How to Make Shame Your Ally


“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” ~Brené Brown

I was walking to my office one day when one of my colleagues gave me a compliment about what I was wearing. I was a little surprised and, without thinking, said something disparaging about my dress and darted off into my office.

As I sat down, I noticed an intense wave of discomfort all over my body, and dark churning thoughts started attacking me.

What is wrong with me? I asked myself. Why did I say such a stupid thing? Why couldn’t I just be normal and say thank you, take the compliment, and move on? Why am I always so awkward? 

As I sat by my desk, I felt like I just wanted to shrivel up and disappear. If the ground had opened up for me right there, I would have willingly jumped into it.

The reply I had given my colleague started to replay in my mind, each time bringing fresh waves of nausea in my stomach and icy chills running down my back.

What was happening to me, and why was such a seemingly innocent event feeling so uncomfortable, so painful even?

When I started to learn about emotions and the role they play in our lives, I noticed a standout feeling that seemed to be quieter, subtler, more invisible than other emotions, but that had possibly the most powerful force of them all. It felt like this emotion’s impact, and how it affected my life and that of many others, was stronger than gravity.

That feeling was shame.

When I talk to people about shame now, many people don’t even recognize they feel it. That’s why I consider it an invisible emotion. It exerts a powerful force in our lives, affecting how we behave and what we think of ourselves, and it leads many of us to get lost in loops of self-blame, punishment, and vicious, nasty, self-hating thoughts. 

When we don’t recognize that we are feeling shame, not only does it erode our self-confidence, but it’s very hard to do anything about it. It’s hard for us to release ourselves from that vicious voice of an inner critic.

Shame was what I was feeling in the office that day. Shame that I hadn’t been able to make an effortlessly charming reply to my colleague. Shame that I might have sounded stupid. Shame that I was getting it wrong socially, again.

When I learned about shame, I realized how natural it was that it arose in a situation like this. How so many people feel shame in social situations—in different ways than perhaps me, but shame around other human beings nonetheless.

Shame isn’t a useless emotion whose job is solely to torment us; it actually has a positive purpose. Shame can be an incredible guide and ally for us when we learn how it operates and why it shows up in our lives, then learn how to work it.

The first barrier that we face in working with shame is that most of us are carrying too much of it.

We have accumulated shame throughout our lives—shame that has perhaps been passed on to us by our families; shame that people have thrown at us because they couldn’t deal with their own; and the continuous drip that many of us experienced of being shamed as children, as our parents and caregivers might have used it as an easy and effective way to get us to do what they needed.

There are myriad ways we accumulate shame, but we know that we have too much when we have this belief that we just aren’t good enough as human beings.

When we accumulate too much shame but don’t know how to release it, it stays hidden within us, growing as we hide more of ourselves, judge more of ourselves, and continue to believe in the wrongness of who we are.

We don’t ‘let shame out’ because shame is perhaps one of the most socially unacceptable emotions. If you are talking to friends and someone says, “Oh, I feel so guilty I missed that text you sent,” it would most likely be considered okay.

But if you said, “I feel so ashamed of myself that I missed your text,” it would likely make the conversation awkward.

People don’t talk about shame because that in itself can feel inherently shameful. It can activate other people’s shame, and it can add to our own expanse of shame when not properly handled. 

There were many areas of my life where shame showed up. In my relationship, how I responded to my kids. I even started to notice intense shame when a childhood back injury would flare up, and I wouldn’t be able to walk properly. I would start feeling shame for not being mobile, like I needed to apologize for my injury.

When I started learning about emotions, I realized how much I needed to unravel the shame I was carrying. So I made it my mission to learn and share everything I could so that I could start to live a life where I felt proud and free of who I was—not trying to make myself smaller or more acceptable, but brazenly free and confident instead. Here are some ideas to support you on your journey to healing and releasing shame.

The Purpose of Shame

Shame is a natural emotion that has a purpose, like all emotions. Shame’s job is to help us stay connected to our group by adhering to the group’s social rules, to keep us safe by being connected, and to ensure we stay in line with both the group and our own values and needs.

For example, if we were told as children that we should be quiet, and at a family gathering we were very loud, shame might have appeared to remind us that our parents would be unhappy with us, so the shame would come to try to slow us down and not risk our connection.

It makes sense for us to have these shame activations when we are children because our safety and survival relies on us staying in connection with our caregivers. But all too often we carry this shame from childhood into our adult life, where it inhibits us from thriving.

Or as an adult, we’re going on holiday with a friend, and they suggest a much more expensive hotel than we’d normally pick. We start to feel uncomfortable and notice shame has arisen, and when we explore it, we see that shame is trying to remind us of our values of not spending our money in ways we don’t feel good about.

This is where shame is trying to be our guide, our ally, so that we can retain both connection with our group and our ability to be authentic to our own needs and values.

Of course, these shame activations don’t feel good, but when we learn why shame exists, it can support us to work with this emotion so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming.

