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Shame and Self-Compassion

My previous blogs have looked at the benefits of the practice of self-compassion and this blog is about our toughest emotion – shame  – and how self compassion can help. Shame is an emotion we all experience, it is part of what it means to be human,  and it profoundly (and negatively) influences who we are and how we behave. However, we often don’t recognise it as “just another emotion” and we certainly don’t talk about it in the same way that we might talk about feeling sad or feeling anxious.  We fear and avoid shame because it leaves us feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable.

A silent epidemic

Shame is defined by researcher Brene Brown as “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.” She describes it as: “a silent epidemic, spreading fear and encouraging negative behavior and thinking.” Not only this, it can be highly destructive both on an individual and a societal level. She says: “I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.” Her website is here: 

Peeling away shame’s layers

We may experience shame for our gender, our identity, our personality, our appearance, our sexuality, or our race. Since most of us learned shame so early on in life, it can become a defining factor of our behaviour, our decisions, our emotions, our thoughts and the way we see the world. But it’s hard to identify its effects – to start to peel away its layers. We live in a society that has all these spoken and unspoken rules and  learned shame the day we broke one of those rules – usually from a care-giver or a teacher. Shame is the emotion that highlights your inadequacies and shortcomings, the feeling that you are falling short of a certain standard. Shame threatens disconnection from the rest of society because it lies to you that you aren’t worthy. After all, you’re different. You’re not good enough, and even worse, everyone knows that. 

Self -compassion and shame

Brene Brown says: “Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.” Building shame resilience takes time, it’s a slow process, but 100% worth the effort we put in.

How do self compassion and shame fit together? We can use the three basics of self-compassion as I described in my previous blogs:

  • Shame feels blameworthy, but it is an innocent emotion (I feel there is something horribly wrong with me, but actually I know I was just doing my best) (self-kindness)
  • Shame feels isolating, but it is a universal emotion (common humanity)
  • Shame feels permanent and all-encompassing, but it is transitory, like all emotions, and it is a burden carried by only part of who we are (mindfulness).

Shame is about the wish to be loved

Shame can be defined as the emotion that arises when we believe we are too flawed to be loved and accepted by others. In a nutshell, when we are in the grip of shame and have the capacity to know that we’re caught up in shame (i.e., we’re mindful of shame), then offering ourselves the understanding, “And I only feel like this because I just want to be loved!” can reframe the entire experience. Even people who are convinced that they are unlovable do not disagree that they wish to be loved.  Reclaiming that simple intention with which we were all born begins the process of freeing ourselves from the grip of shame.

A Self-Compassion Break when you feel shame

By deliberately CHOOSING self-compassion, you are making the brave choice to rise above the feeling that you are not good enough, doing enough, or being enough.Self-compassion is choosing to be kind, loving, forgiving, and understanding towards yourself in the face of your pain, suffering, struggle, or feelings of inadequacy. There will be life experiences that make you feel ashamed but with self-compassion, you are reminded not to define yourself by them. This follows the 3 step process of self compassion described in my previous blogs:

  1. Imagine that something embarrassing has just happened to you and you’re now filled with shame. Perhaps you did something, or said something where you are now sure others are judging you negatively.  Acknowledge that at this moment you are overcome by shame and a mix of other negative feelings like anger or sadness. There is a cascade of thoughts, your heart is pounding and you wish a big hole would open up so you could hide
  2. Name the suffering you’re going through. “Oooooh this feels horrible!” “I feel deeply ashamed” “This is really stressful for me”.
  3. Remind yourself that other people have also experienced the feeling of being judged or looked down upon. You are not alone in this feeling even if it feels that way. (It is said that only psychopaths genuinely feel no shame!) So “This is all part of being human.” “Anyone else would find this hard too” “Everyone makes mistakes” “We all struggle sometimes” 

Offer yourself kindness just like a friend or a stranger would be kind to you in your moment of struggle or embarrassment. What do you need the most at this moment? Is it acceptance, forgiveness, strength, or patience? Give it to yourself.

  1. Put your hand over your heart (or a similar soothing gesture) and tell yourself what you need to hear. ” “I will get through this” “I am human” “I’m OK, this does not define my worth”     Paul Gilbert UK 

Guided meditations  Kristen Neff   Chris Germer Paul Gilbert

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!


See also:

Tools of Self-Compassion

Why self-compassion is healthier than self-esteem