Banishing Shame in 5 Ways: Why Shame Can Be As Dangerous as Cancer
“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” –Brene Brown
When I finally committed to reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown it had been collecting dust on my nightstand for about 5 months.
I bought it at a low point, probably in the midst of one of my downward spirals. The kind where I try to hack away at the parts of myself that would make my head spin with a mix of guilt and disgust.
At that time in my life I was easily triggered into binge eating, a symptom of my recovery from a decade of bulimia. And if it wasn’t the binge eating, it was the binge drinking, which would cast a lazy stupor over my life for days after the party.
When I finally turned the pages into that crisp, new book, I held onto my shame like a martyr holds a cross. I would rather be set on fire by my pain than relinquish it.
It wasn’t that I was a glutton for suffering, it was that my shame was the tool I used to define the person I am.
Then I used the knife of that creation to inflict pain on myself almost daily.
Without much pretense, I dove in and finished the book in 3 days. My path to discovery of myself within those pages was dark and difficult, but it was the first step to change.
The Only Way Out is Through
What Brene’s book allowed me to do was to see the origin of my shame and guilt and understand where it was coming from. This allowed me to get at the cause of my suffering, instead of attacking the symptoms.
In years past, I spent my life combating the symptoms of my shame.
I attempted whole diets and avoided keeping trigger foods in the house to combat my bulimia. Always assuming I could wrestle that demon with simple tricks and lifestyle changes. Not realizing the festering wound within.
After indulging in alcohol, depending on my level of guilt, I would pour bottles of booze down the drain, thinking I could stop the train of dependence by eliminating the source. I would commit to drinking only once a week, white-knuckling my symptoms with willpower.
I didn’t understand that willpower is no match for a lifetime of unrecognized shame.
And so I kept living in a perpetual cycle of falling back into damaging habits, and then attacking myself with venomous self-talk, strict lifestyle changes and demands that I couldn’t meet.
I was the slave driver to my own feeble existence, unknowingly heaving the weight of my shame and guilt up a steeper and steeper hill. The price and demands kept getting higher, the weight of my failings heavier.
When I finally had the tools to analyze the weight, I could finally see that the trauma of our lives that causes our shame and guilt is not a weight to be heaved and carried.
Trauma is the unavoidable darkness of living, but allowing those things to grow into shame and guilt is to build your own ball and chain. The weight of shame only gets heavier, the way out only gets steeper.
I didn’t understand the pervasiveness of shame in my life until I understood its nature. Only at that point could I work to get rid of it.
After I had an understanding about shame, I used the following 5 steps to help remove it from my life permanently. I still have set backs, but this new way of thinking about my emotional reactions allows me to be clear on what’s going on instead of getting locked inside the turmoil I create.
1. Unpacking Your Shame Stories
Shame: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
Shame is mysterious, its chameleon in nature, it blends into our most painful emotions and hides itself within its folds. Which is why it can be so difficult to name and see.
Shame is the very thing that makes us feel disgust or guilt over our actions or who we are. It’s the thing that implies we’re not enough; it’s the emotion that makes us feel revulsion towards our behavior.
When you feel these things emotionally, or engage in negative self-talk, it’s important to unpack the why behind it. This is the first step in understanding your shame.
It’s important to note that feelings of shame don’t always emerge from traumatic events, and even if they did, sometimes we don’t consciously know it and therefore searching for the one trauma can actually set us back.
I spent a lot of time in therapy trying to figure out what trauma had been the root of my eating disorder, but at the end of the day it didn’t really matter. What does matter is that the feelings that trigger my bulimia stem from a feeling of not being enough.
It wasn’t necessarily that something bad happened to me and so I picked up bulimia, it was that I was using bulimia as a coping mechanism for the shame I felt about who I am as a person, a woman, and a wife.
When you engage in behaviors you would rather not, or feel shame around a certain aspect of your life, the only way out is through.
Sit down with your feelings and unpack what in your life caused you to feel this way, or what in your life triggered an action you’re trying to stop. Is it fear around a relationship? Is it feelings of not being good enough for something/someone?
Listen to your negative self talk and decipher where it’s coming from. For instance, many times my bulimia was triggered by a feeling of not being good enough as a wife (and that idea of enough can mean many things, including attractive enough, fit enough, adventurous enough, etc), and in order to cope with the shame around my failings I would binge and purge.
Then, in pure self-torture, I would feel shame around my inability to control myself and my emotions. The words “bulimic head case” would echo in my mind.
So my problem in the case of my bulimia was that I never tried to work on those feelings of inadequacy and instead thought if I could only control my bulimia I would surely stop the habit.
If you have recurring issues or emotions in your life, write them all out on a piece of paper and then ask yourself where each stems from. Peel back the layers of your emotions and start practicing self-awareness to the why behind them.
