The Most Effective Way to Face Shame

In a previous post, I talked about the nature of shame within interpersonal relationships. I explained that the most powerful antidote for shame is internalizing the truth about one’s own inherent value as a person. At the very least, this process of internalization involves (1) adopting more accurate and compassionate core beliefs about oneself, and (2) reframing shame experiences in terms of guilt experiences when the facts of a given situation warrant it.

Transforming Shame into Guilt

But this antidote to shame begs a more fundamental question – namely, how does one face shame in the first place? This post is my response to that question.

At the outset, allow me to clarify what I mean by “facing shame.” I do not mean wallowing in shame or agreeing with the negative scripts that keep a person down; I mean facing an emotion that one is afraid of feeling. It is important to stop avoiding our feelings or burying shame under layers of denial, because when we bury shame, we burying it alive! It lurks beneath our conscious awareness, subtly reeking havoc in our relationships. In reality, the short-term gains of denial are not worth the long-term pains of relational fallout and self-hatred. So what can we do to come out of denial and face shame?

My first word of advice for someone feeling reluctant to face shame is to say “you are not alone.” Facing your fears is one of the most courageous acts you can perform. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the understanding that some things are more important than what you fear – namely, yourself and your relationships with others. The idea that you are even considering facing your fear is a sign of courage.

Second, I would say that support from others is essential for getting honest about shame and coping with the uncomfortable feelings that arise during the process of recovery. I repeat: there is no solo solution to shame. Is this scary? Yes. Is it humbling? Yes. But it’s absolutely vital. Reaching out to others means connecting with trusted people/counselors who can show you empathy and encourage you while you come out of hiding; it means finding a sponsor whom you can call upon when you need inspiration to keep going; it also involves a willingness to bring shame experiences into the light by uncovering them gradually. Remember, shame cannot survive being spoken and met with empathy. Secrecy and silence are the allies of shame, so speaking out in a safe, non-judgemental atmosphere is essential.

Third, I can’t emphasize enough how important tolerance skills are. A tolerance skill is a learned activity that enables you to feel distressing emotions without feeling overwhelmed. Such activities include grounding yourself in the present moment (see video below), being mindful of pain without trying to avoid it or fight it, engaging in self-compassion and self-care, and providing yourself with feelings of safety during the recovery journey. I discuss these (and many more) tolerance skills in an audio recording of the third lecture in my Overcoming Shame series. It’s entitled “Facing Shame,” so please tune in when the audio is uploaded.

How to Ground Yourself

Fourth, the good news about facing shame is that (with regular practice) you can train your brain not to be paralyzed by shame feelings anymore. They may be uncomfortable or even painful, but they can be tolerated, contained, and felt without being overwhelming. In fact, tolerance skills are so crucial that I would recommend that people start with developing these skills early on, before attempting to process their shame experiences in detail. You’ll need self-care techniques in order to persevere over the course of your own recovery. Yet, I guarantee you, with the internal support of these tolerance skills, and the external support of trusted others, you will be well on your way to overcoming shame.

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