Merriam Webster defines “shame” as “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety” and “a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.”
I feel shame every day, for no other reason than my inner critic constantly telling me I am not good enough. I keep my list of shortcomings to myself – why make others bear the long list of reasons they should not keep putting up with me? Why make them work to reassure me of the truth?
Because the truth is I’m a perfectly average human being. My faults are no greater than any other’s. I “know” this in my head. Yet, in my heart, I cannot shake this great burden of shame.
- I am an alcoholic/addict – shame.
- I am bipolar – shame.
- I have an eating disorder – shame.
- I have scars from self harm – shame.
These are just the highlights, and they are all difficult stories to own. But owning these stories is the only way out of the shame cycle.
Secrets Keep Us Sick
The less we talk about our shame, the greater power it has over us. But opening up and letting the light shine on our shame reduces it – if we share it with the right people.
This is why AA meetings are so important for me. They give me an opportunity to share my story with other people who “get it.” The other people in the rooms have been where I’ve been. They won’t heap shame on top of shame.
It’s important to own your story. By acknowledging it and sharing it, we can refuse to let it define us. We can keep it in perspective.
That’s one of the reasons I write this blog – it’s an opportunity for me to open up about what I’m going through. It’s a chance to let go of some of the shame I keep locked up inside.
What Are You Really Feeling?
Healthy shame is really guilt. And guilt can motivate us to apologize for a wrong we’ve done to someone. Guilt, while it feels awful, is a healthy feeling. It moves us in positive directions.
It could also be that what you’re really feeling is humiliation or embarrassment. These are also unpleasant feelings that can feel a lot like shame, but the difference here is that they come with a feeling of being undeserved.
Humiliation and embarrassment do not attack the self worth the way shame does. Guilt says, “I’ve done something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.”
Recognize Toxic Shame
Shame is never a healthy feeling. In fact, shame can become so overwhelming and overruling to a person that it becomes toxic. In my case, shame paralyzes me. It is how I view myself as a person.
I feel worthless, insecure, inadequate – essentially – less than. I shame myself for existing.
Research suggests that this comes about because I was told at some point (quite often) not that I had done something bad but that I am something bad. Feeling that I am bad means I feel I am incapable of changing or becoming better. I feel I was born this way, and I am utterly hopeless and unworthy of love.
When the people close to me try to give me love and kindness, I have a hard time accepting it. I don’t feel I deserve it. I try to mask my discomfort for their sake, but inside I am writhing with shame.
There is a way out of this toxic shame spiral.
Self-Compassion Is the Key
We speak to ourselves more than we will ever speak to another human being. We must learn to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion.
Find words of encouragement for yourself instead of words of criticism. Be your own best cheerleader instead of your own worst critic.
It’s easy to beat yourself up for mistakes made in the past. It’s easy to use the word “should.” Try being softer. Try being as kind with yourself as you are with others.
And I must learn to take my own advice. I must learn to silence the inner critic that harshly tells me I am not good enough – that I will never be good, that I will never be perfect or true.
The fact is none of us were made to be perfect. We were made to make mistakes and learn from them. We can learn from our mistakes with compassion. We can heal from old wounds with loving kindness.
When you are ready to tell your story, tell it with compassion and kindness towards your former self. Never forget that you are a miracle.