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Shame and How to Deal with It

Dr. Helen Johnson

11 May 2023

If I could give you one piece of advice it would be this – never ever ever think you are above something...

If I could give you one piece of advice it would be this – never ever ever think you are above something. Every time I get smug about anything, the universe gives me a little kick in my backside just to remind me that I am human. It is humbling and often manifests in the most embarrassing ways - I cringe at the thought of my past self thinking I would never bribe my kids with screentime or let them run riot in public... And now that's a standard Saturday afternoon. But that's minor compared to some of the massive errors in judgement that I've made, having previously judged other people for the exact same (relationships, work, lifestyle choices, you name it...). Not to mention the times my actions have caused harm to other people and I know I was wrong - a joke that went too far, something said in anger, a violation of someone else's privacy.

Shame happens when you violate your own internal value system – the ideas you or other people have about what is right and how we should think, feel, and behave. When shame pops up, we are likely to feel a complete disconnection from ourselves and our own worth. We feel unworthy. It’s one of the darkest emotions, often living in hidden corners of our minds where we don’t want to go. It also drives us to avoid any further occurrence of shame AT ALL COSTS. It’s the kind of discomfort that can actually drive us to do things that are against our own interests in order to avoid or hide those things of which we are ashamed. In particular, we may avoid someone or even treat them badly because of some shame they remind us of.

Some people believe that shame is useful, even necessary. Shaming is used all the time to teach people what is and isn’t acceptable. The idea is that being made to feel bad is the only way to ensure good behaviour. However, this is just false. Our good, loving behaviour comes from exactly that – love. When we are kind, considerate, funny, caring, affectionate, or brave, we are coming from a place of light. These things do not come from darkness and pain. It is SAFE TO LET LIGHT GROW. You do not need the dark to keep you in control!

So what do we do when there is no getting around it? We were wrong, we did a bad thing, and there is no squirming out of this one…

  1. Do not run from it – if you are actually wrong then trying to reconstruct your whole perception or belief system to eradicate this will be more damaging in the long run (it’s the kind of behaviour that gets us into perpetual cycles where we become more and more desensitized to our behaviour, telling ourselves it’s not so bad…)

  2. Speak it – get it out into the light because shame only survives in darkness. Shame operates by making you think you are unworthy and need to hide. Tell someone and if you really can’t bring yourself to then write it all down, it won’t seem so scary then.

  3. Forgive yourself – learn from it and move on. Cut yourself some slack just like you would if someone you loved had done the same thing! You achieve nothing by beating yourself up and it is actually more likely to make you act out again.

We all make mistakes, we all let ourselves down once in a while, and we are all worthy of love. Never forget that. Learning and striving to live well are what matters. However, if these sources of shame are becoming painful habits, do not forget there is help out there for you…

Love, Helen

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