WHAT IS IT?
Shame is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour” Thanks Google!
Wikipaedia also goes on to explain that though usually considered an emotion, shame may also variously be considered an effect, cognition, state or condition. And it can stem from a chosen action, or just be a state of self-regard. It is a state that stems from comparison of the self with the ideals accepted socially as ‘normal’. It can come from our inner beliefs about our action but is based on views of others, and we can be made to feel shame by others. It is a learned emotion. Shame is not the same as embarrassment, but is far more intense an emotion, and can become toxic and debilitating. It is not the same as guilt. Simply put, guilt is the belief I have done something bad, but shame is the belief that I am bad.
So why am I interested in this? Well, the feelings of shame and guilt associated with something in our past can affect our behaviour and the way we think of ourself. It makes up part of our recognition of our self worth. When shame becomes toxic, it can ruin our lives. Strong feelings of it stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, causing a fight/flight/freeze reaction. We feel exposed and want to hide or react with rage, while feeling profoundly alienated from others and good parts of ourselves. When triggered, we can behave in a way that causes further shame, and we can enter a cycle that makes our perception of our self worth plummet further with no obvious way out.
There must be ways to deal with shame to help us move forward, learn and grow. (* cue ‘Frozen’ theme song…). And there are!
I found various wonderful lists of strategies to help, and have taken my favourites from Barrie Davenport’s website.
1. Look at our childhood experiences from an adult perspective. Understand that things that we felt shame for were not our fault. We are adults now, with adult judgement and perspective. Look at the small, innocent child you and I were and how incapable we were of understanding and processing the expectations and hurtful behaviours of parents and significant adults, even benign behaviours that were well meant.
We may have so desperately needed their approval and unconditional love, and if that wasn't forthcoming, we grew to feel unworthy of acceptance and love. You were NOT at fault. Remind yourself of this whenever you feel your shame triggered.
Barrie suggests we ‘Try’ to find the original source of the shame. Describe or journal about the experience, and review it from an adult perspective. How does this perspective help you reframe the experience and understand it was not your fault? I would forget the word ‘try’ as this sets us up for failure. With RTT, I can help you actually examine and reframe the root cause as an adult, using hypnosis. Understanding in hypnosis is an incredibly powerful tool, that enables you to let the past go…
2. Recognise triggers that remind you of childhood feelings of shame. Self awareness can be hard at first as we layer so many layers of coping skills to keep us away from pain. So first you have to look at how you react to painful feelings, and then you look at what was it that made you react, what was the cause of pain. It may have been a minor criticism from a friend or colleague, or a rejection of some sort. I have been triggered in the past by criticism/questioning of my parenting choices!
Once you recognise what triggers you, you can learn to manage those, and those feelings. This leads to managing your thoughts. You can challenge your thoughts and recognise if the feeling is genuinely appropriate to the situation or if it is just a past hurt resurfacing.
3. Self-Compassion. This is all about demolishing that nasty bullying critical voice inside that tells yourself you are bad, unworthy and hopeless… Be as loving and kind as you would be to your best friend. Praise yourself, be gentle, understanding and know that we are all imperfect humans. The wonderful thing about the mind is that even if you don’t believe you are loveable and wonderful, the more you tell yourself, the mind accepts it. In the same way the subconscious had no sense of humour or understanding of sarcasm, it will accept the words you use on yourself.
4. Avoid people that remind and reinforce the shame . They may be critical parents that bring up the history every time they see you, or a bully from work, it may be a partner you are in a relationship with or friends that reinforce the feeling of shame. It is painful to end relationships even when a person manipulates your emotions and hurts you. But it is necessary if you want to be free of this burden. If it is a partner unintentionally triggering feelings of shame, have counselling together so they can understand the effect they are having, and how difficult it is for you, and can find ways of changing the patterns together and create boundaries that protect you.
5. Accept compliments, kind acts and love. The feelings of unworthiness attached to shame make it very hard to accept love and kindness from others. In fact, you might even distrust people who are kind to you because they can't discern that you are really unworthy. You feel like a fraud accepting goodness from others.
I'm sure you can see the dysfunction in this reaction to loving behaviour from others, but you can teach yourself a new way of responding. When someone is kind to you, don't diminish their act by rejecting their kindness. Practice accepting it openly and with gratitude. Accept compliments without deflecting or diminishing them. Allow yourself to trust the judgement of the person who sees the good in you.
This will take conscious, concerted practice, but over time it will feel more natural and pleasurable to relish kindness and appreciation from others.
6. Practice forgiveness. You may not really need forgiveness for anything, but it probably feels like you do. You want absolution for all of the “badness” that shrouds you. You want all of the shameful feelings to be washed away so you can finally feel good about yourself and enjoy your life.
The only person who can really offer that absolution is you. Whatever failings you might perceive in yourself, why not just give yourself some credit? Every person on the planet is flawed and has made mistakes. We all want and deserve forgiveness. This is part of the human condition that will never change.