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Shame is a tool to teach young people the rules of our culture, and to maintain social order and hierarchy. It is meant to create an immediate bad feeling to arrest an action quickly. Ideally shaming of a behavior is followed by a repair, a connection, so we realize that we are not bad. It is our behavior that was not okay.

There is something inherently shaming in not being loved. The experience of feeling unloved generates the fear that there is something so fundamentally wrong with us that we are unlovable. We feel ashamed of who we are. Shame becomes toxic as we internalize the feeling there is something inherently and deeply wrong with us. We believe “I’m bad, I’m disgusting, I’m unlovable”. Shame drives the inner critic and core deficiency beliefs. 

Everyday shame is what we all experience in daily life. We’re embarrassed when we’re clumsy and knock something over. We are called on in a meeting and we don’t know the answer. We’re left out of a conversation or sense other people think we are boring. We’re nervous, shy or self-conscious. Everyone experiences this at times.

Catastrophic shame involves humiliation, self-loathing, and disgrace. Contempt and ridicule, especially by parents, directly leads to believing we are contemptible. Broken. Not redeemable.

As adults, we learn that the beliefs we had as a child were based on our brain development, lack of power, and pursuing connection to avoid feeling helpless. We consider the possibility that what happened to us as a child was never our fault. Grown-ups were responsible for the conditions of our childhood. 

Research around body shaming makes it crystal clear that shaming never helps us change. When we feel shamed, we collapse. We can’t move. We get the opposite of the results we want, yet many people still use this weapon on their children and on themselves.

Awareness is the first step to come out of shame. Mindfulness helps us become aware of the sensations in our body and thoughts in our mind. The inner critic may have been driving us since we were very young and be a familiar background noise we barely even notice. 

To stop internal shaming, we need to start where we are and not wait until we are somehow better to be worthy of accepting ourselves. Shame researchers like Dr Brené Brown have proven this. Self acceptance and compassion rewire earlier shame experiences. A lack of self-compassion keeps shame alive.

Step back and look at the situation with a new perspective. Does shaming fit the facts? Is it appropriate to the situation? Does it still apply? 

Would you viciously scorn your child or a dear friend who made a similar mistake? Listen in on what your inner critic is saying. We are so harsh with ourselves. Gratitude and self-compassion can help us to move out of the isolation and self-loathing of shame. 

We cannot think our way out of shame

Shame is an experience we feel in our whole body and we have an immediate desire to make it go away at all costs. We typically lower our head and eyes, and we roll our shoulders over and down. There could be a feeling of nausea and ringing in the ears. We hold our breath or barely breathe. We lose our sense of humour and have no sense of perspective. We feel exposed and without value.

Move shame out of your body by changing your body position. Bring your shoulders back and down to open your chest. Stand up and move around. Breathe deeply. Bring your eyes up and look outward. Make eye contact with someone friendly (live or a picture).

To heal shame, shift from the “I am bad” false core deficiency belief to a behavior focus. “I have done something wrong and need to change a behavior”

Putting everything on the table, when appropriate and safe, can also be an antidote to shame. This is who I am. This is how I feel. This is what I have worked through. As we heal, we can see clearly and make changes in our beliefs and behavior when necessary. Like everyone else, I am allowed to make mistakes without writing myself off. I am a good person, strong and resilient. 

Acknowledge your strength and offer yourself kindness and compassion. Bring your younger self close in to the felt experience of what we all long for – being seen and loved.

From Lynn Fraser’s upcoming book Ordinary Trauma, Extraordinary Healing: Inspiring stories and powerful practices to heal the pain of being human

Shame is the fear we are unlovable
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