Jane* lives like her life is on hold. She has a job and a partner, but she feels like she has a deep internal wound that stops her from living the life she wants to have: to have a partner and a family. Jane lives with anxiety and a deep sense of shame of what happened to her as a child. She was abused by her father both physically and psychologically. Her mother had mental health difficulties and could not protect her from her father who would drink during the weekends and frequently become violent.
Her father passed away some years and Jane feels that even if physically he cannot hurt her anymore is living with the shame of what happened to her. Deep down she has her internal critique saying that it was her fault, both her mother’s illness and her father’s violent behaviour towards her. She worries that if she was to have a family of her own she might repeat the same patterns.
Matt has always felt an emptiness inside. He has felt different and never good enough. He has a partner but he feels that he is always doubting her love. He felt that his parents never had time for him. When he was 5 years old, he used to play at his neighbour’s house and their older, teenage son abused Matt. Similarly to Jane, Matt lives with a deep sense of shame with what happened to him as a child and he has only told his wife this. Matt works but has had to take time off twice for depression. He does not understand why he feels this way as on paper his life is perfect, he has a good job, a supportive partner and a child.
Shame can be so crippling and toxic in life, and stop us from have the life we want to have. Was there something in the above descriptions that you resonated with? Is a deep sense of shame making you feel isolated? Difficult childhood experiences often leave a deep wound. You may not even aware of their impact, and the sense of shame you have. You may be more aware of your struggles with anxiety and low mood. If this is something you experience, you may also be interested in my Childhood trauma and recovery – post series that you can read here.
Shame is something that we all experience to a degree according to Dr Brené Brown, but adverse life experiences can make it more extreme. With this post, I wanted to bring a sense of hope to you, if you feel stuck in a sticky web of shame that stops you from living wholeheartedly. You can heal, build shame resilience and your life history does not have to be a life sentence.
Building shame resilience
Dr Brené Brown developed a four-step shame resiliency model based on her research:
- Recognizing Shame & Triggers – Name your shameful experiences and what triggers self-critical / shameful internal dialogue.
- Practicing Critical Awareness – Become aware of how your shame is linked to your life experiences, social and cultural practices.
- Reaching Out – This is both reaching out to have empathy and ability to feel empathy towards others. Who in your life is/was a supportive figure? How would they have protected you from the shameful events?
- Speaking Shame – The antidote to shame is sharing it with someone who you trust and won’t shame you further. This could be a trusted friend or a therapist. Shame reduces as it is shared.
6 things to do when you feel ashamed:
In addition to the shame resiliency model, there are something you can do immediately.
- Notice the emotional and physiological impact of feeling ashamed when you are triggered.
- Practice deep breathing, mindfulness and imagine that the shame leaves your body with your exhale whilst loving and kindness enters to replace the vacuum as you inhale.
- Challenge the critical gremlins – Be curious and consider how much truth there is to them (What is the evidence for and against)
- Practice self-compassion – What would a trusted friend / a loving partner say to you when you feel deeply ashamed? I wrote another post about self-compassion: “Shrink the Inner Critic – Self-compassion leading to a happier life”. You can read it here.
- Practice self-care and do something nice for yourself.
- Contact a supportive a person.
I have put together a worksheet for you to address your self-critical and shameful self-talk. You can download Building Shame Resilience – worksheet in the Resource Library.
Shame is probably the most painful of all emotions. It is a part of our life and we can live a happy life with a degree of shame, but when it becomes paralysing life becomes a misery. Building shame resiliency can reduce shame over time.
If you are looking for a therapist to help you work through something that is causing shame in your life, please take a look at my services page here.
* The case examples do not refer to any actual past or present clients, but are a combination of life stories I have heard over the years.
Brown, B. (2005). Shame Resilience Theory: A Grounded Theory Study on Women and Shame
Brown, B. (2012). The gifts of imperfection.
©2017 Dr Mari Kovanen, CPsychol. All rights reserved.