How to Deal with Shame
I remember the year my mother bought me the kelly green corduroy jumper for school, and I hated it. No one in the sixth grade wore dresses anymore. And corduroy was so out! Jeans and t-shirts were the standard uniform now. I couldn’t bear to be seen wearing that thick, frumpy dress, so I balled it up and stuffed it under my shoes, as far back in my closet as I could. Stepping back I breathed a sigh of relief. Now it was hidden where no one would ever see it.
Until my mother went looking for it after I said I couldn’t find it. In a mad fit of persistence, she made me clear everything out of my closet until I had no choice but to pull the wad of heavy green fabric back into the light of day. Of course I was punished for hiding the dress and not wanting to wear it. I felt ashamed on every level.
But shame didn’t end there. As I got older, it grew up around so many parts of my life I didn’t like – like when I didn’t have enough money, dated Mr. Wrong and had to get rid of him, couldn’t find the “right” job, didn’t know the answers, had to move to a new apartment to escape, couldn’t make ends meet, made a “bad” decision, missed an important meeting/appointment/deadline, bombed a test, quit another job, and the list goes on, ad nauseam.
Over time we learn to do the same stuffing and hiding the parts of ourselves we don’t like or that we believe are unacceptable. But then someone comes along and pokes their nose into our closet. Spotting the green corduroy jumper, they point it out, often not knowing what a sensitive issue it has become. Once we’ve been triggered, panic sets in. Shame has its grip on us and it won’t let go.
We don’t like the way shame makes us feel, so even when it’s clearly all over our face, we try to duck and run. We think it’s possible to escape shame, or to deny our feelings, but our shame is our story. It’s the narrative we’ve given ourselves to live by. It’s not something we can just get rid of. And maybe, I’d like to suggest, it’s better not to.
Instead there are ways to work with shame and use it to our advantage if we’re brave and willing:
Acknowledge it –
Shame occurs as a physical sensation in our bodies when we think our unacceptable parts have been outed. Some of those sensations include feeling flushed, choked up, tingly, prickly, panicky, clammy, teary-eyed, breathless, and maybe even sweaty. When shame is triggered, our bodies go into fight or flight mode to avoid having our fears exposed. For many of us, having someone or something trigger our shame feels as close to death as we’ll get in this lifetime before we actually die. And that’s because having someone see the truth about who we are feels like imminent death to the self-image. But if we can name this feeling when it arises, we can begin to interrupt the fight or flight response and instead turn and face the demon of fear associated with our shame.
Discover it –
Learning about our shame, what it looks like, how it feels, and where it hides requires a lot of bravery. Many of the things we consider unacceptable hide out in the recesses of our psyche, protected by our defenses. Our shame defenses are so strong, we’re not even aware of all the things we feel shame about, especially things from our childhood we had no control over. Discovering our shame means facing our fears about who we are (or are not), all of our perceived inefficiencies and weaknesses, the decisions we’re embarrassed by and the experiences we now regret. If we choose self-discovery as a life path, we can begin to look at and explore the things we’re hiding from others and ourselves and in so doing, loosen the power they seem to have over us.
Share it –
The only way to lessen the effects of shame in our life is to share about it. The only remedy I’ve found is to stop trying to hide it. When we feel shame surface, we must acknowledge that and talk about it. When we admit our experience with shame, through focused writing, therapy, group work, or with a trusted partner, we reduce it from the gigantic monster that it feels like, to the request that it really is. Like a child, it only wants to be acknowledged, accepted and loved. It is that part of you that wants to be whole again, that wants to be forgiven.
Transform it –
Shame is not an evil, it’s a message from your soul in pain. I see dozens of articles online about how to “get rid of shame,” but it isn’t something we can ever eliminate entirely. It lives within the emotional wounds of our childhood and we add to it over the years by our own choices and beliefs. Instead of trying to get rid of it, we need to heal it. We need to care for those places inside of us that hurt. Shame is actually the clue in the game of life that very few people can seem to uncover. But when you finally slip the key and open that locked door, it will show you the hidden parts of yourself that lead to true happiness and fulfillment. My advice: go with shame and follow it to the source of your wounds. There your authentic nature will be revealed to you. See it. Love it. Heal it.
Thanks everyone for stopping in on this beautiful Independence Day in the U.S. Let’s also celebrate our own independence by committing to a path of Self-Discovery. You can be your own best friend, the most important hero in your life’s story and in the lives of so many people.
Thank you for being you.