Shame is one of the most corrosive human emotions. It is capable of convincing us that that little critical voice in our head is correct after all. So we need to address the question of how to overcome shame in our lives.
A Universal Experience
Shame is both a painful and universal sensation. We all feel shame at times. Whether we’re rich or poor, successful or struggling and whether we admit it or not. Shame can paralyze us or cause us to act in ways that are harmful to ourselves and others.
Jesus Refuses To Shame Us
A powerful example of Jesus’ ministry on earth was when He was confronted with a woman caught in the act of adultery. This was a moment of intense guilt as the women’s community intended to shame her. Yet Jesus chooses to kneel in the dirt with the woman, refusing to humiliate her and daring her accusers to throw a stone. Jesus is the only one qualified to shame us, yet He refuses to; instead, He embraces us with His massive, all-consuming love.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with His finger. When they kept on questioning Him, He straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Consider the following steps the next time shame comes your way:
Bring it into the light
Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, a researcher and author on shame and vulnerability, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and thus unworthy of love and belonging.” It’s no surprise, then, that when we’re overwhelmed by shame, the last thing we want to do is talk about it.
However, this is not the best approach. In her book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown explains that “the less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives…We’ve basically cut it off at the knees if we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it.” If you want to know how to overcome shame you need to start talking about it.
Emeritus professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, Thomas Scheff, agrees, writing in the journal Cultural Sociology that shame is “the most obstructed and hidden emotion, and thus the most destructive.”
Getting past shame entails acknowledging it and sharing our experiences with trusted people in our lives, those who know we aren’t perfect but still love us. Their empathy will allow us to keep our feelings of shame in perspective while also assisting us in developing coping strategies. That philosophy is also being used successfully in addiction and mental health treatment, where shame-based education can assist clients in identifying, understanding and moving past the shame that frequently underpins their issues.
We refuse to let shame fester or define us by acknowledging it. “When we bury the story, we remain the subject of the story forever,” Dr. Brown writes. “We get to narrate the ending if we own the story.”
Sort Out How You’re Feeling
Someone (or that voice in your head) says, “You should be ashamed.” Should you? Perhaps the emotion you should be feeling is guilt. It’s a crucial distinction. Shame means, “I am a jerk.” Guilt means, “I did something wrong.”
Being ‘bad’ implies that you believe you are incapable of changing or doing better. The remorse and regret that can accompany guilt, on the other hand, can motivate us to make amends or take a different path.
It’s also possible that the terms ‘humiliation’ or ’embarrassment’ are more accurate. Neither of these feelings is pleasant, but they do not attack our self-worth in the same way that shame does. Humiliation may appear to be shame but it is accompanied by the feeling that it was not deserved. If you’re thinking, “I can’t believe my boss humiliated me in front of the entire staff for missing that deadline,” you’re experiencing humiliation. If you’re thinking, “I can’t believe I missed that deadline, I’m such a loser,” that’s shame.
Take the time to examine your feelings and compare them to what you should be feeling. It can assist you in taking the first step in how to overcome shame and take you onto a more productive path.
Disconnect What You Do From Who You Are
Maybe you want others to be impressed by what you bring to the table, whether at work, at home, in our communities or in the world. But what if they don’t like what we’ve contributed? Suppose our self-worth is tied to what we create or offer. In that case, the answer is that we may be devastated by a sense of shame that causes us to withdraw or lash out: “I’m an idiot. That’ll be the last time I bring up an idea in a meeting,” or “My idea may not be great, but yours is a lot worse!” Even if they accept our offering, we are enslaved to the desire to keep pleasing them.
In either case, defining ourselves by what we do places the power of our happiness in the hands of others.
Separating what we do from our sense of self-worth has a significant advantage. When your entire identity isn’t at stake, you’ll be free to create, take risks and be innovative. Of course, you will be disappointed if the world does not respond to your efforts with applause. However, it will not be as soul-crushing as shame can be. Instead, you can approach praise and criticism with the proper perspective, absorb any constructive criticism and move on.
Recognize Your Personal Triggers
Shame’s ability to strike us where we are most vulnerable is one of its most cunning tricks. When a new mom’s parenting style is questioned, the well-meant comment might cause her to feel shame. A man concerned about his ability to provide for his family may interpret his spouse’s remark about the neighbor’s new car as an attempt to shame him rather than an innocent observation.
In short, our insecurities set us up for shame. However, we can help nip this process in the bud by being aware of our shame triggers. Do you have a sense of shame settling over you? Attempt to identify the emotion causing it before it becomes more intense.
Dr. Brown discovered several ‘shame categories’ during her research. The primary source of shame for women is still their physical appearance. It’s the fear of being perceived as weak that drives men crazy.
Rather than succumbing to these triggers, try to eliminate them from your life. Embrace who you are rather than striving to be someone else’s idea of who you should be. Your vulnerabilities will fade, as will shame’s hold on you.
Shame is, at its core, a fear of being disconnected. Yet, we can make connections that allow us to learn to accept ourselves. We can do this by reaching out to family and friends, our communities or society. Most importantly, we can reach out to God.
Jessica Van Vliet, a researcher, discovered connection to be an essential step in how to overcome shame. In a paper published in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, she stated: “People begin to realize it isn’t just them. Other people do things just as bad, if not worse, on occasion, so they are not the worst person on the planet. They begin to tell themselves, “This is human; I am human; others are human.””
That sense of connection also increases our compassion for ourselves. This means we are more likely to deal with our shame without resorting to measures like using drugs or alcohol to mask the pain. These can lead to us lashing out at those around us or succumbing to shame’s message that we are indeed bad.
Being connected also allows us to be there for others when they need us. Simply saying, “I understand how you feel,” can work wonders for those trapped in shame’s painful grip.