People pleasing, aggression and distancing ourselves from others may seem like very different behaviours when you compare them to one another but, they have one thing in common — they are the behaviours we engage in when we don’t want to feel the discomfort of shame.
We don’t want to believe it but, we all feel shame from time to time. Some of us are overwhelmed with it. If you answer “that’s me.” to ANY of the following questions, you are most likely struggling with feelings of shame and you are offloading that hurt in the following ways:
- I direct anger, aggression or shaming behaviour towards those I feel I can have power over (children, employees, siblings).
- I do all that I can to ensure the people in my life are happy, even if it means putting their priorities ahead of my own.
- I find myself withdrawing and not sharing how I feel with others. I have some things I hide or keep secretive about myself.
What is shame?
A clear definition of shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” – Brené Brown
The good thing is, we can build shame resilience and heal our shame. Shame resilience requires:
- recognizing shame and shame triggers
- practicing critical awareness
- reaching out
- speaking shame
Recognizing Shame and Shame Triggers
Shame shows up in our inner dialog as: “I am not good enough” or some variation of “who do you think you are??” It may not be something you feel in all areas of your life. You may have certain triggers. Some common ones are:
- Body Image and appearance – Resulting in thoughts like: “I’m not thin enough” or “who do you think you are?! You can’t get away with wearing that.”
- Family and Parenting – resulting in thoughts like: “I’m such a terrible parent” or “What was I thinking! My family is right, I can’t do anything right”
- Money and employment – resulting in thoughts like: “I’m not a good enough provider” or “Who do you think you are applying for that job? You’re not what they are looking for”
- Mental or physical health – resulting in thoughts like: “I’m too sensitive, I let everything overwhelm me” or “who do you think you are? You’re too mentally unstable to be in a relationship.”
These feelings of shame often start in childhood. There may have been clear mistreatment, OR there may have been a caregiver(s) or significant person(s) in your life who unknowingly and unintentionally contributed to your feelings of unworthiness.
Becoming aware of our Shame Shields
Being aware of the behaviours we engage in when we are triggered by the emotion of shame are important. Most of us have gotten so good at hiding behind these shields of disconnection rather than facing the feelings of shame, that we aren’t aware that shame is present. We default to one, two or all three of the shields that were alluded to at the beginning of this post.
- The shield of MOVING AWAY – withholding, silencing and keeping secrets
- The shield of MOVING AGAINST – being aggressive, trying to gain power over others
- The shield of MOVING TOWARD – seeking to please and appease others
If we can recognize and get curious about what we are feeling when we engage in behaviours like I’ve described below, it’s a marked step towards building shame resilience:
Behaviour scenario #1: You overreact and yell at the dog when he gets into the Kleenex box (moving against);
Behaviour scenario #2: You want to stay in all day and hibernate, even when the weather is lovely (moving away);
Behaviour scenario #3: You say YES to baking 12 dozen cookies for the bake sale, even though you don’t have any time to bake them (moving towards).
Practicing mindfulness can be helpful with this critical awareness step.
Reaching out and Talking about it
Connecting with a friend, family member or professional about your feelings of unworthiness truly is the way to helping the shame shrink in size. The key is to share it with someone who you have established a trusted relationship with and someone who can hold it with EMPATHY*. If the shame is pervasive, seeing an objective, non-judgemental professional may be the most helpful step and gift you can give yourself to help you process some of the pain you are feeling. A therapist can also help you reframe some of the shameful statements you inflict upon yourself and help you see that you are worthy of love and belonging.
If the information in this post resonates with you, please know that help is available. Support with a therapist can include exploring your feelings of shame, validating experiences and feelings, and increasing ways of being self-compassionate.
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