My 2-year-old son was home with the flu. He was sick and more sensitive than usual—as most of us are because we feel so vulnerable in this state. He broke his fever, and we had apple sauce together, chatting about our day. When he was done, I went to help wipe the remains on his mouth with the spoon but moved too quickly and caught his teeth. It was not a hard scrape; however, in the sheer raw spot of being under the weather, he sobbed and sobbed.
I quickly felt his sadness, but then immediately this other not-so-good emotion washed over me—shame. This was one of my early pivotal parenting moments.
At this moment, I could have let my shame take over. When shame takes over, all we want is to get out of its discomfort—and in order to do so we often end up invalidating the other person involved to help ourselves feel better.
I had the urge to tell him, “It wasn’t that hard,” and “I didn’t mean to,” or “Okay that’s enough, brush it off.” All the emotionally invalidating expressions that end up making the situation about me and try to alleviate my own feelings.
I resisted the urge of what seemed so automatic, and instead, I just held him. I labeled his emotions of sadness and pain. And I apologized. I sat there, felt my shame and made a decision to put that on the side, and just stayed present with him. It wasn’t about me. This wasn’t my pain. Instead, I chose to stay present with him, let go of those hard thoughts and feelings, and stay connected. When he was ready, we resumed our chat and play.
Shame. As a psychologist, I am no stranger to this emotion. I see it daily in my office, but I, too, am familiar with this feeling. It is a core emotion that we all experience at some point in our lives.
Shame is the notion that one is unworthy, defective or a failure in some way. It is the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging,” according to best-selling author and sociologist Brené Brown.
As one of the most painful emotions experienced, shame disconnects us from others, leading to feelings of isolation. Often times we don’t even know we are feeling shame when it happens. Instead, we notice anger, sadness, fear, disgust, or many other emotions.
Not only do we not know what it looks like, it even triggers ways to respond just like I wanted to at the moment with my son: blame the other, deny their emotions or experience, or even withdraw, shut down and avoid situations or conversations altogether.
Yet despite its experience being universal, shame is rarely acknowledged or discussed in our culture.
Shame is a strong emotion that is correlated with mental health difficulties, low self-esteem, and relationship distress. Maybe as you are reading this you can think of moments in your own life when shame has reared its ugly head. Was it with your child as a parent? A romantic partner? Or maybe it was during an important work meeting where you said something and later didn’t feel good about it. Perhaps it’s even when you reach for that job promotion.
Learning to cope with shame can help improve self-worth, emotional health, and our relationships. So let’s explore how we can deal with shame.
1. Identify and acknowledge the feeling
Our emotions provide us with the necessary information on what we need and how to change. Start by asking yourself what it feels like inside when you experience shame.
- Is it a sinking feeling?
- Is it sticky?
- Maybe it’s a churning feeling in your stomach, and you want to run away.
- Or perhaps it always comes up in a certain situation, or it urges you to do something.
- Do you shut down and walk away from others?
- What does your internal dialogue say to you? “Uh oh, watch out, that wasn’t the right thing to say. People will judge you. You are a screw-up. Why did you say that?” There’s that voice that comes from this emotion—what does it tell you about you and who you are?
Next, differentiate between whether this is guilt or shame to help identify what you need.
Feelings of guilt result in the thought of “I have done something wrong” or the behavior is not helpful. Guilt can be a healthy emotion. It tells us that somehow our behavior was not correct and that we should try something different next time.
For example, if you feel guilty after eating too many cookies, next time you may try to limit the number you eat. That’s okay. We make mistakes. Allow yourself to make a mistake, change the behavior, and move forward.
Shame, however, is like quicksand—sinking quickly and struggling against it. Ask yourself, “Do I feel like I am a bad person?”
At times, the act of just acknowledging an emotion (e.g., “I notice myself feeling shame”) can help. When I’m working with clients in my office, we attach an image to it. One client described the sensation of sinking in a hole and not being able to find a ladder. When the emotion comes again, we can notice it quicker, and I can say “Emily, you’re in the hole again without the ladder,” and she knows we are talking about shame.
