(The picture is an ode to Game of Thrones)
I write a lot of articles about shame.
I do this because, in my professional and personal opinion, shame is at the root of everything that keeps us stagnant, that keeps us sick, and that keeps us feeling broken.
It’s important to remember that shame and guilt are two completely different emotional processes. Guilt is actually a healthy emotion that can be tied to motivation and growth. Shame, contrastingly, is counterproductive. It’s insidious. It grows inside of us, spreads its roots deep into our souls, and stays buried; penetrating every conversation, every relationship, every experience we have.
So what’s the difference?
Rule of thumb:
Guilt: I feel bad.
Shame: I am bad.
I often hear people combine these two emotions in one clusterfucked sentence that sounds something like, “I have a ton of guilt and shame.”
Well, which one is it? You may be experiencing both, but more often than not, one is more pervasive than the other. To feel guilty would lead me to want to make changes, but still have enough self-efficacy to know that I can. I can do better. I will do better. Yay for me.
Shame will lead me to feel unable of growth and of change. Shame leads me to the narratives that sound similar to, “this is just who I am, how I am, or what I am.”
As I mentioned in the article about “Why Your Relationships Suck,” those statements are complete bullshit. You aren’t “bad at commitment,” you just haven’t dealt with some serious wounds that have buried shame deep inside of you, leading you to believe that you’re incapable of it.
When I lecture or provide psychoeducation about shame, the most common question that typically arises, as did today, is “how do I let go of shame?”
My answer confuses some and frustrates most:
You don’t let go of it. You acknowledge it, accept it, and walk through it.
This can sound super abstract and vague, so I’m going to break it down in some tangible, doable ways that may help you, and have absolutely helped me, to walk through shame.
PART 1 – What are you ashamed of?
The first part of this lengthy, emotionally exhausting (but necessary!!!) process is to first identify where you hold shame. Just like any problem solving process, the first step is to actually identify the problem. Shame usually presents itself as feeling overwhelmed with a lack of self worth, beaten down by others (but mostly ourselves), and feeling not good enough. When I ask my clients what they are ashamed of point blank, they often stare at me blankly and say, “I don’t even know where to start, I’m ashamed of so much.” So let’s start with identifying what we’re ashamed of. Breaking it down.
We usually get really verbose in this area. We can start to go long, tangential tirades about how we’re ashamed that this one time, in high school, when we were broken up with, we freaked out and threatened suicide and made a whole big deal out of something quite trivial in others’ minds.
Or maybe we’re ashamed that during our active addiction (or even in sobriety) we lied, we cheated, we stole, we weren’t present for our family or our loved ones.
Maybe we’re ashamed that every time we look in the mirror we feel too fat, too thin, too flat chested, not muscular enough, too muscular.
Now how about we condense our shame into a simple shame narrative.
We trim the fat.
Your shame narrative is an “I am” statement. No fluff. No miscellaneous details. Just cutting to the core of what you're ashamed of.
Some common examples:
I am unloveable.
I am unworthy.
I’m ashamed of who I am.
I am ashamed that I am not enough:
Not smart enough
Not pretty enough
Not strong enough
Not accomplished enough
Not social enough
Not spiritual enough
Not good enough
I’m ashamed of how I am;
How codependent I am
How closed off I am
How open I am
How scared I am
How apathetic I am
How lost I am
How “damaged” I am
How hurt I am
How confident I am!
How insecure I am
How privileged I am
How unprivileged I am
How sober I am/am not
You get the point, I hope.
PART 2: Write down your shame narratives
Now that you understand what a shame narrative is, come up with a list that you’ll write down. And if you’re thinking, “okay Hannah, write it down? I’m reading this lengthy-ass article right now, isn’t that enough? I’m just gunna think my way out of this one.” YOU ARE MISTAKEN. This shit takes work. It’s no joke. Put your phone, tablet, or computer aside for a few minutes and jot down (on paper or even in the Notes app on your smartphone) some of your shame narratives.
Remember, these are “I am” statements that plague you. Even if a rational part of you is aware that these statements aren’t true all of the time, you likely still feel them sometimes. Write them down.
