Shame is no joke.
The wounds from your childhood affect your behaviors, relationships, and ability to feel any sort of positive emotion about yourself. Shame that goes unaddressed can keep you from everything you want to do and be.
Taking on shame is a journey into yourself. That might sound magical, but it’s the truth. Let’s look at how it happens:
Shame and the Human Being
Guilt is a healthy and necessary emotion for any responsible person. You do something wrong, feel regret, and try to make amends. But shame is not guilt. Guilt is: “I’ve done something bad.” Shame is: “I am fundamentally bad.”
As you might imagine, shame usually comes from traumatic experiences in childhood. A child perceives everything that happens to them, good or bad, as being their fault. Experiencing abandonment, neglect, or abuse, can leave a child feeling like they've been rejected by the world, and that they don’t deserve love.
This is what shame is.
It’s not always one significant event that can stain you with shame. It can be thousands of small events. It can be an oppressive environment. It can be some aspect of parenting that gets lost in translation for you as an infant.
A deep shame that goes on for years is called toxic shame.
According to Good Therapy:
Toxic shame is shame that leads to chronic negative emotions, or behavior that harms oneself or others. People who feel chronic shame may think they are unworthy of love. Others may fear connecting to others, convinced that others will eventually see the “real” person and reject them.
Your authentic self feels unacceptable, so you hide from the world. You don’t want to be seen or heard. You don’t feel you deserve to connect, or succeed, or be loved. You never feel wanted.
This is the veil that shame can cast over your reality.
Here’s what you need to know: You can heal your shame. But I’m telling you from personal experience that it’s a delicate process, and it takes time. It requires several things:
This is the strongest weapon against shame, and it’s been championed in recent years by psychologist Brené Brown.
Put simply, vulnerability is being real. It’s telling the truth. It’s revealing to someone who you are and what you believe. But what does that have to do with healing?
Vulnerability is scary for most people, but it’s knee-shakingly terrifying for someone with a lot of shame. You have to show your terrible self to someone who might reject, judge, or harm you more. They can hit you where it hurts. But the thing is, they can also accept you.
Telling someone about a weird thing you struggle with, or how much you hate yourself, or what someone did to you, requires a moment of absolute courage. But when you finally feel seen and understood, the burden starts to lift.
The things you buried end up bringing you closer to others. You can feel loved for who you are, maybe for the first time. As long as you allow yourself to be vulnerable with someone you can trust, you can open up the shame floodgates.
A therapist is a good place to start.
2. Piecing Together Your Past
Sometimes trauma is not obvious.
You need to find out how you’ve been affected by your past and the dynamics of your relationships.
If you have a nagging feeling that you aren’t worth much, or that you don’t deserve to be happy, you need to investigate why.
Maybe you have a history of acting out, struggling with addiction, or running away from success. Connecting the dots can help you see what led you to those behaviors. You can start to see how those actions were your way of coping with something.
All this is necessary to prepare for the most important step —
3. Self Compassion and Forgiveness
I hated the idea of being kind to myself.
Imagine having to tolerate someone you hate and give them the benefit of the doubt. That’s how it felt.
But you need to give yourself a chance. Here are the three components of reaching self-forgiveness, according to LMFT Beverly Engel.
- Reconsider Your Trauma — You were a child. A child has no control over how other people treat them. You didn’t make anyone treat you that way. How could it be your fault?
- Start With Compassion — If your first instinct is to attack yourself, then you need to put down the whip. Treat yourself like you would a close friend. Try being loving, kind, supportive, and encouraging if you make a mistake or fall back into old habits.
- Give it To Yourself — Self-forgiveness is a deliberate action. It’s like giving yourself a gift. You take responsibility for who you are, with a grounded understanding of why you feel what you feel and do the things you do. Then you forgive yourself.
It’s important to work towards forgiving yourself for: the abuse itself, the ways you hurt others because of your own abusive experiences, and the ways you have harmed yourself.
Healing shame is like unraveling a knotted rope. You can’t move on from anything until you stop holding a grudge against yourself. Put the blame where it is rightfully due, and let yourself go.
The Most Difficult Thing (My Experience)
If you’ve put any work into this, or if you’re just deciding now to tackle your shame and stop treating yourself terribly, then you deserve credit.
After you face what you need to face, you’ll have a completely different way of processing things emotionally. You’ll know what it’s like to be on your side for the first time.
But here’s the thing:
You can put in enormous effort, experience intense moments of growth and understanding, but old wounds still might flare up. The shame you thought you moved on from can still rear its ugly head.
I’m speaking for myself, and your experience will probably be different, but still feeling shame after years of trying to heal it makes me furious. I think to myself, “Why the fuck is this still here?”
I rage at it. Reject it. Doubt my progress. And let it bring me down.
But that doesn’t help. I need to pick myself up and be patient with it. It will take as long as it takes. Maybe I’m not done yet.
I said to my therapist, “I have all this doubt and negative emotion that stems from shame. I know it in and out. I’ve done all this work. So when it does pop up, what do I DO with it?”
She said, “Feel it.”
I used to think shame was like having a thorn stuck in your soul, and if you could remove it, you would be cured. Simply figure out the cause, see how it wasn’t your fault, and be done.
But it’s not quite like that.
It’s more like treating a burn that you have to be gentle with, clean, and apply balm to. It heals, but only over a long period. And raging at it won’t make it go away.
You have to feel your shame, as deeply as you can, without fighting it with logic. Then you have to understand where it came from. Then you have to try and forgive yourself.
You have to notice your moments of immense progress, the changes in your self-perception, and how you feel about past events. You need to focus on the cause of your self-sabotage, which is shame. Everything else is a symptom.
Imagine not having to feel the oppressive burden of your past. Imagine feeling something like freedom. Healing shame might be the most worthwhile decision you ever make. I hope you find peace with yourself.