Wellbeing: Befriending Shame
Today on the blog, Emily Jacob from UnShamed, talks about the negative effect of shame on our mental health, and how we can learn to deal with the baggage we carry. In this time of uncertainty, our wellbeing is particularly fragile, especially if you have precarious living or work situations at the moment. Making sure we look after ourselves is paramount to finding the strength we need to thrive at that job interview, or successfully negotiate with a landlord.
Emily writes passionately and eloquently about the psychological impact of shame, and coaching and group work can help to overcome it. >>
Shame is a soul-eating emotion, said Carl Jung and it is true. Shame kills us slowly from the inside, eroding our sense of self-worth, keeping us isolated from others and preventing authentic connection. Shame drives us to drink, to binge, to do anything to numb ourselves from feeling it being ‘there’, inside of us. But we can’t just numb one emotion, so we numb joy as well. Shame causes us to lash out at others to distract from ourselves, and to turn that hatred in on ourselves. Shame is very much a soul-eating emotion.
NICABM (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine) defines shame as “an intensely painful feeling of being fundamentally flawed.” If you scratch under the surface of anger, hatred, fear, you will usually find shame. It shows up in different forms, in the perfectionist who is running from the shame of not being perfect, in the person suffering from imposter syndrome who is fearful of the shame of ‘being found out’, in the critical, and self-critical, person who is judging before others can judge them. As Brené Brown says,
“when perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun, and fear is that annoying backseat driver.”
In my work with my company ReConnected Life I help women re-build their lives after rape & sexual violence and move past their pasts to live a whole life again. A big part of this is helping them to navigate the shame that comes with sexual violence. Whilst of course we all rationally know that the only shame that should exist in such cases is the shame carried by the perpetrator, the fact is that shame is one of the most debilitating results of rape and sexual violence, the impact of which can be just as severe as the resultant PTSD – which also comes with its shame coffers too. I know that after I had been raped, I felt when people knew all they could see was ‘stupid’ (the shame of having been in a position to ‘allow’ it to happen), and ‘weak’ (the shame of having PTSD) branded on my forehead. Shame keeps us in victim-state and is a rigid blocker to healing.
Shame does not only crop up following these major traumas. Shame is also built-in. As women we are societally conditioned from a really early age to be ashamed of everything that makes us women and the layering of these ‘micro-shames’ over our lifetimes makes feeling ashamed of shame so normalised that we often don’t even notice how much shame baggage we are carrying.
We experience, but we don’t talk about: fear of our period showing, irregular periods, painful periods, grief of infertility or miscarriage, our decision to have an abortion, post-natal depression, endometriosis, PCOS, vaginismus, inability to orgasm, perimenopause. We are shamed if we decide to be childless, and shamed if we have ‘too many’ children. We are shamed if we go back to work after having had children, or if we stay at home. Our bodies should be plucked, shaved, trimmed, manicured, and above all else, thin. But not too thin. As women, it can often feel that we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
These experiences are so much integral to being a woman that we often don’t pay any attention to them. Yet the shames layer, one on top of the next, and their weight can become overwhelming. They show up unnoticed in our perfectionism, our lack of self-worth, our desire to always be doing for someone else, our co-dependency and attachment issues, driving us to eat that muffin, or binge that Netflix series.
These micro-shames weigh heavily. We are exhorted to live our best lives, be our best selves, be authentic and real. Yet, how can we be, whilst we carry shame for the crime of living female? Brené Brown sums it up when she says,
“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
We can befriend our shame, though. Shame exists, like most things we experience inside our heads, to keep us safe. It’s just let that safety impulse take on a menacing and unhelpful attitude within us. When we meet it, and accept it, share it, then we can remove the inherent danger within shame, and melt it away.
Another Brené quote I love,
“Shame cannot survive being spoken… And being met with empathy.”
Oftentimes, it is necessary only to speak it to yourself, and bring compassion and empathy in doing so, although if you can find a safe audience to share with, that is even better.
I work with a 4-step process to reducing and melting away shame.
The first step is the most important. It requires reaching in deep and finding the shame which is lying underneath the behaviour we are feeling uncomfortable with. If I feel myself pulling away, hiding parts of me, not being comfortable in sharing something – then I know shame is somewhere underneath. If I feel myself fearing something, I ask where is the shame that’s driving that emotion. If I find myself judging others, I ask why is that particular thing triggering me, and what is the shame that I’m feeling. Get really curious. The digging deep can lead to an experience as a child, perhaps a snigger in the hallway at school. Or, it can reveal that today you’re exhausted and feeling shame for not enoughness and where that might have come from.
When you have named the shame, understand what its impact has been. Does it keep you alone and disconnected, never totally whole in your relationships? Silence is isolating. Share the shame, if you can. Find community, you will not be the only person who feels this way, or who has had this experience. Normalise what you’re going through by breaking down the barriers of silence. So many women, for example, don’t talk about their period problems because it’s just part of being a woman – yet sisterhood is found when we realise that yes it is a shared experience, but it shouldn’t be quite like that, and we can get help, and we don’t need to suffer alone.
Talk to your shame. Let it know you understand that it’s been keeping you safe. And let it also know it doesn’t need to do that anymore; you’ve got this now. Explain it’s been keeping you small and the comfort zone is now uncomfortable. Be grateful both for the emotion’s intention, and to yourself for having the courage and vulnerability to admit it’s become a problem for you and that you are ready to not hold onto that emotion anymore.
These first two steps are the befriending part of melting shame away. When we’re on friendly terms with our shame, have taken time to understand it, instead of pushing it away and ignoring it (which, let’s face it, isn’t the way you’d treat a friend), then it simply becomes less menacing, less fearful; more friendly.
The next two steps are about creating change in ourselves. Instead of feeling shame what do you want to believe instead? Perhaps that you are enough, you are worthy, you do deserve love, you are loveable, your body is just fine as it is. Identify it in the words that resonate with you, and connect with it. This work can be done alone, in community, or with a coach to guide you. There are many routes in – journaling, setting a mantra, belief-change work.
Finally, it’s always important to set intentions and plan for the future – how will you identify the barriers or obstacles to this new belief? What behaviours will you be exhibiting now you have this new belief, how will people be responding to you, what will be changing in your life? You might like to imagine yourself 12 months and 3 years and 10 years into the future living the new life you’ll be living now you have this new belief about yourself.
Befriending shame is an ongoing process. Meeting each day’s challenges with compassionate awareness to understanding the why’s of your triggers is a continuing process. As we unwrap one layer, we often reveal another. Yet its when we show up in the world with self-compassion and curiosity for our triggers that we can be authentic and vulnerable, and find the courage to be our whole selves.
Together with the Oxford Wellbeing Project, Emily invites you to attend an UnShamed Circle this Saturday 28th November, in which you can explore the process of Befriending Shame in a safe, compassionate and gentle environment.
In these small group coaching events Emily will gently guide you to look at how to overcome internalised shame and emerge stronger with more self-knowledge and self-compassion – and power.
These are interactive sessions, with the opportunity for self-reflection and guidance on how to continue the work outside the session. No-one however will be obligated to share anything; listening silently is a valid approach to self-development.
Whilst the content is aimed at the experience of living in a biological woman’s body, anyone who self-identifies as female is welcome to attend these sessions.
Sign up to Emily’s Unshamed Circle.