Growing Shame? Do This Instead.

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Last week, my compulsive “yesses” caught up with me in a major way.

Stretched far too thin, I dropped the ball in a number of places:

  • I wasn’t as present to my friends as I wanted to be

  • My patience was running on empty in my parenting

  • I wasn’t able to meet deadlines that I had promised to meet

  • And then worst of all (in my mind, “the biggest mistake of all”) I didn’t edit out some sensitive information in a report before it went public.

Shame set in.  Ugh. 

A full blown case of flushed cheeks, burning skin, a hard knot in my stomach, shakiness and nausea, holding my breath and wishing the earth would just swallow me up for a few years.

Shame is an intensely painful experience. 

I know I’ve written a lot recently about developing the capacity to feel your feelings, to welcome your feelings, to witness and know your feelings and to allow them to move through you, but none of that was going to work for me with this shame attack.  

Shame is the last thing I ever want to feel.

No.

Instead I almost jumped out of my skin to make the feeling go away:

  • I stopped returning phone calls

  • I disconnected from the internet

  • I told people close to me that I was “fine” in a curt tone

  • I imagined all sorts of ways of obsequiously groveling to say I was sorry a hundred different ways to a hundred different people

  • I imagined moving to a new country

  • I imagined changing jobs

  • I argued with everyone in my head defending myself and arguing my side of it

  • I got angry and defensive. Then silent and withdrawn. Then obsequious. (I love that word, by the way)

After enough rumination and wallowing, I finally knew it was time to call a friend.  “I’m so stuck in my shame right now that I can’t think straight. I need a reality check.” 

She listened and laughed, knowingly.

Relief.

“Your mistake muscles just aren’t as strong as you’d like them to be,” she reflected gently.

Mistake Muscles. 

What a gorgeous phrase.  

I want to develop my mistake muscles and the ability to bring myself back to life after descending into a shame spiral.

Another friend reminded me: "Be tender with yourself when you feel exposed."

Sigh. It's so important to be tender with one another and ourselves when we are in this place. This is not the time for correction or judgment.

This is the time for tenderness, empathy and kindness.

  • I want to get better at being imperfect and not having it take such a tremendous toll on me.

  • I want to know that even if I don’t always get it right, that people will be kind and safe.

  • I want to know that I can handle people being disappointed in me. It doesn’t mean I am a disappointment.

  • People can be annoyed with something that I do; It does mean I am annoying.

  • People can be unhappy with a choice I made; It doesn’t mean I am bad or unworthy.

Brené Brown (Queen of Shame Theory and Research!) uses two helpful mantras when she get stuck in a shame attack:

  • "Don’t shrink or puff up; just stand in your sacred ground."

  • "Don’t talk, text or type."

  • Or, as an awesome friend of mine summarized it: “So, just stand in your holy place and shut your trap.”

(Don't you just love those?) 

I find it helpful to become more aware of and manage what relational-cultural theorist Linda Hartling  calls our Three Strategies of Disconnection: 

  1. Moving Away: withdrawing, hiding, silencing and keeping secrets.

  2. Moving Towards: seeking to appease and please, over-apologizing.

  3. Moving Against: trying to gain power over others by being aggressive; using anger to fight anger, using shame to fight shame.

Last week, I most certainly employed all three of these. In various degrees, in various ways.

This week, I am grateful for the loving people who supported me in coming back to love and to life.

So, what's the single most important thing that helps me when I am stuck in a shame spiral?  

Connecting with people who know me and love me.

When I am unable to have my own back, I seek out those people who can have my back for me until I can get back online.  

But here is the most important thing that I have learned about these people:

  • They listen deeply, compassionately and non-judgmentally.

  • They reflect goodness back to me.

  • They have a sense of humor and perspective.

  • They know that I am OK, and that it will be OK and they help me find my way to back to that knowing.

  • They can separate out my often imperfect choices and behaviors from who I am.

  • They help me laugh with myself, with me.

The next time you find yourself activated by shame, make the shift from fear, blame and disconnection to courage, compassion and connection by reaching out to trusted others, sharing your story, expressing how you feel and asking for what you need.

Shame grows in the dark. Isolation, judgment and secrecy are fertilizer for growing shame.

Shame cannot grow when it is met with empathy, compassion and awareness.

So reach out, share your story, express how you feel and ask for what you need. It made all the difference in my own week. I hope it does in yours too.