In my self-kindness practice recently, I’ve got to know a certain part of my self more deeply. I’ve been befriending a part of me that for the sake of short-hand, I’ll call my Shamed Self. It’s the part of me that feels somehow ‘wrong’, and I’m pretty sure this experience isn’t unique to me.
It’s only quite recently that I’ve come to understand what shame actually is. It’s is an emotion that protects us: as uncomfortable as it feels, its purpose is to help us to function as part of a social group (without which, we once wouldn’t have survived). We need to know when we’ve crossed a boundary that jeapoardises our relationships with others. But after the sting of shame that steers us back to group-friendly behaviour, we need to experience a reconnection with others, and a reassurance that we still belong.
Unfortunately for many of us, we may have had early experiences of shame that were not completed with a healthy ‘repair and reconnect’ response from those around us.
Personally, I grew up in an environment where I felt huge pressure to get things right. My Shamed Self really did protect me from the potential rejection that might come with getting things ‘wrong’. By understanding this, I’ve come to feel deeply appreciative of that part of me. Feeling overly-sensitive to shame may feel challenging now, but it saved me then.
In learning how to move from toxic shame to a healthier experience of this life-preserving energy, I discovered that the first stumbling block can be to recognise that we’re even feeling shame.
As the somatic mindfulness teacher Bret Lyon notes, shame can be present in a bundle with other emotions, which can make it harder to spot. Sure enough, through my own mindfulness practice I’ve discovered shame hiding underneath anger, sadness and fear. I’ve even realised that some of the experiences I used to label as anxiety are actually ones of shame – of avoiding it, or of feeling overwhelmed by it.
Being able to identify the emotion more accurately means that I can respond to what my Shamed Self actually needs in that moment: which might be reassurance, connection, understanding or compassion.
It’s widely recognised that self-compassion is a powerful antidote to shame, and I’ve found that to be true for myself. But the irony is that when we most need self-compassion, it can be hardest to access (it’s difficult to take anything in when shame overwhelms us). This is why we need, literally, to ‘practice’ self-kindness when we’re not caught in shame – so that eventually it’s enough of a habit that we can remember it’s there when we really need it.
I’m feeling incredibly grateful for the practices of mindfulness and self-kindness, as I can see how they enable me to find a different response to experiences of shame. Instead of feeling paralysed and frozen when shame arises, I’m now able to move towards a new freedom: the ability to let the shame un-freeze and flow through me, without getting trapped.
It’s a very individual (and messy!) process, but if it’s helpful, here’s what un-shaming looks like for me:
I’ve had to learn to recognise shame, by using mindful awareness to read the clues. It might be a certain sensation arising in the body that tips me off to the presence of shame. Or when I pay attention to my thoughts and behaviours, I might notice mental strategies that are a way of shaming myself, or trying to avoid shame – such as self-criticism, or rehearsing events.
Another clue for me can be found in various seemingly-unrelated emotions, such as vulnerability, fear, or loneliness (shame can be a very disconnected, isolating experience).
Paying close attention to ourselves is similar to how a mother attunes to an infant, picking up cues to know what is being experienced in that moment. From that awareness, a caring response can happen.
Shame feels painful and our instinct, understandably, is to avoid it. But we can find real freedom in embracing it, instead of trying to get rid of it.
The practice of befriending is quite a literal one: it involves listening to that part of yourself, getting to know it, and offering it your support.
Once I’ve noticed that shame is present, I can get a sense of how that part of me is feeling, and what it wants or needs. Usually, what it wants is to protect me. And what it needs is compassion and understanding. Sometimes my Shamed Self needs kind words, or something soothing and comforting. I can then provide what’s needed via supportive self-talk, journaling, meditation, or something practical.
I can even offer myself the ‘repair and reconnect’ that is needed, without waiting for this to come from elsewhere.
‘Finding the right distance’* from a feeling can help us not to get overwhelmed by painful experiences. There is a difference between being in a feeling and being with it.
When we’re stuck in a feeling, we may identify with it, as if it’s the whole of who we are. When we can recognise it’s just one part of us, we can bear with – or ‘be with’ – that feeling, until it passes.
Sometimes, this means keeping the feeling company by staying closely connected. But if it gets too intense, it might mean moving attention to something that’s enjoyable and supportive for a while. (This isn’t the same as avoiding or suppressing a feeling; if practised with awareness and choice, it’s known as ‘pendulating’, a process of touching into a feeling, then moving away from it, back and forth).
Sometimes when I’m responding to feelings of shame, all of these steps happen, and other times only one or two, or in a different order. They are all aspects of the approach I’m trained in as a mindfulness teacher to help people meet difficult experiences with more resilience. When I remember to lean into these practices – attuning, befriending and ‘being with’ – I notice that experiences of shame pass through more quickly, and with less distress.
And to my endless surprise, they can even be powerful experiences of learning, growth and positive change – if I let them. Perhaps being free from shame (as with other challenging emotions) isn’t about never feeling it, but about allowing its energy to move us forward, instead of keeping us stuck.
Here are a number of related resources you might like to explore:
On my Meditations page, you can find a 6-minute ‘Support Your Self’ meditation
Unbinding Shame by Bret Lyon
Managing A Shame Attack by Joan Gold
*This phrase comes from John Welwood, author of ‘Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships’
If you feel very overwhelmed by experiences of shame, you may find it helpful to seek support from a therapist, in addition to learning about the approaches I’m sharing – get more info at the About page of my website.