Some emotions cause an almost physical pain, and shame is one of them. I’ve heard people describe it as a knife in their gut; a slave driver wielding a whip; or a gray blanket weighing them down. It’s also lonely—despite being a common feeling and part of everyone’s experience, shame can make a person feel as if he or she is the only one who has ever dealt with it.
I talk a lot to people in therapy about “leaning in” to feelings they think of as “bad” (sadness and anger, for example), and working on accepting them. And this is an important step. But other times, we just need to put difficult feelings aside. Not indefinitely, so they’re rejected or crammed down, only to bounce up again. But temporarily, to override the constant pain that keeps us from functioning, so we can get back to our day.
Shame occurs when we do or feel something we think others will judge as very bad. This goes beyond listening to our own conscience telling us we’ve done something immoral; it’s more like carrying a nasty high school clique in our brains, sneering at our every move and laughing at us. Either we heard someone judging us, such as a parent or peer, or imagined we did, and then we swallowed the condemnation, just as you’d swallow medicine off a spoon. Now we’ve absorbed the criticism, and we hear it so often in our minds that it becomes part of us—making it very hard to get away from.
How Shame Invades
Often, we can’t even gauge if our shame is reasonable. Feeling ashamed of purposefully hurting someone makes sense; it can keep us from acting this way in the future. Feeling shame for accidentally tripping in public, however, is exhausting and unrealistic. It’s linked to perfectionism and a false idea that people are judging us for every little mistake we make.
Because we’re all fallible and make mistakes, ranging from small (tripping) to large (screwing up a work assignment), feeling shame at every misstep keeps us from being confident and can severely limit our productiveness, causing even more shame. If we sit around in fear of what others may think of us, we become more timid, less likely to take risks, and less willing to have adventures. This apprehensiveness is one of the main barriers to happiness.
Like every other feeling that drags us down, shame can at times feel insurmountable. But as with every other feeling, we can control it.
How to Rise Above Shame
Analyze your shame. Ask yourself who the judge is: do you really think your action was that terrible, or are you imagining other people criticizing you for it? If it’s the latter, who do you think is judging you? Did you grow up with a shaming parent, and do you want to continue listening to that parent? Then ask a few more questions: Do you care? Are these people whose opinions you value? Are you sure their opinions are so negative? Would you judge them as harshly if they did the same? Is there any way to check if they are truly criticizing you or if it’s all in your head?
Have compassion and kindness for yourself. Imagine what you would say to a friend who had done what you have done. Shower yourself with the kind of gentle loving you would give to a child. Turn to the activities that make you feel more calm and cared for, and treat yourself, even if (especially if) you feel that you don’t deserve it.
Check your values. This makes having compassion for yourself a little easier. Do you truly believe that people should be perfect and never make mistakes? Would you hold others to that standard? If not, it isn’t a real value of yours. Here’s a sample values worksheet to figure out what’s most important to you. If you try this and discover, say, that you value kindness, honesty, and generosity, check to see if the memory you’re feeling ashamed of has violated one of these core values. If not, then you can find some relief in knowing that you’re living up to your own standards. Going back to our values makes it easier to see if we’re judging ourselves, or if the judgment is coming from the outside. If we have integrity—when we know our values and live according to them—then there’s nothing to be ashamed of. If we’ve violated a core value, then we know exactly where to make improvements.
Finally, talk to someone. Call a friend you know can offer the kindness you can’t find within yourself. Find a therapist who listens without judgment. Surround yourself with understanding so that you can absorb it, copy it, and learn to give it to yourself on a daily basis. A part of you knows that beating yourself up is not helpful and never leads to making you a better person. So try to stop the cycle of shame by reaching out and within.