By this point, you’ll probably be feeling like shit.
PART 3: Detach from the shame narrative
IT’S GOING TO GET BETTER. I promise.
Now that you have your shame narratives, take a good, hard look at them. Are these characteristics that you display and feel 24/7, or are they susceptible to fluctuate, to ebb and flow depending on your mood?
None of what you wrote down is who you are. Some of them are how you’ve been.
These are VERY different narratives. This is how we learn to detach.
Let’s take a common shame narrative: I am a unlovable. These narratives may stem from multiple other, core narratives like “I am not good enough,” “I am not attractive enough,” and so on. Nonetheless, they manifest in feeling unlovable or unworthy of love.
This is a major issue in our lives because, as I will constantly quote from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,”
We accept the love we think we deserve.
So if I don’t believe I’m deserving of love because I’m not enough or I’m inherently unlovable, all my relationships are going to be fucked.
What are the facts to support your claim that you are unlovable?
Is this something that’s been told to you, or that you’ve been telling yourself, or both?
What evidence backs this up?
(Pro tip: it’s usually that someone hurt us, left us, abandoned us).
What would it be like for you to change the narrative?
You aren’t unlovable.
You feel unlovable sometimes.
You feel unworthy of love.
You’re working on being more open to love from yourself and others.
You’ve struggled with accepting love.
CHANGE. THE. NARRATIVE.
Throw the statement “I am unworthy” or “I am unlovable” out the fucking window.
It doesn’t serve you anymore.
Substitute this statement with literally any other shame narrative.
THROW IT OUT THE WINDOW.
It is keeping you stuck. It is keeping you isolated. It is keeping you in a dark hole that is impenetrable unless you start to shed light on it.
I used to always say, “I’m bad at commitment.”
NOPE. I just had a shit ton of pain I hadn’t dealt with.
I also used to always say, “I’m a people pleaser.”
NOPE. I just never leaned into the discomfort of setting boundaries, because I was unwilling to look at what was blocking me from setting boundaries. Therapy really helps with that, by the way.
Lastly, I used to call myself codependent.
Fun fact! Human beings are wired for connection. We all have traits of codependency within and around us. It’s what we know. It’s how we operate. But we don’t have to let feelings of control, fear, and mistrust guide our lives. We get to separate ourselves from the narrative and actively take matters into our own hands to change.
Stop labeling yourself as something and then blindly believing it to be true.
If you’re looking for evidence that you aren’t enough, you’ll find it.
But on the other hand, if you look for evidence that you are absolutely enough, that you are a worthy child of the universe that deserves just as much love and acceptance as any other human, you’ll find that, too.
PART 4: Talk about it
The only way to walk through shame is by connection. We can’t do this alone.
Tell on yourself. Tell on your shame.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
PART 5: Stop falsely advertising yourself on social media
It doesn’t help shame. It makes it worse.
We often construct a double life for ourselves by promoting this fairytale-esque life on social media, whether it’s videos of us working out, on a beach somewhere, in our “perfect” relationship, and so on…
and then when we feel pain or fall off our perceived pedestal by being human, we feel immense shame.
If you’re fighting with your significant other, don’t post on facebook about how great they are once you make up.
If you’re struggling with body image issues, don’t post a picture of you in a bathingsuit or at the gym working out to make yourself feel better by the amount of likes you get.
Social media is an insidious way for us to deepen our shame and disconnect ourselves from our peers. If you’re feeling good about yourself and want to share that with the world, awesome! Do it!
But if you’re posting to mask your shame, know this: it doesn’t work.
PART 6: Things to remember!
It’s okay to not be okay.
You cannot shame yourself into growth.
Everyone, literally every single person, experiences shame.
You are not alone.
We don’t connect via our perfections; we connect via our imperfections.
Let yourself be human, it’s a beautiful, raw, imperfect experience.
You will only feel enough when you stop seeking outside of yourself and start getting comfortable in your own skin and in your own mind. Stop distracting.
Lean into discomfort and let yourself walk through it even stronger.
And if you're still reading this...
You can do this.