Shame is an insidious emotion that can sabotage our lives, especially when we’re unaware of its presence. Shame is like the many-headed mythological hydra. As soon as we lop off one head, two more appear.
We may be unaware of the shame we carry and what triggers it. One way to detect whether shame is contaminating our operating system is if we often get defensive and reactive. Perhaps our partner expresses disappointment that we didn’t complete a chore and we immediately think, “Nothing I do is ever enough. I’ll never make her happy!” We might defensively respond, “I was just about to do it, you’re always on my case!”
Our reactive anger may spring from a fear of losing love and acceptance. We’re prey to the fight, flight, freeze response when there is a real or imagined threat to our emotional safety. But another possibility is that a subtle shame is being triggered. Somewhere deep down we might think, “She’s right. I did promise to fix the damn faucet and I got distracted by other things.” Or, “I’m overwhelmed at work and need time to relax. But if I say this, then I won’t appear as the hero I want to be. I’ll feel like a failure.”
In this instance, we may feel embarrassed or ashamed to acknowledge our limitations. Clinging to unrealistic views sets us up for a shame attack. How can we be so sure that our partner won’t understand our need for rest and relaxation — especially if we express it in a kind way? Can we simply be ourselves instead of striving to be a hero?
Here are some common voices of shame, followed by a wiser, more realistic inner voice that reflects self-care and self-acceptance.
- “I should be able to do it all. Any limitation is self-imposed.”
Everyone has limits. A wise person accepts his or her limits. We’re not gods or goddesses. We’re vulnerable human beings who would do well to embrace humility.
- “Being a good partner means always saying “yes” to my partner’s (and other people’s) requests and desires.”
A step toward healing shame is to pause, go inside, and sense when it feels “right” to say yes, no, or maybe. It’s OK to say, “Let me sit with that and get back to you.” But make sure you do get back to him or her! Otherwise you might feel shame for not following through — and you may set yourself up for an angry, shaming response due to your lack of responsiveness.
- “I might be seen as inadequate or see myself as weak if I don’t conquer every challenge.”
We’re actually the most weak when we overextend ourselves rather than pick our battles wisely. We set ourselves up for shame when we take on too much.
- “If I try to fix the faucet and don’t succeed, then I’ll really feel like a jerk!”
If you have a tendency to procrastinate, notice whether a subtle shame is operating. Some people put things off as a defense against possible failure. If they never initiate a new art project or pursue a career advancement, then they don’t have to face failure or rejection. Such hidden logic is a defense against feeling shame. Fee and Tangney have stated that feelings of shame may both be motivator and result of procrastination.
Shame carries a signature often written in invisible ink. We may sense that something doesn’t quite feel right, but we quickly dismiss our subtle, felt sense of things rather than honor what our feelings are trying to tell us. We ignore the heaviness in our chest or the crimped feeling in our stomach. Or, we push down the anger that bubbles up, which is trying to say, “Enough! I can’t handle one more task!”
Instead of taking time to listen to what our feelings are trying to tell us in the best way they know how, we’re hijacked by shame. We may feel stuck without knowing why.
Having shame doesn’t mean we are shameful; it just means we’re human. By cultivating a gentle mindfulness toward whatever we’re experiencing — including shame when it rears one of its heads — we can bring it out of the shadows and offer it some air. Being gently aware of and unashamed of our shame is a step toward allowing it to settle. We are then better positioned to hear the quieter music of our authentic feelings and longings that are percolating just beneath them.
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