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Meet My Friend, Shame

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Not too long ago I received an email from a new friend. We had just spent five days together with several colleagues working on a book of best practices for yoga with sexual trauma survivors. His email was thoughtful and gentle, but he wanted to let me know I had made a comment that weekend that just didn’t sit right with him. He offered me some useful reading on a subject that he, admittedly, has much more knowledge about, offered himself for further conversation, and signed off with love.

Without a beat, shame descended upon me.

Brene Brown calls it a warm wash. For me, shame was a punch in the gut. A sick feeling in the center of my solar plexus, a hint of nausea followed by a tidal wave of racing thoughts. These ranged from composing a panicked reply explaining in great detail why what I said is not actually what I meant, to explaining the back story of my comment to give relevant context and validate what I said, to many other responses.

Then self-judgment set in:

You’re such an idiot.

There you go saying the wrong thing—AGAIN.

You can never get anything right.

You don’t fit in with this group.

You’re a fraud.

Give up.

But shame is not what you think it is.

Yes, it is heralded by that continuous, merciless cocktail of thoughts convincing us there is just something about us that sets us apart. Something broken. Something so fundamentally flawed that we question why we ever thought we could fit in, be of value, or be seen for who we truly are.

But, as I sat in the (deeply!) uncomfortable sensations of my spiraling shame after reading my friend’s email, I also knew what this feeling was – or more specifically, who she is.

Shame is my little protector, who is no longer necessary but always nearby, just in case. She is an adaptive survival strategy from the far recesses of my childhood. She is the belief, formed long ago, that I don’t know right from wrong or good from bad. And what is important to know about shame (right along with fear and guilt) is that it (she) is trying to help. She is trying to protect me by keeping me safe from the judgments of others—which, in the experience of a young child, feels very dangerous, even life threatening.

By reminding me that I’m no good, shame heads rejection off at the pass.

Back when our survival strategies are formed, it feels safer to tell ourselves we are no good than it does to be vulnerable to rejection from the adults we depend on. Shame is the reason we may later have trouble feeling confident, pretty, smart, or generally good enough. We think if we allow ourselves to feel good enough, and someone else reminds us that we may not be (as in my friend’s email), we fear the sting will feel far more painful. Better to berate ourselves first, before they get to it. The trouble with this strategy is that we no longer need this shame adaptation to protect us in our adult lives—and maybe we never needed it. The voices of shame are fueled by sensations in our bodies, like my nausea and panic. These sensations are a mechanism of our survival response, alerting us that our life is in danger…which in most situations, it most certainly is not. The good news is that over time we can diminish the strength and length of our shame episodes, but only by being compassionately with the sensations. If we continue to reject and judge ourselves when we feel shame we only reinforce the mechanism. The next time you feel the “warm wash of shame,” try the following:

  1. Call your attention to the sensations you feel in your body

  2. Remind yourself that shame is a survival adaptation from long ago

  3. Take 5-10 (or more) deep abdominal breaths

  4. Give yourself plenty of space and time before responding to whatever it was that triggered the shame

Shame is not something we like to talk about, let alone feel. But if we ignore and/or judge the shame we feel, it only ensures that our next shame spiral will feel more excruciating than the last. If we can think about shame as a misguided survival strategy formed in childhood, however, then it’s easier to have compassion for our feelings. The development of shame is a natural part of the human experience. Recognizing this can help us feel connected with one another – not in spite of our feelings of shame, but because of them.  

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