Shame is the emotional experience underlying low self-esteem. It's that awful feeling generated by perceiving one’s self as bad, defective, incompetent, unattractive. Everyone experiences shame from time to time. You get a time wrong and turn up late to an event, you miss a deadline or simply say the wrong thing. An inner voice inside you says “mate you’re an idiot, you’re pathetic”. This is a feeling of shame and it stings for a while and you move on to the rest of your day.
However, for some people they can’t move on from these experiences quickly. They obsess about their mistakes, beating themselves up without respite. These people believe if they beat themselves up that it will help them move forward, that it will stop them making the mistake again. Such people suffer from what is called “toxic shame”. Toxic shame is perhaps the biggest psychological problem of our generation and it's the greatest obstacle to emotional well-being.
Toxic shame does not lead to improving yourself it leads to the following behaviours:
- It leads to self-hate, depression, hopelessness, and addictions. People often turn to drugs to numb the unbearable pain of shame and self-hate.
- It leads to perfectionism and grandiosity.
- It leads to jealousy and comparing oneself to others which results in a loss of independence, ability to make decisions for oneself, and self-directedness.
- It leads to panic, fear, and anxiety as one desperately tries to salvage his/her damaged self-worth which is living in a self-preservation mode.
- It leads to being terrified of emotional intimacy because of one’s fear of being vulnerable and being “seen.”
Toxic shame is usually the result of some kind of childhood trauma or relationship trauma involving constant criticism, punitive discipline, lack of understanding to feelings and needs, narcissism, cruelty, being compared to siblings, verbal abuse, unfair treatment, deprivation, and more. As bleak as this may sound, there is hope. In fact, anyone who recognises their suffering and wants to find true relief can do so with the proper psychological guidance.
Identify something you constantly beat yourself up for and use these eight steps to begin a process of transforming your shame into self-esteem.
1. Stop trying to push your shame away. Make room for it. This means feeling your shame and taking full ownership of it no matter how uncomfortable it is to do. Secondly, acknowledge how much you are suffering because of this crushing shame.
Exercise: Notice when you beat yourself up, “I am noticing the thought that I am being overly harsh on myself. Say “I am human and have flaws, torturing myself day after day is not kind thing to do”
2. Recognize that this flaw, limitation, mistake, habit, does not define you. Try to understand that you are not this flaw. You are a human being who has this flaw.
Exercise: Self talk, “I will notice when I define myself by this flaw.”
3. Start to recognise that the true purpose of life is to grow, not to be perfect. Life is “progress not perfection.” When we live with a success-focus, we will always feel discouraged and depressed. When we live with a process-focus, we will feel alive and joyful.
Exercise: See the flaw as an opportunity for self-improvement and not more evidence that confirms you’re bad?
4. Learn to be patient with yourself, to have self-compassion, and to be kind to yourself. Being patient means accepting that it is hard to be a human being. There are no quick fixes or magical solutions to our struggles. It means accepting that growing is slow, frustrating, and at times imperceptible.
Exercise: When you make a mistake, fail, or fall short say, “ I’m human and it’s ok to make mistakes and be imperfect.”
5. The society we live in defines what success and failure, winning and losing is. These definitions of success and winning can be crushing and discouraging for the majority of people who will never win the “gold medal.” One of a human being’s greatest fears is to be a failure. When we measure ourselves by society’s standards of success and failure, we most always will fall short and end up feeling like a failure.
Exercise: Ask? How does society’s expectations and pressures make it hard for me to accept this imperfection?
6. Recognise that it is essential to formulate your own definition of success and failure this will protect you against social pressure and guarantee that although you may fail, you will never feel like a failure.
Exercise: What is your definition of success that will insure that you feel like a winner even as you fail and fall short.
7. Understand that you are a unique person with special strengths and creative powers and that you have a unique contribution to make in the world. The purpose of life is to discover your strengths and then give it away. Shame is ultimately transformed when we identify and take ownership of our unique mission. A person who is making his or her unique contribution to the world will surely feel proud and good about them selves.
Exercise: Work out what you enjoy doing and the positive impact it has on others and ultimately the world.
8. Seek help so you do not have to take this shame with you. Never be afraid if you get stuck to reach out for help. “The inmate cannot free himself from the jail.”
Exercise: Talk to a trusted friend or family member. Call TIACS we are a free service that offers psychological advice on 0488 846 988 if you need to talk through theses issues.
Review these steps daily. The process of transforming shame takes work. Decide that shame is not going to trap you and stop you living your best life. Embody being an imperfect human being, free of self-criticism, and you will experience the true feeling of being alive.