How to Take Three Steps Away From the “What’s If’s” of Paralyzing Shame
At the age of 34, I didn’t think I’d ever live down my shame.
I’d struggled through a chaotic ten years, ending two marriages for very different reasons. Yet I was acutely aware that the common thread between those marriages was me. I was struggling to think of myself as a worthwhile person because of the piercingly constant negative voice in my head.
Nobody could tell at the time. I hid it well, making jokes about my two trips down the aisle and pretending that I was taking it all in stride. I was doing well in graduate school and my last year, I took pride in the fact that a professor seemed surprised when one of my colleagues mentioned my divorce our first year of school, “You got divorced? I’d never have known that.”
My mask was tightly in place.
But at night, when I was alone, the shame was waiting for me. It belittled me constantly, badgering me into the belief that I wasn’t capable of true intimacy. It insisted that I’d only continue to make other mistakes and hurt other people. It convinced me that I didn’t deserve anything better.
It’s only when I began fighting it tooth and nail, when I realized that I was unfairly shouldering all of the responsibility for what had happened in my relationships, that I could begin to believe in myself again.
I hear the same struggle with shame in people who feel that they did something they struggle to live with and can’t move on. I hear it from those who have been abused emotionally and physically, irrationally believing that somehow they’re to blame – or that even as a child, they should’ve stopped it. I hear it from those who’ve convinced themselves that they’re unloveable because of a problem or secret that feels unmanageable.
“I don’t know why I can’t stop.”
“I let this happen. Who in their right mind would allow this? I should’ve left long ago.”
“My mother always told me things were my fault. That’s my first thought now when something happens.”
Years ago, a supervisor talked about shame. He was a lanky, opinionated, boots-and-jeans Texan, who I didn’t care for initially. However, he’d written some very good books which I admired, so I listened, albeit with a skeptical ear. This is what he said, “Shame is helpful if it lasts for ten seconds and leads to a change of behavior.”
I didn’t believe him. I thought shame kept you in line. – that is was the same thing as a good conscience.
Now I know that he was right. While the ten seconds part was a bit of a dramatic spin, overall there was a lot of wisdom in his sentiment.
Shame is not the same as a good conscience…
Shame absorbs itself into your very being, so you believe that you’re someone bad or inferior at your very core. Rather than accepting that you made a mistake, that you hurt someone or yourself, or that you did something you once believed that you’d never do, shame turns that act into all of who you are.
Letting go of shame today helps you avoid more of this self-destructive thinking. In fact, if you hold onto it, if shame leaps into your mind every moment that you’re not distracted by something else, you’re likely to continue making bad decisions – because why not? You already feel like a lousy human being…
So what can you do about shame? Here are some ideas.
Three things you can do to manage shame…
1. Stay in the present. Don’t “What If” Yourself to Death
You can get wrapped up occasionally in the “what if’s” of life. It’s then that I can feel the remorse, echoes of the pain I helped to create back then. So, it’s important to step back into the present. Write out what is on your mind — what you can’t seem to work through. Often when you journal, new revelations or emotions come to you that can help you work through your shame.
2. Take your part of the responsibility, but only your part.
Take responsibility for what may have been your part in whatever you feel shame about. That’s integrity.
But don’t use your integrity against yourself. If you’re carrying shame about trauma or actual victimization, please realize that anyone at anytime can be a victim. You did the best you could to handle the shock of your own abuse.
3. Give yourself the gift of compassion.
Talk to yourself as you would talk to your best friend. Realize that you were doing the best you could at the time, and that you were learning something vital.
If feeling shame in the past is something you remember feeling, then let that guide your next choices. But… pummeling yourself over and over again is not only unhealthy but useless.
If you struggle with shame? Please join me. Here. In this day.
Today is where you belong as well.
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This was originally published on September 18, 2015 and was updated on April 30, 2023.