A buzz word. When I see it, I hide. I want to avoid it. I try to convince myself I don’t have shame after all, that it’s OK. My head is searching proofs to show me there is nothing to be shameful about. I might feel relief, for a moment and forget about it. But shame will come back, again and again, until you deal with it.
Shame shows up in many forms and many different arenas.
I know many of us had this dream: you are naked on a stage or somewhere public, against your will and to your surprise. We then wake up, very happy that it was just a dream.
We can also most likely remember times where we, as children, were told by a teacher or a parent that something we did was not acceptable in front of others. Or that “boys don’t cry” or “girls don’t climb trees.” As if being told we did something wrong was not enough, our parent or teacher wanted to make sure we did not do that again by making us feel guilty for being different, making a mistake, or having feelings. We were “shamed.”
Being shamed very easily translates into a strong ability to “self-shame.” For instance, during a presentation at work, we make a mistake or mix up something, see the confusion in our colleagues’ eyes, and automatically judge ourselves for being wrong. Somatically, shame may manifest as a change of temperature in our face (e.g., red cheeks), a tension in our stomach, dizziness, or/and a urge to hide or even disappear.
My own mechanism when I feel shame is to “check out:” I loose presence, I loose my sense of grounding, I go into my thoughts, looking for arguments to reassure myself. But, hey folks, that does not work in the long term. Believe me.
What are the consequences of not dealing with shame?
Shame won’t go anywhere else. It will show up again and again. You are in physical intimacy and feel you have to perform or be a certain way to reassure yourself: you check out from the connection. You tell yourself you cannot ask for what you desire, because it will be too much for others: you shut down. You believe you are too boring to start a blog or a website, or you compare yourself to the person on the yoga mat next to you and think you are lesser than them: you limit yourself.
So, how to deal with shame ?
What heals shame is to do the contrary of what shame wants: not hiding. Name what is happening. Share it. Sit with it.
When you are in a conversation with your partner or a close friend, and feel shame, whether it is your automatic “self-shaming” or the other “shaming you” to make themselves feel better, pause. Place a hand in front of you or on your chest, and say “I feel shame right now. I feel shame about…” and name what is shameful to you.
This is hard. But worth the journey. And instead of feeling withdrawn and disconnected from the other person, you will feel connected to them in a deeper way. Try it.
If you think that your partner or friend can not receive your share, ask them first. “I want to share with you a feeling that feels vulnerable to me. Can you listen?” Be ready to receive their “no.”
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Brené Brown
You can also be with your shame on your own. Writing about your shame can also be very helpful.
I remember walking on that beach in Maine last summer. The rain was imminent. Suddenly, I felt shame accumulated over the years, which I hadn’t faced: the shame of not showing up in the relationship with my wife. I had been here on the surface, attentive, a good “rescuer” and “pleaser” (see also Lynne Forrest’s video on the rescuer-victim-persecutor triangle). But I had withdrawn in challenging times quite consistently, for example when she would share her disappointment or a desire.
Feeling into the shame with presence takes a great deal of energy and vulnerability. But soon after the rain, comes the sunshine. Always.
You can also stay with your shame in a work situation or with a more distant person. In that case, pause a second, feel your feet, take a breath. Just name for yourself: “I feel shame right now, and that’s OK”. Later, when you are alone, come back to the shame and journal about the situation.
Shame often happens to me when I teach yoga: I instruct a pose twice on the same side, no-one can get into the pose, or I forgot to give an alternative pose to my student who has a wrist issue. Yesterday, when shame again showed up in my teaching, I did an experiment. I was starting to loose my ground, so I paused and told myself: “Everything is as it should be, I am here.” No need to say out loud “I feel shame right now.” I then went back to my students and carried on teaching.
Whenever you feel shame, remember you are not alone.
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” Brené Brown
On one level or the other, we all went through some conditioning that made us feel shame. If you start talking about your shame with your friends, good chances are that they will open up too. Shame is not an enemy to be fought and won over. Rather, see shame as a vulnerable friend whose desire is to be seen and accepted.
If you feel drawn, start here and share about your shame in the comments below: “I feel shame about…”