In a recent workshop, a woman, let’s call her, Lillian, was sharing that she felt totally isolated from the group, she was judging herself that she was not as interesting as other people, not as sociable, and felt her problems were much worse than everyone else’s.
We asked the other participants if anyone else had similar thoughts from time to time and they all raised their hands. We explained to Lillian that she was in what we call, “a shame bubble” under the attack of her inner judge. It was helpful for her to realize that what she was experiencing was shame and in those moments, it appears to all of us that the voices of the judge are the absolute truth.
In another example, a participant was sharing that although he feels he is a talented musician, he finds that he can not motivate himself to call people to organize events. He is too afraid to receive rejections. As a result, he is without money, his life energy is very low, and is angry with himself for his lack of motivation.
There is perhaps no bigger problem that all of us have to face than the issue of shame. It haunts us and often we cannot seem to get out of its grip. It may often seem that no matter how hard we try, we are constantly being faced with disappointments, frustration, judgment, and rejection. It may seem that life is an uphill struggle to find and express our creativity, to finally feel worthy inside, and to stop having to worry about fitting in or what other people think of us.
There is no easy answer to this crippling problem. But in our work, we follow some simple steps that help to bring more light and compassion to ourselves.
- Know that you were not born with shame and learn your shame story. We learned to become critical with ourselves because we lacked some basic love food as a child in terms of support, guidance, direction, stimulation, unconditional acceptance, love, and affection. Each of us has our own shame story but this is where shame comes from. We developed a shame-based identity based on early life experiences.
- Understand that shame attacks you on three levels. It takes away our life energy, it takes over our mind with judging negative thoughts, and it fuels our behavior. Shame behavior is all the things that we do that is driven by feeling worthless such as sabotage, seeking attention, begging for approval, puffing ourselves up, giving up, postponing things, and resorting to addictions.
When we do become aware of a shame behavior the next step is to feel what is underneath and be very kind and gentle with ourselves. Out of shame we judge our shame behavior and then feel more shame which then perpetuates the shame behavior. The way to break that vicious circle is to feel the shame and pain underneath the behavior – to breathe into it and relax with it.
- Move your body on a regular basis and develop healthy rituals. This has the effect of building dignity and self-respect and helps to quiet the judging mind.
- Take small but consistent risks to take yourself out of your comfort zone and into more aliveness and dignity. Taking small risks mobilizes our life energy and that in turn begins to shift our shame identity. The risk could be to do something you have postponed or it could be to learn something new you always wanted to learn. It varies with each of us what our risk is. For someone, it might be doing something new like taking dance classes or studying a language. For others it could be exposing our vulnerability, and still for someone else, it might mean being more honest.
There are two kinds of risks that really help to develop more self-esteem. One is when we begin to assert ourselves at those times when we experience invasion or disrespect. The other is when we learn to contain our frustration and pain when we are not getting what we want from someone we care about. From our shame identity we usually do just the opposite; we don’t say anything when we feel invaded and we complain when we are not getting what we want. This behavior undermines our sense of self.
- When you find yourself under an attack of your inner judge, it helps to do what we call “changing channels”. Instead of listening to the voices of the judge (which always come from the mind), we suggest to make a habit of listening to the heart. Listening to the heart means listening with love, acceptance, and wisdom. The heart can re-interpret every situation where we are being hard on ourselves and find a new way to look at it. Even if the judge is right about something the heart can look at the situation with love and give us support and help us see the situation in a bigger perspective. But because we are all so used to judging ourselves, it takes practice to learn to listen from the heart. Sometimes it helps to get a loving and trusted friend or therapist to give us the heart’s perspective.
- Persevere. We developed our shame-identity over many years and it became how we learned to see and feel ourselves. To replace this negative identity with a new one that is based on our essential energy, it takes time. To slowly build up a pattern of self-respect and meaning, we need to keep picking ourselves up again and again and be gentle with ourselves when we fall. It is a bit like learning to walk. We need to learn to listen to and follow an inner sense that we are truly unique and have something beautiful to contribute. In our experience, if we persevere, existence will support us in some mysterious way.