Shame: There is something wrong with me as a person.
Guilt: I’m a person who may have done something wrong.
What is the thing that causes you to lay awake at night; the thing that causes you shame? I promise that you’re not damaged beyond repair. You’re not unlovable. You’re not bad. You’re just human.
Every week I have someone shuffle into my office, eyes downcast. “I need to tell you something.” They look full of shame. They tell me about that hurtful experience, the bad choice they made, or the negative thoughts in their head. They peek at me through tears. “Can you believe that?”
Yes, I can. 99.99999% of things I hear, I have heard many times prior. I don’t say that to minimize anyone’s pain. I don’t want to invalidate their hurt. But the shame? That’s what causes us to lay awake at night. That’s what causes us to feel isolated.
It doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you damaged beyond repair. Whatever your “it” is; it just makes you human.
I am not suggesting that we print out all of our mistakes on a t-shirt. I don’t want to see a banner that exposes all of our dark places. But perhaps you can find one person to share your “it” with. What I have found, from both sides of the therapy couch as a therapist and a patient, that each time you share it, one more brick of shame is taken away. Piece by piece, the wall starts to come down and you don’t feel so alone. Yes, you may still be hurting; you may be embarrassed. But shame cuts deeper than embarrassment. There is something wrong with me as a person, not a person who may have done something wrong.
I could give you a very long list of mistakes I have made in my life, people I have hurt, decisions I am not proud of. I could also share many things that were done to me: the bullying, the end of a friendship, the abuse. I still think about those things. I am still sad over them from time to time. However, I have also worked to give myself grace that I was doing the best I could at the time. I have recognized I am not responsible for the actions of others. I let go of the shame, so I could truly deal with the grief and other feelings underneath. I am not defined by these things anymore.
Take the first step today. How to start releasing the shame:
- As mentioned above, tell one person. Obviously pick a person with whom you feel safe. It’s amazing how one person’s vulnerability in a relationship, romantic or otherwise, can open the door for others to be more authentic as well.
- If you don’t feel ready to share it yet, write it somewhere. If you don’t want to keep it in your house, burn it (in a safe way please!). This may sound silly, but many people have found this act very therapeutic.
- Since human brains have a negativity bias, it is likely you dwell on the mistakes you’ve made more than the good you’ve done. Every time your brain reminds you of all the things that you “should” feel shame about, write down something for which you feel proud. Start a list in your notes section. You may be surprised how much there is to put on that list when you are intentionally thinking of the good actions from your past.
- Think what you would say back to a friend who confessed this “shame thing” with you. How would you reassure them? How would you help them realize that they are more than an action, or even a series of actions? Say this to yourself…over and over and over again. Write this response down somewhere for easy access on days you have trouble remembering.
For anyone that wants to delve more into the topic of shame, I would highly recommend “I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t)” by Brene Brown (written particularly for women) or “Healing the Shame that Binds You” by John Bradshaw.