"Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket" - Brene Brown.
Brene is my go to when I’m dealing with shame, my own in my head, or someone else’s in my therapy room. I wish I had discovered her years ago, I think about all the time wasted on feeling shame for things that were beyond my control, for choices that I made that in hindsight were perhaps not the best choice at the time but were the best I could do in that moment with what I had. What I have learned is that shame is linked with vulnerability.
I spent years being 'perfect' not allowing myself the freedom to be vulnerable. Unfortunately, this meant that of course I crashed and burned. It’s impossible to be perfect 100% of the time, it’s impossible to please everyone and never make a mistake.
Because I set myself up to be perfect when I did mess up, the results were an almost crippling sense of shame that threatened my very existence and felt as though every ounce of dignity that I fought so hard to retain was shredded and lost. In so many ways I am emotionally resilient. I have picked myself up from the floor many a time, but this was easier when I was being done to, when the pain I felt was not of my doing, when I was the victim in the situation.
There was no shame for me in being a victim, I could rage, I could call people out, I could lick my wounds, talk about oppression if i wanted to, politicize the situation.
When I was the one in the wrong that I couldn't bear. That would lead me to hide away, to push people away. I don't make mistakes, it’s not OK for me to mess up. I was my harshest critic and if anyone questioned me my shame came out as anger. Tears of course are for the weak, and I am not weak! I am strong and independent and empowered.
Yes, in many ways I am all of that, but I’m also vulnerable, and human and that part of me I hid away in my shadow. That part of me is what caused that intense shame that Brene has so awesomely researched and explained to me via blogs, TED talks and books over the past few years.
We judge ourselves
Shame is about judgement, the way we judge ourselves, and the way that we assume that others will judge us. For some its more about others judgements of us, for others its more about the way we judge ourselves.
For me it’s about both. I would judge myself terribly, but also be afraid about the way that others would judge me. This would cause me to hide away, to refuse to talk about my actions for fear that I was as a bad a person as I thought I was.
Did this help? Hell no! All it did was to make the situation bigger and worse in my head and cause me to act totally from a place of fear. The shout and rage more, to push people away whilst trying my best to prove to others that I’m a good person – so massive people pleasing behaviour set in!
Working with shame
A healthier way to work with the shame I feel is to embrace it. To ask myself what is causing me to feel shame, to acknowledge my behaviour, to talk about it, to apologise to the person I feel I have wronged.
Shame is a difficult emotion to work with. It’s a scary emotion and that’s because by acknowledging it we open ourselves up to the fact that actually our behaviour may have actually been as bad as we think it was, and that can be a difficult pill to swallow.
There is also of course the possibility that even when we acknowledge and apologise we may not be forgiven and that it may have a lasting effect on our relationships, it may also lead to us being rejected. This is where I have learned that leaning in to the fear of what may happen although difficult, is ultimately still the healthiest choice.
Unspoken, hidden shame is a timebomb waiting to explode and can cause much more damage in the long term. I was talking with a client recently who told me about a situation that highlights this brilliantly. Following his divorce, he was feeling ready to think about dating. He was on his first date, nervous, feeling unsure. He was enjoying the date, but feeling anxious. So, he had a drink, and then another to help him get over his nerves. His date then asked him a question about his past. A question that for him hit straight at his pain point, and the shame of his past was activated. From that point on the date was a car crash. He told me that he was left with even more shame following his behaviour and he had ended up sabotaging the whole evening and ended up with the voice of I told you that you weren’t good enough in his head. His behaviour totally served that negative belief that because of his past he would not be good enough for anyone ever again.
We worked through this over the coming weeks. It was helpful of course as it helped him to name his core belief and embrace the fact that he was self-sabotaging. It enabled us to do the deep work that was necessary for him to do to move on from his past and let go of the shame he felt. He allowed himself to be vulnerable.
He is now ready to forgive himself and to move forward. He has since had another date with a different person (the original person chose not to forgive him, and that he decided was OK). This date he used the tools we had worked on before he met her, he did not rely on alcohol, and he had fun. What happens next in unknown, but his self-esteem and dignity is intact.
Acknowledge the feelings
So, in a nutshell, shame is a dark emotion that often is difficult to acknowledge. When we allow ourselves to acknowledge the feeling we can work to release it and move on. It really is possible to do this, but only by embracing our vulnerability as a human being will we allow it to happen.
Click here to watch Brene Brown’s TED talk here for more information.
For more information about how we can support you through this or other areas that are causing you emotional unrest, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org to book a complimentary 15 minute clarity call.