“Don’t get too big for your britches!” “Don’t think you’re better than anyone else!” “Don’t get a swelled head!” “Don’t think you are so great!”

Beginning as little children, we hear cultural messages that are meant to socialize and civilize us. We learn to keep our self-confidence in check in order to stay in the good graces of the people around us. Healthy shame makes sure we follow social rules such as not stealing, being honest, or not going to the bathroom in public. Shame is the emotion that ensures we fit in with the groups we need.

But there is a personal cost to maintaining good social standing. Over time, the brain habitually keeps us small. We lose the option to feel big and proud. Plus, we are not even aware that we are inhibiting ourselves. We just feel small. For example, when we are complimented we cannot fully take it in. We dismiss the affirming sentiment – a gift in many ways – with a perfunctory “thank you.” We hear the affirming words but we do not allow ourselves to receive the message deeply in our bodies. The cost is to our self-confidence.

We are not born ashamed of feeling big and proud. We are taught it. Shame gets triggered when we have an impulse to do or share something that previously got a negative response. Shame draws us inward and disrupts the natural functioning of the Self. Shame both protects us from repeating behaviors that once caused humiliation and prevents us from experiencing positive feelings that make us feel big.

Many of the adults I see in my practice have lost their ability to experience joy, excitement and pride. These expansive emotions provide nourishment for the soul and build self-esteem. Defending against these emotions has a big cost. We can’t feel the wonderful feelings these emotions naturally produce. Instead, at the first sign of feeling big and proud, our bodies remember the cultural message: “Don’t get too big for your britches!” “Don’t think you’re better than anyone else” and “Don’t get a swelled head.”

For example, now that Bethany is having success in her career, she is riddled with anxiety. She fears people will be angry at her for her success. Bethany feels shame and an impulse to diminish herself every time one of her accomplishments is acknowledged.

Mary needs constant compliments and reminders that she is liked. It’s as though she has a hole in her self-esteem bucket. No matter how much affirmation she receives, it doesn’t stick. She feels good for maybe two seconds and then the feeling evaporates, so she needs another fix. She has learned to block incoming good feelings.

As an experiential psychotherapist, I help people rebuild their inborn capacity to take in good feelings. I do this by helping people experience positive feelings physically, helping them stay with the experience as it unfolds inside. Helping people develop this capacity builds lasting self-worth and self-esteem. People actually come to feel physically stronger and bigger because they stop inhibiting the natural reflex to feeling good about themselves.

Some people fear that feeling good about themselves will make them conceited or egotistical. This does not happen. When people truly feel good about themselves, they have more to give to others, not less.

Both Bethany and Mary needed to build their emotional and physical capacity to experience joy and pride. Here are some ways I helped them and how you can work to build your capacity for positive emotions:

  • Begin to notice what you do when someone says something nice or complimentary. Do you refute it? Do you ignore it? Do you say thanks? Do you judge the person giving you the compliment?
  • When someone pays you a compliment, pause for a few seconds before you dismiss it. In the pause, notice, without judging, what the compliment evokes inside your body.
  • Try to name any and all emotions you notice: shame, anxiety, guilt, pride, joy, fear, disbelief, or judgment toward you or the person complimenting you. This helps your inner experience become more conscious. Awareness creates the potential for healing.
  • If you’re feeling brave, try to set aside any blocking thoughts or feelings to allow in some of the good feelings. Feel yourself expand — even a tiny bit helps build your capacity. Now, look the person giving you the compliment in the eye and say a heartfelt thank you! This helps validate the affirmation on a deep level. It lets your brain know that you’ve received the positive message. It also makes the other person feel appreciated for their gift.
  • Congratulations for working to patch the hole in your own bucket. You deserve it just because you exist.

Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.

Proud woman photo available from Shutterstock