2. How does your shame affect your life?
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” –Nelson Mandela
Once you understand your shame stories and where they arise from, you need to get a sense of how those shame stories infect your life.
Shame often forces us to operate from a place of fear. When we feel shame around who we are or the behaviors we engage in, we’re perpetually stuck in being afraid of who we are or who we are not.
So take time to see where these feelings of inadequacy or guilt are impacting how you act or the choices you’re making.
My feelings of not being good enough impact how I act around other people that I perceive as being better than me. Acting from this place of fear means I’m not authentic, I’m rigid and often come across as needing to be liked, or cold.
When I’m living from this place, it drives my shame stories: I’m not good enough anyways, and that’s backed up by the fact that every time I’m around certain people I act like a fool or can’t handle myself.
Unfortunately, unrecognized shame controls our lives like a vice grip, and it can be so ingrained, we don’t even know its happening. The key here is stopping shame before it can change who you are.
3. Accepting Your Human-ness
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting” –E.E. Cummings
We now understand our shame stories, and how they affect our lives. Now we have to work on accepting ourselves for all of those imperfections.
Easier said than done, I know.
But we see the human in others, we see flaws and imperfections in the people we love, and we don’t generally reject those people — we often love them more because of it.
Those flaws and imperfections are what make other people loveable and relatable.
We need to see the same imperfections in ourselves, and accept them just like we do in others. We must understand that the very things we’re ashamed of in ourselves are the very things we admire in other people.
And, frankly, people often don’t pay enough attention to notice or judge you for the things you’re paranoid about. On smaller terms, its like that pimple you have on your face that you think everyone is staring at — but they don’t notice until you point it out.
Look at it like this: you know that person that’s always outgoing and has an energy that draws people in? Compare that to the person that’s frustrated, closed off, and rude. Or the one that tries too hard and is off putting?
The one that has an energy that you want to be around is one that’s comfortable with themselves and their flaws. They accept their imperfections and don’t spend time dwelling on them either.
This is the place you want to be operating from. Where you’re aware of the shame stories you try to tell yourself, so you can quickly put a stop to them before they can dictate how you’re acting in the world.
4. Stop Shame Spirals
Now that we have consciously observed our shame stories, and how they affect our actions, we can stop a shame spiral before it gets out of hand (most the time).
A shame spiral is what I call that sucker-punch moment of fear and self-doubt, which spirals out of control, and drives us to numb ourselves, become immobile in our lives or act in ways that aren’t authentic to ourselves.
Its basically every moment you’ve unknowingly experienced thus far with shame. A shame spiral keeps us from taking actions, makes us hide ourselves, or makes us numb the feelings of vulnerability and shame away.
Now that you’ve consciously acknowledged your shame stories, you can take yourself out of the shame spiral before it gets out of hand. You can take a breath, pause, and get some mental clarity about what’s happening when you’re repeating these shame stories to yourself.
Now this isn’t fail-proof. There will be times you get wrapped up in your shame, and in those moments I recommend opening up to a person you trust above all others. Confiding in someone you trust and speaking your shame is an incredible way to move beyond these dangerous emotions.
5. Allow Yourself to Feel
“Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is the measure of our fear and disconnection” — Brene Brown
Vulnerability is the next step in the equation, and it can get pretty uncomfortable. It’s the act of leaning into the challenges we face every day, and taking them on head first and openly.
There’s a popular notion in our culture, that being emotional, and being emotionally vulnerable is weakness. I don’t think this is news to anyone, but if I’m being frank, it’s bullshit.
Being vulnerable, and allowing yourself to engage with your emotions, instead of numbing them, is the key to taking control over your life.
Every day we are faced with a continuous stream of bad news, mistakes and challenges that can quickly become overwhelming. Taking the time to feel our emotions and vulnerability in uncomfortable situations allows us to understand where we’re coming from and why we act the way we do.
We’re not emotionless, antisocial beings (unless, of course, you’re a sociopath, and in that case I don’t think any of this is going to help), so it’s time we stop pretending to be.
The first step here is when something difficult happens, feel it — what are you experiencing emotionally, and why? Is it valid, or are you just feeling shame? Either way, you can experience it, understand it, then make decisions around it from a place of clarity, instead of acting irrationally or with shame as the driving force.
These are 5 things I did to change my life, and live more authentically. They might not work for you, or they might be your saving grace — it’s all relative, but I promise if you’re working to address these issues, you’re one step closer to your dreams.
Huge shout out to Brene Brown and her book Daring Greatly — this book literally changed my life, and I highly recommend it.
Make massive change in your life by figuring out how you want it to FEEL every day. I created a 10 minute audio exercise to plug you into your authentic self, so you can start living the life you want today 👇