In recent years, shame has undoubtedly become a more highlighted and discussed topic. Shame researcher and resilience pioneer Brene Brown has dedicated her life to understanding how shame works from the inside out, and helping others live a wholehearted and authentic life. For some of us, shame was a normal part of our everyday childhood. It was a shaking finger from mom or dad telling us how “ashamed we should be of ourselves.” Or maybe it was the silent disapproval that whispered just loud enough to make us feel full of shame. For others, shame took on a more aggressive form. It could have been through an addicted parent or caretaker. For some it was the feelings and lies that crept in after being sexually assaulted by a family friend. Either way, shame wears many different outfits, but its message never changes.
Many times, our shame is connected to our own personal choices. Our brains have a built in system that exists to serve us when we make decisions. When we make unhealthy or poor decisions with negative consequences, that affect ourselves and especially others, we are more likely to feel some level of guilt, and possibly shame. This is one way we learn about healthy choices vs. unhealthy choices. It’s a natural process. What happens however when these feelings become overwhelming and begin to define and shape the way we see ourselves? There is after all a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt tells us we DID something wrong or “bad”. Shame tells us WE ARE intrinsically “bad.” This type of shame becomes damaging to us on every level: mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and science has even shown that shame affects us physically.
I find through working with clients, that trauma survivors are more likely to battle pervasive shame. As debilitating as shame can be, there is always hope. With support and work, our clients are able to transform their shame into self- compassion. This is a very powerful process to witness and be a part of. So, what are some of the steps, and just what does self- compassion look like? Here are some steps to transforming our shame:
1. Understanding the nature of our shame. Shame is also the brain’s way of dealing with the threat of disconnection. We are wired for authentic and vulnerable connections. When that is threatened, shame will attempt to creep in. Learning how shame works will help us recognize it before we are in the thick of it. Educating ourselves is important.
2. Label shame. The second important step is to label shame for what it is, an emotion. Speaking it outloud, and even sharing it with another safe and trusted person can help put some distance between yourself and the emotion, and can help neutralize some of the power the shame holds over you. Shame grows in the dark. Bringing it to the light is a difficult but healthy step.
3.Get curious. Rather than approaching your shame with judgment, get curious about your shame. Ask yourself questions about the way you’re feeling. Embrace whatever circumstance led you to this point, and allow your curiosity to grow about how else you might be able to respond other than with judgment. Curiosity is a very powerful tool that we can use to help us.
4. Acknowledge your inner critic. We all have an inner critic. Some louder than others. For some people, they struggle with their inner critic shaming themselves in an attempt to first avoid any potential external shame. Reminding our inner critic that progress is a process and that we walk in grace, can greatly silence the shame we experience, as well as silence our inner critic.
5. Practice self compassion. Sometimes the easiest way to show ourselves compassion is to treat ourselves the same way we would a dear friend. As odd as that may feel, we can practice speaking kindly to ourselves when shame begins to rear its head. Most of all, we can speak love over the hurt places deeply embedded in our hearts and minds and hold space for their healing. Many find this to be possible through prayer, mindfulness, and through real relationships with others.
The transformation of shame to self-compassion is powerfully beautiful, and is readily available for you in your life!