Shame is our container of secrets.
It lives within most of us, but rarely do we realize the extent to which its effect molds us and shapes our behaviors, relationships and life choices.
I’ve just recently read a few books on shame, which happens to be the “subject du jour” of some well-known authors, and I can’t help but wonder if the Universe/God is finally expunging this dark and unneeded negative emotion once and for all.
How does it work?
Shame feeds on itself through silence and repression.
It’s a tangible and palpable emotion, usually felt through embarrassment. It can have roots in only one seemingly innocuous event as a child—an alcoholic parent or experiences of abuse—and those experiences weave a story of shame that digs its heels in deep.
Shame can cause some or all of the following: worry about what other people think, the drive for perfectionism, bullying (and being bullied), a life of illusion, addictions and extreme behavior of any kind, and self-limiting and degrading ideas about ourselves.
It serves as our protector and our noose. It tells the stories that enable us to keep the beast alive within us, shaping us into an inauthentic life, through pain and denial. We’ve buried it and our authentic selves six feet under.
Shame creates a life stuck in survival mode: our riot gear is donned and protection mode is On. Relationships are non-existent or complicated, generally leading to break ups and break downs, dreams are dampened and we don’t live up to our full potential. Events, conversations and situations all end up in the shame pile: a dumping ground for things we are so embarrassed about and cringe over that no one can clean up that dirty little mess (and the pile keeps growing).
As long as we keep telling ourselves the stories we do—the events that give us pain, the behavior that shames us to the core, the relationships we ruined because of fear of abandonment—and as long as we keep telling ourselves that we are bad, unworthy and unloveable, the shame factor grows, becoming a living, breathing killer. Our mental health deteriorates, our addictions increase, our relationships wither on the vine and our life experiences become those of dread and lack of joy.
I spent many years of my life not understanding this uncomfortable feeling that created an environment where I would hide my true self away from most people in my life.
Growing up in an alcoholic family, I learned very quickly how to not shine, for fear of waking the beast and getting negative attention. Simultaneously I learned to stuff my authentic, bright, funny self into a shadow of a person and closed in on myself—believing the negative, critical comments hurled my way. It was the perfect recipe for the birth of shame and negative self beliefs.
Later in my evolution, as an adult, this word became more and more relevant—and it wasn’t until I dove into its meaning and how it had manifested in my life that I able to put a name to the emotion I’d experienced for nearly 40 years.
The problem with shame is that it can only survive and thrive in darkness and secrecy. The minute we shine light on it and talk about it, its potency starts dissolving away.
So how do we put this secret killer to bed? This is what I’ve learned:
1) Start talking about it.
Tell your stories, little by little to people you trust. Share those parts of you that you’ve kept hidden away and locked down, never to see the light of day. Talking and sharing little by little starts the re-integration into being a whole person again. We were born whole, but the conditioning and stories we tell ourselves keep us fragmented.
Start today by talking about one story you’ve kept locked away and see how much lighter it makes you feel. And notice your friend/family member’s reaction. More than likely you’ll create a bridge of connection that makes you feel closer, and that might open a space for them to share their story.
2) Start writing about it.
Put your secrets down on paper. Every day give yourself the gift of 15-30 minutes of journaling. First thing in the morning, before the chaos of the day begins. Make it as routine as your cup of coffee. In fact, do it with your cup of coffee. Get all those feelings and thoughts off your mind and on the page and your life will start to change for it.
Start reconnecting with your family and friends from the past who were in your life during that time of war. Reach back into your childhood and connect with people who can help with your soul retrieval, even if it’s creating a new, redefined relationship. We don’t have to go over every nitty gritty detail of our experiences—we know it happened and it’s in the past. But connecting with the people who were a part of it and/or in our lives during that time can help us create a new story, just through connection, and will put us on the road to being whole again.
4) Make a commitment.
Commit to yourself that every day is a new day to make choices that honor you and only you. These positive choices may include eating healthier, cutting down on the booze, starting to see a shrink, choosing to be alone rather than with negative people, or walking or meditating in silence. Giving yourself the gift of treating yourself well raises our self-esteem and self-worth to a place where shame cannot survive.
5) Practice empathy and compassion.
Both are hard—especially toward ourselves. But who is going to be empathetic and compassionate with us if we aren’t with ourselves? Shame cannot survive in an empathetic and compassionate world. Focus on compassion with yourself and others by listening. Listening is the greatest gift of compassion we can give ourselves and others. Try truly hearing, without a ready story of your own to tell. Those five or 10 minutes of listening is the greatest gift you can give a friend and yourself.
Forgive the perpetrator, forgive the aggressor, forgive yourself. Meditate on the word forgiveness. Give it life, give it shape and give it meaning. Find a way to make it work for you and let forgiveness embrace you in its comfort. Shame cannot live in the light of forgiveness.
Dig deep and let the feelings of shame up and out. Embrace that it’s an aspect of yourself that you can love and invite to the table for a conversation.
Talk with others who suffer the shame factor and make it part of your coffee talk.
Pretty soon, shame will have the same value and meaning as taking out the garbage: just an everyday event that’s neither good nor bad.
Author: Amy Kennedy
Editor: Emily Bartran