Shame Often Binds with Other Emotions

Do you notice that when you feel certain emotions like fear or anger or grief, shame can appear as well? Like I feel bad for feeling how I am. That I shouldn’t be feeling angry, sad, lonely, fearful, etc.?

This is because shame often binds with emotions that we might not have been allowed to feel as children, or we would get into trouble for. We might have been told off for feeling angry and shamed for doing so. So shame comes up to try and reduce the amount of anger we feel so we don’t get into trouble. And that pattern stays on into adulthood if we don’t recognize it and start to dismantle this shame bind.

For me, I had a strong shame bind with fear. I would often be made fun of for always being a “scaredy cat” by my friends as a child, or told not to feel fear by the adults around me—that I was being silly.

Shame identified fear as an emotion that caused problems in my relationships, so it would appear when fear came up to try and slow the fear down so I wouldn’t show it to other people, thereby protecting my relationships.

How to Melt the Shame You Are Carrying

Recognize it’s shame and not a factual report of all of your wrongdoings.

For me, the first step in working with shame is recognizing that I am feeling shame, and that I am not getting a long, factual report of all the things I am doing wrong in my life.

Shame is a lens that distorts our vision of ourselves. We don’t see who we really are when shame is activated within us.

Ask yourself: What does shame feel like for me?

Shame can feel like:

  • Being uncomfortable in your body.
  • Feeling shy and pulling away.
  • Having a flushed face.
  • Feeling tightness in your throat or nauseous.
  • Struggling to breathe.
  • Needing to look away; having trouble keeping eye contact.
  • Feeling like the bottom is falling out from underneath you.
  • Freezing, shutting down.
  • Being lost for words.

What does shame feel like for you? What happens to your body when shame activates?

The next step for me is noticing what I do when I feel shame. How do I respond?

Potential reactions to shame include:

  • Putting yourself down.
  • Attacking or blaming others—trying to throw the shame onto someone else.
  • Suddenly forgetting what you are going to say.
  • Going blank or freezing.
  • Denying or avoiding.
  • Using an activity to numb out.
  • Withdrawing and pulling away or pulling in.
  • Wanting to disappear, vanish.

For me, putting myself down and withdrawing from people are my two biggest reactions.

When we know what it feels like for us, it’s easier to spot when it arises. And when we can acknowledge the shame we are experiencing, and not judge ourselves for having this very natural and normal human emotion, it can help us move out of the shame activation more quickly.

Use gentle movement to move out of shame’s freeze qualities and connect to your body.

When we experience shame, we often have this urge to shrink or disappear. And this comes with some rigid freezing sensations in the body. We can feel stuck in our bodies and find it hard to move.

To support ourselves with this freezing, rigid state, we can offer ourselves some gentle, slow movement. Making sure we are staying connected to our breathing, and that we are indeed breathing, we can rock, sway, hug ourselves, move our hands, wrists, and arms—whatever feels both possible and positive in the moment.

It can also feel very supporting to give ourselves some comforting physical touch—stroking our face and arms, putting a hand on our heart and giving ourselves a gentle rub, rubbing our arms and giving ourselves a hug, wrapping ourselves up in cozy scarves or blankets, offering gentle, kind, and loving physical support.

Connect to your breath.

Keeping in touch with our breath is vital. When we are emotionally overwhelmed, we can either hold our breath or have very shallow breathing, so taking some short inhales and long exhales can start our breathing again and also give us a sense of calm. (The long exhales activate the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system.)

Offer empathy, validation, and connection.

All emotions yearn for empathy and validation. Emotions want to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be felt and heard. When we ignore our emotions, or judge ourselves for having them, we inhibit their ability to integrate and release from our bodies.

Giving ourselves empathy in acknowledging our experience can be so soothing in the midst of a shame activation.

“It’s so hard to feel all of the uncomfortableness of shame.”

“It was so painful to feel so much shame around this experience. It makes so much sense though that I felt that.”

“Shame isn’t easy for anyone to feel! I am going to stay and support myself while I move through this emotion.”

Remember that curiosity is an antidote to shame.

Curiosity is a very powerful tool to start melting shame. Curiosity can help us process and support any emotion, but it really supports us in working with shame.

It feels pleasurable to be curious, so we can ask questions like: Might anyone else feels like this? What is happening to me? In my body? In my thoughts? How are my past experiences affecting how I am feeling now?

It breaks some of the rigidity that shame creates with “always” and “never” statements: I am always getting this wrong. I never make any progress. I’m always a terrible person.

When we start being curious and looking for new ideas, new ways of seeing, it can break us out of the tunnel vision, fixation part of shame. And when our vision expands, it feels better for our whole physiology.

When we learn first how to reduce the amount of shame we are carrying, as well as learn the message it’s trying to deliver, shame can be a powerful ally. It can show us where we are straying away from our authenticity and our own boundaries. It can remind us of what is important to us, and how we can stay in safe connection with each other.

Learning the messages our emotions are trying to deliver is one of the most empowering journeys we can take toward self-healing, confidence, and authenticity.

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