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4 Steps to Overcoming Shame


If there’s a word that can instantly put your stomach in a knot, it’s the word “shame”.


The second you hear it, it makes you want to run for an exit and get far, far away doesn’t it?


Shame vs. Embarrassment


Shame sometimes gets confused with other negative emotions like embarrassment or guilt.


The embarrassment comes from doing something in a moment that makes us feel vulnerable and “uncomfortably visible”. Guilt comes from feelings over something we might have done, or not done, that we know isn’t right.


But, shame is a darker and deeper emotion that’s generated when we view ourselves as unworthy.


3 Things Shame Needs to Develop


Brene Brown, a renowned University of Houston researcher who has spent years studying shame, guilt, and other darker emotions, says that shame needs three things to develop: silence, judgment, and secrecy.


Shame is rarely something people want to talk about with others, mostly because they fear they will be judged or ridiculed.


Secrecy, then, perpetuates the unhealthy thoughts we tell ourselves that support our sense of unworthiness.


Shame is often generated from events starting in early childhood where we’re taught social norms and expectations. If we aren’t given loving support and acceptance as we form our sense of self-worth it can lead us to assume we’re just not good enough later in life.


With that comes an expectation that others will feel the same way about us and that affects our ability to feel connected and part of our community.



Our Coping Tools


If we think we’re a bad person, unimportant, or have been told we don’t deserve to be loved, why wouldn’t others believe it too?


There’s a need to work harder for acceptance because we fear we won’t be loved or accepted for who we are.


Many times, strong behavioral characteristics like perfectionism and people-pleasing tendencies become the coping tools we default to when interacting with others.


In other cases, people will cope by pointing the finger at others to deflect attention from their own crushing self-judgment. This is where things can get messy.


Dr. John Gottman, a marriage researcher and founder of the Gottman Institute, says that deflecting attention away from ourselves creates a cycle of toxic criticism and defensiveness in relationships.


He describes the cycle like this. “First I criticize you. Then you defend yourself and criticize me back. Then I defend myself and criticize you again. Around and around we go.”


Are You in The Battle Zone?


Know anyone that’s stuck in this no-win communication merry-go-round?


Once communication becomes a battle zone instead of an open exchange of information, it’s difficult for either partner to trust that their “Other Half” has any true interest in their perspective or a willingness to compromise.


If the couple is open to counseling, having a neutral psychologist, or therapist, who can mediate and guide them in a safe environment, can make a significant difference.


Communication is, after all, a learned skill. If we haven’t had good role models or learned the tools to communicate effectively, shame will only continue to erode the confidence we need to speak our truth.


How to Break the Cycle of Shame


So, how do we break the cycle of shame?


Given that it tends to grow and become more ingrained in our sense of identity over time, it seems like a pretty daunting task to think about what it will take to break that cycle for good.


But, people do it every day! As with anything that’s truly worthwhile, it requires commitment, action, and focus.


Brene Brown offers some steps to help break through the negative internal speak that shame needs to survive. Here are four of them:


1. Acknowledge your shame.


To break the cycle, you must first acknowledge that it even exists and that it’s driving negative behavior and self-opinion. But, it’s never easy to face negative emotion, much less shame.


Most of us want to avoid, deflect or look the other way when unpleasant emotions surface. It’s just not fun, right?


But, in facing shame squarely and stating your intention to release it, you create empowerment and a reason to hope.



2. Express your shame.


This is, I think the hardest. Learning to communicate is often uncharted territory because you’ve been so used to keeping things close to the vest.


But, it’s important to express your story with someone you trust. Someone that truly cares about you and wants to support your efforts to grow and thrive in a healthy way.


If you don’t feel you have friends, a partner, or family that can provide that safe space for you, look for a professional who can. There are also free support groups in every community where you can find people who share that desire to work through emotional challenges.


Isolation, though, is not the answer. It might feel safe, but it only serves to perpetuate the pattern and reinforce feelings of unworthiness.



3. Get to the “Why?” that’s feeding the shame cycle.


There’s nothing pretty about the feelings generated from shame. It can escalate to other serious emotional-based issues such as depression, eating disorders, or addiction.


So, along with acknowledging and expressing your reasons for shame, acknowledge and accept the feelings that are part of the process.


By shining the light on them, you’re weakening the hold that shame has on who you are and the unique value you have as a human being.


Breaking through unworthiness requires digging into the why’s behind those thoughts and understanding where they came from. Only then can we begin to build a foundation of honest and loving acceptance for ourselves.



4. Start building your sense of value


Since shame is fed by a sense of unworthiness, it makes sense that we need to start there to break that cycle.


It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s something that you can work on every day. Each step will earn more self-love and acceptance, but what’s most important is that they are coming from within you, not dependent on others.


The Positive Experiences Your Missing


I’ve seen it in my coaching clients, friends, and others. Once you allow that internal flicker of self-love to get stronger, people start to notice the change. When you feel happier, it tends to spread and grow around you.


You attract healthier, more supportive people into your life and their encouragement makes you want to continue your path to grow and thrive.


The negative cycle will eventually collapse upon itself because there’s nothing to support it and you’ll find more inner strength than you ever thought possible.


Just keep focused on the better life ahead and give it the time it deserves!


So, until next time, my friend, as I always say….stay safe, stay healthy and stay strong!


P.S. If you're interested in learning more about how coaching can help you make the positive change you want in life, schedule a free 20-Minute "Let's Get To Know Each Other" consultation with me by clicking here to see how I can help!


Deborah