Before we can talk about an antidote to shame, we need to know what shame is. My best definition of shame is the deeply felt sense that the self is defective or inadequate compared to a standard of what it should be. Most of the time these standards are false, but when they take hold, the self lives in a continual state of not feeling good enough. You feel as if your identity is somehow stained, broken, or deficient. Shame is hard to detect because it is usually felt unconsciously. When the self feels threatened by the negative evaluations of others, shame often shows its face indirectly through fear and anger and can easily be mistaken for those emotions. It takes a lot of self-awareness and humility to actually uncover the emotional mask that shame wears.
So if you struggle with shame, what can you do about it? By far, the most powerful antidote to shame is internalizing the truth about your own inherent value as a person. I don’t mean just intellectual truth. I mean truth which reaches all levels of the person – emotionally, physically, spiritually, cognitively, and behaviourally. Most of us have a screwed up value system. We measure our value by how we perform, our career, how pretty we look, how pleasing we can be, how smart we are, etc. When the reality is, we have unearned value – a value that is not up for grabs just because we happen to be having a bad day. The idea of value that we cannot earn is so foreign to most of us because we are used to living in an exchange mentality. That is to say, if we perform, we get congratulated. If we mess up, we get reprimanded. Living in a performance based value system makes it impossible to overcome shame.
So we need to ask ourselves, what makes us valuable? That is a philosophical question, but let me start with the example of a newborn baby. It has entered the world with no credentials, no performance, and no achievements – nothing. Yet, as any good parent knows, the baby is valuable. Why is that? Well, we know that newborns are individuals with amazing potential: in their own unique ways, they can experience affection, love, compassion, and pleasure from others. They can also (with time) develop their own ability to give affection, offer love, and engage in meaningful relationships with others. Just having the potential for these things makes them valuable. They don’t have to do anything. All they need to do is be who they are.
Similarly, we as adults have a worthiness that is distinct from how well (or poorly) we may perform. We are “grown up infants” with amazing potential and we don’t need to prove that potential in order to have it. This may be hard to wrap our minds around, but reflection on everyday examples (like the one above) bears this out.
Admittedly, when it comes to recovery from shame, it’s not enough to just intellectually know you are valuable. Most people acknowledge their worth on a surface level, but that knowledge needs to go deep, deep down into their bones. So how can you do this? There are so many ways (!!), though for reasons of space, I will highlight two of the most important ones:
First, you need to transform your perspective. Too often people feel shame about failures in their behaviour, when a more fitting emotion would be guilt. Unlike shame, guilt is about an external behaviour which fails to measure up to a perceived standard of conduct. You may feel bad about a misdemeanour, but that is distinct from who you are; it does not mean you are bad. For example, if you dent a car accidentally, it means you acted poorly and can rectify the situation with amends (guilt). It does not mean you are stupid or a klutz (shame). Being able to turn shame into guilt by rightly attributing the cause of your feeling to something external to you is a power transformation. This takes practice, practice, practice 🙂
Second, learn how to adopt new beliefs about yourself. All of us have deep seated assumptions about ourselves, others, and the outside world which are usually negative. For example, due to unfortunate childhood experiences, you might believe that you are weak, that others are strong, or that the world is a threatening place. These beliefs need to be challenged. What I mean is, they need to be verbalized or written down and then subjected to critical scrutiny using facts and evidence, with the least amount of interpretation as possible. With time, you will begin to see the world from the perspective of a person who feels safe, known and loved – and that person will be you! In my talks on Overcoming Shame, I explain in more detail how to adopt new core beliefs and transform your perspective, so stay tuned!