The reason I’m writing about shame so much recently is that I can see how common it is to the human experience and how it cripples us, creating more drama in our lives than in the typical soap opera on daytime TV. I see how it stops us from being our brave selves. I see it in clients and friends, in people all around me. I see it in all of the haters on social media and in the self-righteous commentators on TV and radio. I can see it is because I’ve come to know it so well myself.
Shame is that awful feeling we have when we feel like we aren’t worthy of being loved, when we feel that profound disconnection from others we need. Shame is ubiquitous (only sociopaths feel none) and it’s easy to understand why. Chalk it up to civilizing children. Lord knows how many times as tiny children we heard “no”, “stop”, “that’s bad” as our parents did their best to keep us safe and under some measure of control. (My father used to say that I got myself into so much trouble, it would be a miracle if I made it to 21.) Then as older kids, we might have heard “what do you think you are doing?” or “shame on you” or “you know better than that” because adults wanted to keep our sexual curiosity in check due to the unintended consequences of that (pregnancy, STDs, big hurts), not to mention the iconic bad decision making of teenagers. All of these phrases were meant to stop us and create a course correction of sorts, but because the sentiment was based in judgment, they also generated this awful feeling called shame.
You feel guilt when you think you’ve done something bad. You feel shame when you think that you are bad.
It hurts to be judged, especially by the people who love us the best. Afterall, if they think we’re bad, we must be bad.
If you or your child is a perfectionist, shame is at the root, hiding, stealthy, even sneaky. Maybe your culture approves of this drive for absolute perfection. Maybe you’ve won awards or have taken your personal value from the perceived admiration of others around you. College admissions certainly stokes this up. But make no mistake – hidden away, shame wreaks havoc in your life. It messes with your health since the fear of doing something wrong keeps you in a chronic state of fight-flight-or-freeze.
Does your child have physical issues like stomach pain or headaches or even repetitive sports injuries? Yup. There’s shame under there.
Shame also interferes with your relationships, because you are only as good as your last success and no one can be allowed to know what a screw-up you really are inside. You’ll always hold a piece of yourself apart, for fear of rejection. Been there. Done that.
So no intimacy or rest for you. Ever.
Saddest and most important of all, there is little creativity being expressed because to do that is to risk rejection and the shame within you will not let that happen. So over time you do what you’ve always done, except really really really well. Over and over. Deluding yourself into thinking you’re growing. One-trick pony. And all the wildly interesting stuff, the juice of life within you that thrives on risk and change, goes unexpressed… and we all lose.
So what’s the point of hanging on to shame? Does it protect us in the long run and make our life worth living? Nah. It’s actually more like a silent and creepy cancer that chokes us off from our authentic self.
If you are not thriving the way you’d like, and you have always been a perfectionist, go immediately and read some Brene Brown, the shame researcher. She’ll tell you all about it in the most hilarious way. She’ll describe how shame thrives in secrecy and silence. In fact, the less you talk about it, the more exponential its growth. When you finally understand it, you’ll want to expose shame to oxygen and sunlight when it surfaces next. Best of all, you’ll want to make a joke about it. (Shame hates to be made fun of.) You’ll laugh about it and share it with those who have earned the right to hear it. You’ll swap shame stories…(Warning: don’t share shame stories with just anyone because shame-based people will only make you feel worse. Share with friends that offer compassion and empathy. Shame hates empathy.)
Soon, swapping shame stories will be the new black.
It won’t take long before you’ll feel more relaxed, more comfortable in your skin. And best of all, that creation power that was waiting in the wings to be noticed and expressed will open up your life in ways you cannot imagine. All good.
I still get paralyzed by shame a few times per day, but at least now I notice it for what it is and I laugh, saying out loud, “Oh, yeah. Should HaveAlready Mastered Everything. Hilarious. Good try.”
So here’s your homework assignment for the week: tell someone who has earned the right to hear it your scariest shame secret. Then give yourself lots and lots and lots of approval because you just took a giant step toward freedom.