What emotion comes up for you when you read that word?
What happens in your body when you allow yourself to feel shame?
For most of us, it’s a painful, visceral emotion that can be crippling. It can cause us to shy away from certain areas of our life. Play small. Compromise considerably. Be unhappy.
What Shame Is
Let’s review Wikipedia’s entry for the word shame to learn more about the origins of this word.
Shame is a negative, painful, social emotion that results from comparison of the self’s action with the self’s standards. Both the comparison and standards are enabled by socialization. Though usually considered an emotion, shame may also variously be considered an affect, cognition, state, or condition.
The roots of the word shame are thought to derive from an older word meaning “to cover”; as such, covering oneself, literally or figuratively, is a natural expression of shame.
A “sense of shame” is the consciousness or awareness of shame as a state or condition. Such shame cognition may occur as a result of the experience of shame affect or, more generally, in any situation of embarrassment, dishonor, disgrace, inadequacy, humiliation, or chagrin.
You can measure your shame through the ways in which you talk to yourself. When your negative self-talk is focused on you versus the behaviour, that is shame.
Shame sounds like this:
>> I’m a terrible mom
>> I am such a loser
>> I’m a complete idiot
>> I’m such a disappointment
>> I’m a failure
When you focus on the behaviour instead of on yourself, that is guilt.
Guilt sounds like this:
>> I let my child down
>> I did something stupid
>> I disappointed myself
>> I made a mistake
Understanding the difference between the two will help you to better navigate your self-talk and your emotions.
The $45,000 Demand Letter
A few years ago, I received a letter regarding my business taxes and with it, a demanding letter stating that I owed $45,000 and needed to pay it within 30 days of the receipt of the letter. The letter was both a surprise but also not surprising. I had put my bookkeeping and accounting on the backburner, I hadn’t hired an expert to take control of that area of my business and I had missed a key step, which prompted the letter. Needless to say, shame was something I felt greatly in that moment.
After receiving the letter and telling my partner, I went into full-on panic attack mode. I couldn’t eat, sleep or focus on anything else in my life. I went through the daily motions feeling nauseous and my brain played out every possible worst-case scenario. I thought about selling the house, moving in with my parents, selling my possessions… What I knew to be true is that I didn’t want anyone to know about my mistake. I didn’t want to feel embarrassed about my poor bookkeeping skills and I didn’t want to admit to myself (and others) that I messed up.
Negative self-talk at this time was: I’m terrible at this, I should just quit my business… I’m such an idiot for missing this! I’m so stupid. I’m such a failure.
I decided that it was time to hire an accountant and I remember e-mailing him before our meeting to specifically ask him not to judge me or lecture me about what I should have done. I simply wanted to problem solve what was in front of us and talk about future helpful strategies when I was in a place of clarity. He agreed.
The first meeting found me sitting in his office, in tears, feeling incredible amounts of shame and self-consciousness around the giant mess I had made. It turns out the problem was actually pretty easy to solve. At the end of the incredibly painful saga, I came out with a refund instead of owing $45,000.
After the final paperwork was filed, I then opened up to my family and friends who had been deeply concerned about me through that time. Everyone I told said the same thing: “You should have told me while you were going through it! We would have supported you.” It was true. When I needed those people the most, I pulled away. The shame and embarrassment I felt for lapsing on this piece of my business made me feel awful. It made me feel like a failure.
The reason that it held an incredible amount of shame for me was because I looked at my other entrepreneur friends and I thought that they had that area of their business figured out (some do, some don’t) and it made me feel embarrassed that I couldn’t get a good handle on the day-to-day accounting. I also felt that any message that I put out about failure, even that which was not directly related to public-facing business, would jeopardize my future success and cause people to view me as inferior or incapable.
Once I started opening up about the experience described above, more of my entrepreneur friends came clean with their own accounting and bookkeeping stories. I realized that I was not alone.
Negative self-talk at this time was: I made a mistake, I got behind on my bookkeeping and I made the right decision hiring someone to look after it. I learned a valuable lesson here.
In an article on shame, written by Nathan Heflick for Psychology Today, research was quoted that I found incredibly valuable:
Research headed by Montana State University professor Matthew Vess suggests that you can greatly reduce the shame you feel by one simple thing: being yourself. Ok, so maybe that isn’t as easy as it sounds. But when you live an authentic life, and are true to your values, you are less likely to feel shame. This is opposed to living a life where you do and think what you believe others want you to do, or live your life pressured into doing things.
I also came to the realization that I was holding tightly to the idea of perfectionism. I didn’t want to hire an accountant because I had a superwoman complex. My belief was that I could do it all and needed to do it because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done right. Once I began to shed my need to be perfect, I began to be more honest about my strengths and weaknesses and put people and processes in place to support me where needed. Owning my imperfections meant living a more authentic life.
How much of the life you’re living right now is authentic? How much of your life feels true to who you are?
I See You Skeleton in the Closet
I was having lunch last week with a new friend and I commented on the fact that I am an over-sharer and that, generally speaking, people will know a whole lot about me over the course of one lunch, dinner or coffee. I hide very little about my own story and have always said that there’s very little that someone could tell me about myself that I wouldn’t already know (good, bad or otherwise.) What this means for me is that I tend to shine light into the dark parts of who I am in an effort to have very little to hide. Having very little to hide means I feel little to no shame about the things I do in my life.
Stepping into a place of honesty and vulnerability means that I get to own the pieces of my story that feel dark or embarrassing or that make me feel inferior. When I own the parts that are less than stellar, it empowers me to handle what comes along with those things: emotions, negative feedback and other people’s “stuff.” I can prepare myself.
When you own your stories fully, you also become more okay with what those stories say about you. You begin to understand that one story does not define your entire life but it helps to weave together the fabric of what makes you who you are. You understand that there is an innate difference between who we are and what we do.
Skeletons in the closet feel dark and depressing because they have no heart or soul. They are dry, brittle bones that are trapped in a dark space. However, once they are given heart (ie: giving the emotion a name, breathing compassion into the situation, etc.) they no longer loom over your shoulder, haunting you with their presence.
Whatever you are going through in your life right now and whatever feels heavy or shameful, there is likely at least a handful of other people going through the exact or similar scenario. When you open up about your failures, your downfalls or your less-than-positive human experiences, other people will feel empowered to step and say, “Me too.” You will quickly realize that you are not alone. Not even a little bit.
Transforming shame is possible if you’re willing to walk through vulnerability using courage and openness.
Shame can often alienate and silence.
Speak your shame, give it a name, a voice and an emotion. You can do this on your own by talking to yourself as though you would talk to your best friend or child going through the same situation. Provide positive encouragement to yourself and give yourself time to process either by journaling or meditating over the area you feel shame. Or, you can do this with a trusted partner, friend or family member and use the opportunity to practice vulnerability, trust and courage.
The key is to really feel into it and not replace the feelings of shame with a coping mechanism.
Shine light into the dark parts of your life.
Own the parts of your story that may make you appear less than perfect.
Be willing to live courageously and vulnerably even if you are terrified.
Especially if you are terrified.