I don’t think I could have defined shame with words until fairly recently, but I have known what shame feels like for as far back as I can remember. I am guessing you know how shame feels too.
Shame feels like I am not enough.
Shame feels like I am less than.
Shame feels like I am unworthy of love.
Shame feels like I am dirty.
Shame feels like I am a bad person.
Shame feels like _________________________. You fill in the blank.
How shame feels can be summed up in one word: DEFECTIVE. Shame wants us to believe we are broken beyond repair and that we are defective. Do you know what defective means? It means I am no longer effective. Let’s stay there for just a moment.
If I am no longer effective, I no longer have purpose or value or belonging.
When we begin to embody shame, we don’t even realize it. In fact, we start to engage in behaviors that unconsciously send out the message, “I am not worth your time.” Or we act in ways to prove we might be of some value if we just do enough.
I have two shame patterns that have remained pretty constant in my life. One shame pattern I use within my family system as well as within groups where I am not sure if I am liked let alone valued. I do, do, do. I make meals. I organize. I offer to serve however I can. Now, you might ask why is that so bad? The actions themselves are not bad and in fact, I quite enjoy some of that doing. The problem comes in when I am doing to earn value and belonging and love. If I have to be a certain person who plays a certain role and completes certain tasks, shame is in charge. Shame is whispering, “Without your doing, you are nothing to these people.”
My other shame pattern shows up when I am being invited into intimacy and fear is in charge. This shame pattern includes actions and words I use to test my physical and emotional safety with a romantic partner or deepening friendship. I put myself down to see how the boyfriend or friend responds. I withhold touch to see if I am pursued. I share too soon all the terrible things I have done to see if they walk away. Even as I write about this shame pattern, I am thinking, “This is ridiculous! I am way too old to be testing people in this childish way,” and yet, every time fear shows up, I test. If I sense rejection is hovering, I set out to prove I am rejectable and they don’t need to feel bad about rejecting me. Messed up, I know, but how many of you know what I am talking about? I am guessing most people know what I am talking about.
So what’s a gal to do with all that shame? Let’s turn to Brené Brown, my go-to expert on shame these days, to see what she has to say.
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.” ~Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
Do you hear what she is saying? Talk about whatever is causing shame. Name it. Put words to the feeling. In my first example of a shame pattern I have, it is best to speak about what I am feeling with a trusted friend. The vulnerability allows light to flow in and I can move out of shame and into what is true for me. It puts me in a place of empowerment where I choose how I will show up.
I have had these discussions with my closest friends and as a result, I have made choices ahead of time when I am going into situations that might tempt shame to taunt me. I choose ahead of time what I am willing to do and what I am not willing to do. The line between the two was determined prior to the situation through thoughtful and vulnerable conversations that supported me in deciding what felt true to my values and what felt like a shame pattern.
Likewise, with my second shame pattern, words need to be put to the feelings. However, in this shame pattern, in order to deepen trust and relationship, I must become vulnerable and share with my boyfriend or friend the fear I am feeling and why. That conversation will support me in deciding if I am safe or not because in my vulnerability, I am inviting the other person into vulnerability as well. If they accept the invitation, we go deeper in our intimacy. If they decline, there might be more conversation, and it raises the opportunity for me to make an empowered decision about whether I want to continue the relationship on a deepening path or not. Either way, courage is leading the way, not shame.
Brené goes on to say in Daring Greatly, “Shame resilience…is about finding a middle path, an option that allows us to stay engaged and to find the emotional courage we need to respond in a way that aligns with our values.” In the two examples I gave I am allowing space for alignment with my values. I am staying engaged. I am not hiding in fear. I am daring greatly and shame cannot stand where there is courage.