Shedding the Red, Hot Embers of Shame.
I felt it. That hot, nauseous feeling from the pit of my stomach, rising up through my chest, and landing, hot and heavy in my throat. My face was on fire and my whole body was in an alarm, eyes open wide, heat beating fast, a disorientation to where I was. And then the voice came, “You are a terrible person! You don’t deserve anything good! You suck!” Shame. Red hot shame had pushed it’s way through my front door and rushed onto my body like a fire burning out of control. How could a normal human moment, like making a mistake, bring on such a fierce experience of physiological arousal and intense self-hatred?
Why don’t we start by understanding what shame is. Shame is that deep burning feeling that rises through your belly and up towards your throat when you’ve done something wrong. Shame tells you that you’re a terrible person for making a mistake. It tells you, you suck, you’re awful, you’ll never accomplish anything, you don’t deserve anything because of how imperfect you are. When you’re perfect, then good things will happen to you. Shame takes over you like a fast moving fire and hurls you down the rabbit hole of negative self thought and deprecation Once you’re in that infested swamp of self-loathing, it’s got you right where it wants you, stuck in the quick sand of self-hate and disgust. You begin to believe what it’s saying to you. You begin to hear all the nasty shit it’s hurling at you in stereo surround sound and take it in as truth.
That’s how intrusive, invasive, toxic and spreadable shame is. It feels heavy and dark in your body and tells you horrible things about who you are, about your character, about your worth. It leaves you feeling worthless, disgusted, undeserving. You think it’s you. You think you’re weak. “Why can’t I just better? Then I won’t have to feel this way.”
Well, it’s not you, it’s shame and it’s something that we all struggle with. No one is immune to it. Brené Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher, describes it as “the most human, primitive emotion we experience. It is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” She goes on to say, “the less you talk about it, the more you got it.”
So what can we do when shame emerges, red and hot, ready to tell us we suck and that we should just give up? Here are a few tips to tame that bad boy up:
1. Name it. Say it out loud: “shame!”. Shame loves to live in the shadows and darkness. It loves to hide and only exist in your mind. The minute you name the shame, it becomes separate from you and now you can relate or interact with it in a different way. Shame is not you and you are not shame.
2. Take a deep breath as the nasty wave of ickiness begins to move through your body. Pretend you just stubbed your toe really hard and you need to breathe through the pain to get through it. Swear like a sailor if you have to but keep breathing as you continue to name the shame.
3. Identify alternative feelings that don’t leave you feeling like dirt. For example, “I am so embarrassed that I did that!” Alternative options to shame are embarrassment, guilt, regret, remorse, just to name a few. None of these are exactly comfortable but at least they don’t tell you you’re a piece of shit for making a mistake.
4. Practice self-compassion. What would you tell a friend that came to you feeling really badly for a mistake they’d made? Would you tell them they suck and that they don’t deserve your attention and empathy? I doubt it. You would probably comfort them and help them see it from a different perspective, at the very least you would be kind. Same thing goes for you. Give yourself some loving touch, and affectionately speak to yourself the way you would a good friend.
5. Do something kind for yourself. Once you’ve ridden that big nasty wave of shame and gotten yourself through it with kindness, do something that makes you smile, that opens your heart and lifts you up. A simple walk outside, or sitting in your garden, or looking at beautiful images…the sky’s the limit. You can choose whatever works for you that feels uplifting.
Try to remember that although shame is a normal human experience, there are ways to interact with it that can leave you feeling empowered and on top vs. smooshed like a bug. Learning to relate to shame in this way makes it so that you feel power, and empowered, over shame. Every time you go through the steps to move out of shame, you teach your brain that there is a new way of experiencing mistakes that doesn’t feel like impending doom and death. You teach shame that it’s not the driver of your life and to go ahead and get out of your car.
By practicing naming the shame and responding to yourself with self-compassion, you can bring more ease into the process of making mistakes. You’re then free to make mistakes without fearing the repercussion of shame. And maybe it’s not the mistake that you fear after all, but the yucky shame that so often accompanies it. With self-compassion you create space for other uncomfortable feelings to exist, like embarrassment or remorse, but you don’t allow shame to invade and take over. You avoid the rabbit hole altogether.
So, experiment a little with responding to yourself with self-compassion when you make a mistake and notice what changes with shame come from the practice. Remember, it’s a journey but through solid and consistent practice, you can learn to manage and contain shame and love yourselves through your mistakes. This kind of freedom is possible through the simple practice of self-compassion.