2. Fail, and try to fail better
Perfectionism is a driving force that often leads to shame. We tell ourselves to do things perfectly and hold ourselves to high and unachievable standards. Although this drive can help us achieve, this drive becomes a problem when we begin to feel like a failure or not worthy when we do not meet our standards.
Perhaps it’s a work project, or a friendship or a relationship.
Maybe its what you thought you would accomplish in a certain amount of time.
Or, as a mom, struggling to feel good enough in your parenting decisions (e.g., “I must always make gourmet meals; I need to create fun activities to do with my children all the time”).
Shame lurks behind these standards and self-evaluations.
What if instead of trying to be perfect, you tried to make mistakes. That’s a framework shift!
Pema Chödrön, a teacher of Buddhism, teaches us to “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” What does this mean? This means that in life, we will never stop failing or stop facing challenges. It is just not possible. It is part of the human condition—one that we all face—that we will at some point fail, or experience something difficult.
Instead of trying to avoid failure by putting these high expectations on ourselves, try allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to show when you are struggling and not getting something, and to just be okay with this. So let go of trying to be perfect, and take those risks that shame has been stopping you from doing!
3. Acceptance and letting go
There are things in life we cannot control. We cannot control events or situations that are outside of us or other people. We also cannot control our thoughts and feelings. Our thoughts and feelings are spontaneous.
Yet I so often hear from clients in my office that they want to ‘just control’ or ‘get rid’ of their difficult emotions and thoughts. I will let you in on a secret. I would not have a job if I had a way to get rid of your painful thoughts and feelings.
So where does that leave us? Instead of trying to make something go away—which, the more you try to get away from something, the more it finds you—try bringing acceptance into what you are experiencing.
This means that you can hold your thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgmental manner: they are just thoughts and feelings. Instead of trying to hold on to thoughts so tightly—where instead of telling yourself “I failed… I’m a failure… I’m not good enough… I can’t get anything right”—maybe you notice this thought, notice what your mind is telling you, and seeing this as just bits of language put together.
Learning to be aware of your thoughts and feelings and letting these go can be done through mindfulness.
According to author Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is comprised of two components: awareness of one’s internal experience as it is happening in the moment, and nonjudgment of the experience.
Through mindfulness, try bringing a sense of openness, kindness, and curiosity to your shame.
Next, imagine putting the thoughts and feelings on a leaf, and then letting the leaf gently float by as if in a stream or caught in the wind.
Mindfulness takes repeated practice, and it is meant to be challenging. Our minds are really good at pulling us away from what is happening in the moment. Try checking out different apps and podcasts that walk you through different mindfulness exercises. My personal favorites are Calm and Head Space.
4. Talking to significant others
We all need and long for emotional validation and connection. We are hard-wired to connect. But shame stops us from connecting with others. Fear comes up for many people at the thought of sharing hard feelings, with thoughts of “what will they think of me?” and “will they reject me?” Yet sharing with our loved ones how we feel is a great way to slay shame. Their empathy and understanding will help normalize what you are feeling, and they might even have ways to cope with it.
To share this hard emotion, you will need to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Keep in mind that shame is a human emotion; remember that we all experience this problematic emotion.
Start by setting up the conversation. Let your friend or partner know that you want to talk about something challenging for you. Use first person language, with “I feel…” or “I’m struggling with…” Start by sharing small things.
Often, by opening up to others, we realize that we are not alone in our feelings and that others might be experiencing similar feelings as well.
5. Engage in what you find meaningful
We cannot wholly eliminate shame from our experience. Therefore, it is vital not to let shame stop you from living your life and engaging in what is important. In their book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Hayes et. al. cite an evidence-based approach for treating anxiety and depressive disorders, posits that we must “ACT:”
Accept (A) what we cannot change
Commit (C) ourselves to what is important in our lives
Take (T) action in what we find meaningful
Perhaps being connected with friends is important—so taking action to meet up with them. Or sitting and playing with your child is significant, instead of feeling shame and worry that they are “not playing in the right way” or if you “did enough” for them today.
Engage in something that brings meaning to you—that fills you up—to help fight those feelings of shame.