Shame sucks the life out of your dreams and aspirations. It punishes you for getting something wrong and drains the joy out of your triumphs. Shame is why you lose faith in yourself and end up thinking you’re not good enough and never will be. It can reach the point where you’re not even sure about your strengths and talent. Eventually, its false voice that says You’re not good enough and never will be becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy preventing your dreams from coming true.
How do we end up this way?
Shame is largely the result of criticisms and judgments inflicted by parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and bosses, some of who were well meaning, some not, that steadily programmed your brain for shame reactions. But don’t fret, those faulty neural circuits can be pruned back so that they no longer run your life. I’ll tell you how in a moment, but first let’s briefly look at the problem.
Freud defined shame as the fear of losing people’s respect, which leads to being controlled by the fear of what others think of you. “[It’s] the fear of disconnection,” says Dr. Brené Brown, “of being perceived as flawed and unworthy of acceptance or belonging.”
It’s extremely stressful. Research at the University of California found that “stress caused by how others view you is extremely powerful, as much or more so than [that] caused from . . . working too hard.” Researchers found that “acute threats to our social self increase stress hormones and proinflammatory cytokine activity occurring in concert with shame.” That adds-up to poor brain function and disease.
Albert Ellis, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, found that there are two shame-based sentences that people tell themselves.
(1) The first sentence is I made a mistake; I made an error, and I got it wrong. This may invoke feelings of guilt or frustration, but if we were to stop here, the crisis would only represent an error to correct or a lesson to learn, extending the opportunity to grow or advance.
(2) The second sentence is This mistake I made . . . This event that turned out badly . . . This thing I got wrong . . . This way I behaved . . . it means that there’s something wrong with me. This is guilt or frustration becoming shame. It has us saying to ourselves I’m not good enough; I’m not smart enough; I’m not worthy enough; all of which calcify into the belief that I deserve whatever punishment is coming. And it’s this sentence – this belief – that does the damage.”
Shame is psychologically painful, which makes us afraid to make a mistake, more because of the emotional punishment we inflict on ourselves than for anything the world might do to us. Eventually, a shame-based mind represses its mistakes to avoid feeling bad, preventing the possibility of learning from a mistake, which only increases the likelihood of repeating the blunder. We become afraid to take risks, which limits our growth.
The problem with repression is that it isn’t selective. We can’t numb ourselves to difficult feelings, such as shame, without numbing ourselves to empowering feelings, like joy, passion, and peace, and this lessens our sense of self. We form facades and pretenses to compensate, which of course makes us feel even more inauthentic. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. As a result, we can’t see what’s right or true about us, and a narrow view of our strengths, talents, and contributions take hold. Research shows that people struggle at naming a few good points about themselves, but easily fill two pages of things they perceive as faults.
The cure is found in the words of Carl Rogers, arguably one of America’s greatest psychologists. Rogers said, “What you are is good enough if you would only be it openly.” Does that sound too simple and too small to effect something as large as shame.
Becoming good enough begins with the simple step of accepting yourself exactly as you are, which is not easy, at least at first. It entails closing the gap between “I am” and “I should be;” which is the gap between the authentic you that’s true and realizable, and the ideal self that’s illusion. The ideal self is the image of the person you think you should be that is always out of reach, imposing an unrealistic standard you can never meet. It becomes a measuring stick that says you’re failing in some way, even when you’re doing well.
Transcending the ideal self begins with awareness. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses your ideal self fabricates, so you can let them go. It’s being mindful of facades and pretenses, so you can let them go. It’s understanding that it doesn’t help to act one way on the outside when you actually feel another way inside. It doesn’t help to pretend to know the answer when you don’t. It’s accepting that you make mistakes, that you don’t always function in the best way or always achieve the best result. No one does. It’s learning that the more you’re able to experience all of your feelings, the less you’re afraid of any of your feelings, including shame.
Ironically, the courage to be imperfect quiets the shaming voice in your head, and opens the way to a greater sense of wholeness, in which your experience gradually becomes your authority and your guide. Shame no longer negates the better angels of your nature, mistakes no longer stop you, and other people’s judgments no longer control you. Your way is now cleared.