We often hear about the destructive aspects of shame — how it’s toxic to our happiness and well-being. As a psychotherapist, I continually see how shame holds people back. But can there be a healthy and helpful aspect to shame?
Shame is that painful sense that tells us we’re flawed and defective. Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin, who lead popular workshops for helping professionals, describe shame as “a primary emotion and a freeze state, which has a profound effect on personal development and relationship success.”
Believing that there is something inherently wrong with us, we’re robbed of the capacity to feel good about ourselves, accept ourselves, and affirm our basic goodness, which has a crippling effect on our lives. Such shame may be so painful that we dissociate from it — no longer even noticing it.
Many therapists, including myself, have written about the destructive quality of shame. But shame also has a positive aspect. If we try to jettison shame each time it arises, we will not avail ourselves of its constructive potential.
It takes robust self-worth to notice shame without being ashamed of our shame. If we can draw upon inner resources, we can become mindful of shame when it arises, which then opens the possibility of differentiating between destructive shame and shame as an ally. If we can catch our shame before it pulls us down the slippery slope of self-denigration (succumbing to a shame spiral), we might learn something about ourselves.
Allowing Ourselves to Be Imperfect
We spill a glass of water in a restaurant and people turn around to stare at us. We feel that uncomfortable surge of shame as we imagine how we’re being perceived negatively.
If we tend to carry toxic shame, we may curse under our breath and tell ourselves how dumb we are. “I wasn’t paying attention! I made a mess. I feel badly about myself!” This is a paralyzing, destructive shame that freezes us.
Bringing some gentle mindfulness to the situation offers the possibility of repair and healing. We can notice the shame without getting swept away by it. If we can hold on to our self-worth during that embarrassing moment, we can remind ourselves that we’re an imperfect human being. Making a mistake doesn’t mean that something is wrong with us; it simply means that we’re just like everyone else. We’re a part of the human condition.
A light sense of shame might offer relief. It’s a sober reminder that we don’t need to pretend that we’re perfect in order to be respected, accepted, or loved. This healthy shame makes us more supple and human. Maybe we can find some humor around our imperfections. It’s ok to be ourselves with a full array of strengths and limitations.
Correcting Our Tendency to Blame Others
I was recently looking for a parking spot in a busy lot. A driver seemed ready to pull out of a space. As their car was idling without backing up, I noticed myself getting impatient. “Doesn’t he know I’m waiting? How oblivious to my needs!”
Finally, the spot opened up and I disembarked and did some shopping. After re-entering my car, I checked messages on my cell. As I was backing out, I noticed a car waiting for my spot! Yikes! I was doing the same thing that I criticized someone else for doing! I felt the shame of having been so judgmental.
In this disconcerting moment, I smiled to myself, shook my head a bit, and noticed a touch of friendly shame. It got my attention—reminding me to be more accepting of others and not so self-centered. We all have reasons for doing what we do. We all get absorbed in our “stuff” sometimes. It’s just part of the human condition.
Being Mindfully Gentle with Ourselves
My shame in the above example was a good reminder to be more gentle with myself and others. We’re all a little insensitive to others’ needs sometimes. We don’t have total control over refraining from doing or saying things that hurt people sometimes. But we do have control over noticing the shame that tells us when we’ve crossed someone’s boundaries.
This healthy shame can get our attention and keep our lives and relationships healthy. Perhaps we notice this instructive shame as we’re about to say something hurtful or send a nasty email. Or, when we’ve violated someone’s dignity with a harsh word or insensitive action, we can apologize or find some way to repair broken trust. Gradually, such friendly shame may help us become more empathically attuned to each other. We can respond to others with greater wisdom and love, without needing the shame to remind us to be more sensitive.
Mindfulness practice is a helpful path to notice what is happening inside us when we’re reacting automatically rather than responding with a more conscious choice. We can gently turn our attention to how we’re feeling inside when someone does or says something that riles us. Perhaps old shame or fear is getting activated, which might trigger an angry reaction or shutting down.
Toxic shame is a debilitating and painful emotion that stifles our well-being and creativity. It may make us so cautious that we don’t take intelligent risks in our lives. Healthy shame arises from something in us that wants to stay positively connected to our fellow humans. From a survival standpoint we need to be connected and cooperative if our tribe is to survive. Shame tells us when we’ve strayed into some self-centered stance that disconnects us from the tribe and threatens our personal and collective well-being.
Let’s notice shame when it arises. Is it the toxic variety that diminishes us? Or might there be a redeeming aspect to it? A small dose of shame is sometimes a healthy thing—useful for personal development, repairing broken trust, and building a healthy community and society.
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Pixabay image by Sevenheads