Regardless of age, gender or nationality, we all experience shame from time to time. Dr. Brené Brown, an author and researcher, explains in her book Daring Greatly, “The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.” And that is what I want to focus on today–cutting shame off at the knees.
Dr. Brené Brown has dedicated her career to researching shame and vulnerability. She describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. The dictionary defines shame as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. We all feel it; in fact, it was recently found that even babies can experience shame!
It is important to note that there is a distinction between shame and guilt. While shame means, I am bad, guilt means, I did something bad. Shame is debilitating, it can shut us down or emerge in ways destructive to ourselves and others. The remorse and regret that can come with guilt, on the other hand, can motivate us to make adjustments or restitution, and create new paths.
Let’s talk about real life examples of shame. How many of us have ever scrolled through social media to see someone doing something we wish we could do–affording a luxury vacation, building their dream home, accepting a prestigious position, holding a difficult yoga pose, cooking a beautiful multi-course meal for friends, reaching 10k followers, etc? We all have. What was our next thought? For many of us it is, I could never do that, I’m not smart, rich or talented enough! This is shame. Shame holds us back and debilitates is. It tells us we are “bad,” which can prevent us from changing or doing better. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change or progress. Further, it can lead to addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying. Because of the powerful implications of shame, we must identify our feelings of shame, understand them and build healthy coping skills against it! Here are five ways to cut shame off at the knees:
- Bring shame to the light. Know what it is and what it feels like. Recognize when it sneaks into life. TALK about it. Awareness is the first step!
- Recognize triggers. Shame is good at hitting us where we are vulnerable. A new mom who secretly feels out of her depth is more likely to feel shame when her parenting style is questioned. A husband who worries about providing may see his spouse’s comment about the neighbor’s new car as an attempt to shame him rather than an innocent observation. We must know where our armor is thin and work to strengthen and protect those areas.
- Stop striving for perfection. Dr. Brown has said that perfectionism is like a process addiction–the more you do it, the more you feel compelled to do it. Perfectionism is a common ailment among many of my clients, and it is corrosive. It tells us nothing we do is good enough…so why try? Perfectionism and shame go hand-in-hand. When we work to stop one, we will find there is not room for the other!
- Practice positive self-talk. The first option for positive self-talk is positive affirmations. These are powerful; by voicing what we believe (or want to believe) about who we are, and what we are capable of, can decrease our feelings of shame. By literally repeating something (out loud) enough we will start believing it. The second option is simply speaking more kindly to ourselves. If we were to talk to ourselves the way we would talk to our children…we would never speak to them as negatively as we do to ourselves! Be kind. Practice self-love through our inner dialogue.
- Deeply root self-worth. If we define ourselves by what we do, we put the power of our happiness in the hands of others. When separate what we do from our sense of self-worth we will find freedom. When we are comfortable in our own skin, we can look at both praise and condemnation with the perspective each deserves, absorb any helpful critiques, and move on.
Shame is one of the most debilitating emotions humans can feel. It can stunt growth and corrode motivation. It is always looming. Unfortunately, we cannot “beat” or overcome shame once and be done with it. Instead, we must view our relationship with shame as ongoing: recognize when shame is creeping in (know our triggers), speak kindly to ourselves (affirmations), and remember that we are so much more than what we do or look like. Working to cut shame off at the knees is one of the most common subjects among my clients–everyone is feeling it! I fully understand that shame can get in the way of the important things and relationships in life. If you want to more fully understand how shame is holding you back, or if you have questions and would like additional help, I would be more than happy to assist you. Feel free to contact me or schedule a session!
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.
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- Eating Recovery Center: “3 Ways We Armor Up to Avoid Shame – and How It Impacts Recovery”
- Huffington Post: “Why We Feel Shame and How to Overcome It”
- Live Bold and Bloom: “8 Strategies for Overcoming Shame”
- Oprah: “Finding Shelter in a Shame Storm (and Avoiding the Flying Debris”
- Psychology Today: “What We Got Wrong About Shame”
- Psychology Today: “5 Ways to Silence Shame”
- WikiHow: “How to Let Go of Shame and Build Self-Esteem”
- YouTube: “Brené Brown: 3 Things You Can Do to Stop a Shame Spiral”