Shame needs no introduction. It’s something we have all experienced, and most likely, have wanted to forget. The word itself comes from Old English and means “to cover.” The parts of ourselves we wish to cover are the shameful parts, and we also want to hide that we are, in fact, ashamed. I see this in my private practice when someone walks through the door with his head down and says, “I can’t begin to tell you what happened to me.”
We can’t address self-forgiveness if there is shame, so how do we overcome shame?
Let’s look at a hypothetical client (I’ll call her Jane) who was a successful small business owner. She had a beloved husband and a happy child. Her life was great. One day, she discovered her husband was cheating on her with a younger woman. Slowly, Jane abandoned her business and became a virtual shut-in for fifteen years. Twice a week, she left the house to go to therapy. How does a successful business owner go from having everything to becoming a recluse? The answer is she lived her life defined by shame.
I am weak, stupid, disgusting, and a failure. These were the recurring thoughts streaming through her mind. Jane’s thoughts were then made manifest to everyone. When one becomes judge and jury, and all you can see is shame, there is no healing and therefore, no forgiveness.
What steps can I take to overcome shame? I never hear this question in my practice. Most people would rather not talk about shame, but it’s hard to ignore. Shame is entrenched in the woman who had a stillborn child, the man who was sexually abused as a child, the person addicted to drugs or alcohol. And the list of people plagued by shame goes on and on. But shame and guilt do not have to define you. Once you can accept the hurt and pain as a thought memory, and release it, then you are ready to start the process of forgiveness.
These steps to overcoming shame might be helpful:
1. Take shame under your wing. We have to make sense of the shameful parts of ourselves by accepting the shame, or taking it under our wing. I ask clients, “Would you be willing to take that shame part under your wing?” Try it. Work on the shame part so that the hopeless part can feel less powerful and debilitating.
2. Drop the shame-based thoughts like a hot potato. Visualize dropping or getting rid of the negative thoughts: I am stupid. No one will hire me. I am useless.
3. Practice grounding techniques. How do your feet feel when pushing against the ground? When we feel the support of our legs and feet, we naturally feel more supported. Try feeling your feet after you drop the negative thoughts like a hot potato.
4. Practice some more. Ask your feet, What is the next step? Perhaps, you take a walk with your spine straight and head held high. Be aware of your feelings, thoughts, and body sensations. You need to notice these patterns so that you can be open to new possibilities.
5. Take baby steps. You’ve heard the Chinese philosopher’s words: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Ask your feet again, What is the next step? The process of asking encourages progress and more small steps, and disengages the negative thoughts.
6. Ask about connections. What is your attachment to the one who hurt you? Be more aware of self-blame and self-loathing as an attachment to the person or situation by which you are shamed. This is another way to motivate you to give up the shame.
7. Accept love and kindness. The feelings of unworthiness attached to shame make it difficult to accept kindness. You must disconnect from these thoughts that you are stupid or worthless. These thoughts are just theories. You assume that when you feel unworthy, this means you are unworthy of love, kindness, and good in your life. In order to disconnect from these thoughts, new positive thoughts must replace the old negative thoughts.
8. Begin to practice forgiveness. It’s time to create your healing story. You are no longer the victim. Now, your next step is your heroic choice to forgive yourself.
Techniques such as dropping a shameful thought like a hot potato may not seem important, but as with the case of Jane, it can be life-changing. She finally left her house and became part of the world again. Within three months, Jane found something that helped the shameful part of her heal. She began working again and graduated from therapy.
Full participation in life and the achievement of healthy self-esteem are counteracted by shame and its intrusive thoughts. Shame is a vicious cycle. When one shameful thought is triggered, it reinforces automatic responses, which in turn, trigger more shameful thoughts. When this occurs, bringing shame out of hiding by talking about it – either with a personal confidante or a therapist – will help you put one foot in front of the other and continue on your journey.