Many of us grow up with deflating messages that something’s wrong with us, we’re not good enough, and we don’t measure up. When the water we swim in is saturated with shame, we may not notice casual acts of caring or spontaneous expressions of love.
When we’re valued for our accomplishments rather than for whom we really are, our self-worth becomes linked to our net worth — or the power and charm of our personality. Scrambling to create a self that we think will win acceptance and avoid being shamed, we lose touch with our natural self — our basic goodness, beauty, and innocence.
When our precious innocence has been pierced by sharp words such as “What’s wrong with you?” or “When will you finally grow up?” or “You’re so selfish,” we conclude that the world isn’t a safe place to be and show ourselves. We internalize a sense of being flawed or a failure. We become painfully cautious and guarded in our interactions, courtesy of relentless shaming.
The good news is that by becoming more mindful of how shame operates, we begin to heal it, thereby allowing us to interact with the world with more openness, spontaneity, and joy. Perhaps we can also find some comfort in realizing that we’re not alone. Those who claim to have no shame are often the ones who are the most burdened by it.
It takes courageous awareness to acknowledge the shame that has taken up residence in our nervous system. Shame thrives in darkness. The first step toward thawing this frozen belief is to become aware of when it’s operating. One place it shows up is when someone tosses us a compliment, a tender word, or some gift of caring. When this happens, does your internal process go something like this?:
“I’m touched that you see my inner goodness and beauty. Something in me relaxes and smiles to be appreciated and valued. I’ll allow myself to take a deep breath and receive your lovely gift!”
Well… maybe instead, we become prey to an inner critic that silently shouts, “Don’t let a compliment go to your head. This person doesn’t really know you. If they did, they wouldn’t be so kind. You don’t deserve such generosity, so just offer a quick “thanks” and exit this uncomfortable situation, which painfully reminds you of how unworthy you really are.”
Ouch! Sadly, this negative self-talk blocks us from receiving good stuff. Rejecting compliments and the impending connection embedded in them, we remain emotionally malnourished and isolated.
People often sense when we’re chronically armored and have trouble receiving. As shame keeps our receptors clogged, we broadcast the message: stay away! Our lack of receptivity disinvites future compliments.
Shame is like the mythological Hydra — the many-headed monster. As soon as you lop off one head, several more appear. If you try to strong-arm yourself into getting rid of your shame or think something’s wrong with you for having it, you’ll only intensify it.
A step toward healing shame is to notice when it arises. How does it feel in your body? Meeting it with kindness and curiosity allows you to find some distance from it. A step toward greater freedom is learning to have a relationship with shame rather than being fused with it.
The next time someone offers a kind word or deed, notice how available you are to receive it. If you feel your skin crawling or an instinctual inner freeze, just be gentle with that. Observe what’s happening from a mindful place. If you notice critical self-talk, you can challenge this and replace it with kinder thoughts about yourself. Through such gentle attention, you might find that some of the shame subsides, allowing your receptors to gradually unclog, awaken, and receive more graciously.
Explore how comfortable you are letting in a kind word — and more important, letting the person in. If you notice shyness or awkwardness, that’s wonderful. It means you’re human. Allow it to be there, along with any pleasant feelings. Embracing yourself just as you are is an antidote to shame. Moving between uncomfortable and pleasant feelings is part of the rhythm of giving and receiving — the wondrous dance of being alive and making contact with our fellow humans.