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Stepping Out of Shame

Michelle looks at how shame plays out and what can be done.

Last week I explored the inner critic so that we might recognise when and why it comes into our lives.  To understand why the critic stays with us and why we feel apt to believe in it, let’s explore the role of shame in our psyche. 

                                                         Credit @dnevozhai

Shame is an ancient human emotion which like most of our puzzling modern day reactions makes sense if we consider it from a survival perspective. 

Shame and disgust are physiologically one and the same emotion. Shame could be said to be self-disgust.  Disgust helps us to react safely to things which might harm us, think about your natural repulsion from mouldy food or a nasty smell.  

To feel shameful is therefore to feel that there is something wrong with you.

This may have been a helpful reaction for our tribal ancestors. If we were diseased, or injured, we would be a threat to the group survival.  

There are also theories which suggest shame also had a place in asserting hierarchies. 

Control and power amongst tribes can certainly be seen in the phenomenon of scapegoating and racism. Groups or society may deem certain individuals or tribes as being “less than” or “threatening”. The implication is always that qualities of the person or group are the source of the aberration.

How many of us might have grown up with a version of this in our households where we were not helped to understand a mistake we had made?  Rather we were berated and told how stupid/selfish/useless we were. 

In the same way that we internalise a critical voice of our caregiver, we internalise shame as our self image.

Self blame and shame can be our way of making sense of overwhelming emotional experiences.  To protect us from danger our survival brain seeks to find the source of a threat.  If we take the blame  “It must be my fault that I am being ignored or hurt” and shame “I am unlovable” then we think we know why a frightening situation is happening. 

Shame encourages isolation since if we are disgusting we will be rejected by our tribe and so it is safer for us to hide away. We may do this physically by avoiding relationships or emotionally by creating a false self that we show to the world.

Hence our shame cuts us off from one of the most powerful potential sources of healing shame which is to be fully seen and accepted by others. As we become introspective and disconnected we lose perspective about the wider world and we become focused only on ourselves and our faults.

Many of us may make choices for our lives which fit with this shaming self view.  We may choose partners who are cruel or abusive. Eating disorders or the compulsion to change our appearance can feel our only hope of becoming more acceptable. We may fail to flourish in our studies or jobs as we feel unworthy of our full potential.  Substances, anger or self harm may be our desperate attempts to escape from the pain of our shame.

Are you shame prone?

  • When things upset you do you you feel a strong urge to hide or disappear even to the point of feeling it would be easier to die?

  • Do you take the posture of shame when interacting with others or receiving feedback? E.g. body folded in on itself protectively, knees knocked, head bowed, perhaps blushing and feelings of anxiety.

  • Do you have a loud inner critic that berates you about your every move or about your personal qualities and/or physical appearance.

  • If people criticise you, do you get painfully offended sometimes to the point of angry outbursts?

  • Do you experience imposter syndrome or secretly worry nobody would like you if they knew the ‘real you’?

  • Are you an overachiever or perfectionist but never feel quite good enough?

How can we begin to heal from shame?

1) Recognise your triggers and the symptoms of your shame.  

Step back and name what is happening; “I am triggered” or “ I am in shame”. Give yourself space from completely becoming the shame reaction.

2) Express your feelings.

You can you use art, music, journalling to give form to what your shame feels like, what is its story. 

3) Quieten the inner critic.

Read my blog on this to help take away some of the fuel for shame.

4) Connect with others.

Since shame is essentially a fear of rejection, belonging can help to strengthen us against this.  Find common ground where you can feel safe to reveal your true self.

5) Come out of hiding.

Sharing gives the opportunity to connect and to start a positive upward spiral of understanding, empathy and acceptance.  Who is close to you that you trust? Practice sharing your feelings with them.  

6) Take a reality check.  

Can you separate yourself from your actions? Are you really a complete idiot or did you simply make a mistake. Is it a momentary embarrassment rather than everything being a disaster forever? Can you really not make amends and be forgiven? 

7) Compassion.

Use your kindness towards others as a template for how to treat yourself.  If a young child or friend acted as you do how would you react?  

8) Move a little.

Use biofeedback from your body to help shift how you feel. Practice moving your body in the postures of pride, happiness, excitement.

Remember that many of these suggestions may feel counterintuitive and scary since shame wants us to hide and tells us we are not worthy.  Trust that the warm light of self-compassion will lend comfort and encouragement to your efforts.  

Michelle Scott

Author: Michelle Scott

Psychotherapist & Eating Disorder Specialist MSc BSc RMHN (Reg MBACP) London & Edinburgh

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