when it comes to my parenting.
Another good indication that you’re in the midst of shame, is whenever you start to have the thoughts such as:
“I’m not enough because I’m not _______________ (ex: good, smart, rich, thin, powerful, etc) enough”.
“Who do you think you are? You can’t do _________ (fill in the blank with risk-taking action)”.
“You’re not as good as________________ (fill in the blank with someone you compare yourself too).
Once you’ve spotted shame, then the choice comes to either listen to the messages or to do something scary/courageous that’s in line with your values. It helps to either tap into your support system for some much-needed empathy or access some self-compassion.
Call a close friend and explain your experience of shame/what it’s compelling you to do. Receive some much-needed empathy and support.
Give yourself some self-compassion for what you’re experiencing and be gentle with yourself. Imagine the way you would talk to a friend who’s struggling.
I realized I was in the midst of shame when I was able to pause for a moment to reflect on my own reaction. Once I did this, I was able to hear my own shame gremlins telling me “Who do you think you are trying to write a therapy blog post? Just stop now… you’re not Carl Rogers -big deal therapy guy- or no JK Rowling?! You should go and quit. ” I took a couple of deep breathes until the initial reaction to run subsided and reminded myself why I was doing this. I needed to practice what I preach which is living a life in line with my values, not based on my fears. I thanked my mind for that shame story, reassured myself, and started typing.