Shame is a heavy burden to carry, even more so because it comes in many forms.
Brené Brown describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
But you may be more familiar with the term in the form of calling yourself: stupid, dumb, foolish, worthless, not good enough, or less than other people.
At some point in my life, I’ve used every single one of those to describe myself.
Shame is a corrosive human emotion, eating away at your sense of self and paralyzing you from living your fullest life.
We all experience shame; in one way or another. Inevitable scenarios happen where we make mistakes. Through other’s or our own judgment, we feel negative emotions. But how much that shame affects us depends on how we process it and if we carry the shame throughout our lives.
For me, shame has been coming up surrounding my new relationship. I made a lot of mistakes in the dating field: one’s I’m not proud of.
I slept with my ex-boyfriend’s best friend, and I cheated on my most recent ex. You know, things I wouldn’t put on a resume.
But then there’s another kind of shame; the kind you feel from scenarios you didn’t have control over or didn’t stop.
I stayed with the ex-boyfriend that choked me, lived with a man that verbally abused me for two years, and stayed quiet after someone sexually abused me.
Though different, all of those created a different form of shame. It’s not one-size-fits-all. There’s no dictionary definition for what it looks like.
And what’s crazy is everyone experiences shame at some point in their life. So why is it that people live life with a clear conscious while the rest of us lug around an emotional bag?
Well, not everyone is controlled by shame. Some people can forgive themselves and move on with their lives.
And what’s incredible is, anyone can do that; you included. Even better? You deserve to. No one should be living a life laden with shame. It’s time we forgave ourselves for what happened in the past.
We practice forgiving others all the time, why not ourselves?
It’s a long process, but there are a few ways in which you can start to learn how to forgive yourself for your past:
Wrap your head around that the past is really in the past
I know this seems straightforward. But if we all entirely accepted this fact, then we wouldn’t lay in our beds at night imagining what our lives would be like if we didn’t make that one mistake.
No one is perfect. And you’re sure as hell not going back in time to make yourself perfect (unless you have a time machine, then take me back to the prime days of Nirvana, please).
Realize what you do have control over: the present. You get to decide how your past affects you today. Instead of focusing on changing something you’ll never be able to, focus on what’s happening now. Do what you can to avoid getting sucked into thought spirals that will get you nowhere.
Realize the difference between guilt and shame
Guilt: a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
Shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.
Guilt is created when we feel wrong about something we did. Shame is created when that experience changes how we see ourselves or think others see us.
Guilt isn’t bad, actually. It can be useful in defining our own morals and treating people around us better. It shines a light to an action we did that doesn’t align with our values.
Shame, on the other hand, is a trickier bastard. It’s harder to place a finger on when we feel it. It creates secrecy and isolation. Depression, addiction, and eating disorders are highly correlated with the feeling.
Shame piles on until we’re paralyzed, that’s why it’s essential to process it.
Make a List of Everything You’re Ashamed Of
Think of all the instances that you never talk about with others. All the memories that make you cringe because of your involvement in them. Make sure they’re not what you think is objectively bad, but what you feel was wrong.
This can be done by pinpointing what you feel ashamed of.
Write these experiences down. Get a good understanding of what parts of your past are negatively affecting you today.
The first step in ridding yourself of shame around a situation is removing the secrecy from it. Even if you don’t share this list, at least you’re writing your past into existence for yourself.
Apologize to anyone you hurt
What’s done is done. But you always have the chance to apologize to someone you hurt. If someone else was involved in your wrongdoings, there’s some mending that is needed to be done.
This means you have to own up to the wrong you did. That’s not easy, I know.
I never thought I’d be the kind of person to cheat. Even though it didn’t look like your typical scenario of betraying a lover, my actions were still cheating. And that fucking sucked to own up to.
Putting our comfortability aside to apologize to someone we’ve wronged is necessary. They might not accept the apology, but it’s what needs to be done so you can move on.
Write down the lessons you learned (or could learn)
Go back to that list of past experiences you’re ashamed of.
Make a new one that identifies all the lessons you learned from each scenario.
For me, mine looks like:
Cheating on my boyfriend made me realize I dated to feel valued.
Staying with my boyfriend that choked me revealed my lack of boundaries.
In every failure, let-down, horrible experience, and betrayal, there’s a lesson to be learned. Sit down and really think about what it is that each experience taught you.
Speak your experience into existence
Choose someone you trust to tell your stories to. Explain the shame you feel around them. Let them know you’re not looking for advice; you just want to share.
I promise a lot of the shame will disappear at that moment.
Most of the time, we’ve built our experiences into something much bigger than they are. Saying them out loud relinquishes a lot of the power they hold over us.
Know forgiveness for yourself is a journey
This won’t be a one and done kinda fix. Forgiveness is deeply rooted in a lot of emotions.
It’s difficult enough to forgive others, but ourselves is a whole other story.
Know that you’re going to slip up. It’s going to take working through these steps a few times. You’re going to have twinges of old emotions resurface, even when you think you’ve worked through them.
But that comes with the territory when dealing with events from our past that impact our present.
No one should be making their way through life with the heavy burden of shame from their past.
Rest assured that no one is perfect, and you too, deserve your own forgiveness.
Sign up for my newsletter to get articles and advice on improving your relationships with others and yourself sent straight to your inbox.