Let’s Talk About Shame (Part 2)
Updated: Sep 24
In the previous article on shame, we explored the difference between shame and a few other similar experiences. We also came to know what entails toxic shame and a few ways how it may present itself in our lives.
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In this article, we will discuss how to deal with toxic shame. So let’s get started-
The more we avoid or ignore our shame, the more intense it gets. Embracing one’s shame isn’t the most pleasant thing to do. It is more often rather painful. However, the only way to emerge out of the other side is by going through. It is therefore important that one of the first steps in dealing with our shame could be the externalization of shame.
Externalizing our shame allows for the opportunity for us to realize that we are not the problem and that the problem is the problem. It makes it possible to interact with our problems in third person which helps people to feel the emotion yet distance themselves from their problems which enhance solution generation. It is similar to the literary device of personification where inanimate objects are given human characteristics. This often involves using language that helps personify the problem (eg. what name would you like to give to your shame; what are some of its characteristics and how it talks to you; what are the times it takes power over you or vice versa, etc.)
Externalizing can include (but is not limited to)-
Externalizing the voices inside of us that give more impetus to shame and applying activities or exercises that lower the volume of shame voice or replace them with a more positive and nurturing voice. Example- X has a critical voice that tells him how he will never be enough no matter what. By being able to externalize it, and practice loving awareness towards the critical part through reassurances, X could reduce the shame of feeling inadequate.
Externalizing the inner child within us that feels vulnerable and adopting conscious practices to be more aware of its needs and provide it with the same.
2. Stepping out from hiding
Shame thrives on isolation. But our triumph over shame can only take place in safe spaces. However, one needs to do this with care. The best way to step out of hiding is to be able to identify a healthy, intimate and non-shaming person or network. We need to work our way out from the safest and most accepting of spaces outwards. Healthy intimacy is also key here because shame often involves deep, painful secrets that we might have been holding for too long. Since a relationship with healthy intimacy possesses qualities of compassion and acceptance, it offers an opportunity to feel loved and accepted for who we are including all the parts that make us up. When our vulnerabilities are accepted with compassion and love, we learn how to do that for ourselves too.
Shame creates a toxic pursuit of perfectionism in our lives by striving for never making failures/mistakes. In some cases, it also convinces us that we are the failure/mistake. It negates our humanness and convinces us to punish ourselves if its demands are unmet. In doing so, it robs off our love for ourselves even more. Repeated self-shaming might also drag us to the point of self-loathing. By reframing these failures/mistakes, we restore the humanness in making mistakes and protect our love for ourselves. Some ways we can do this are-
i) Instead of blaming the action of making a mistake, we can reframe the mistake as a lesson or a warning.
ii) Instead of walking on eggshells trying to avoid toxic shame’s criticism and considering them as absolute, we can reframe them as sources of spontaneity, creativity, authenticity and even resilience. By accepting that no matter how hard one tries, things may not go as per plan because life entails a journey of navigating between areas of control and a lack of it.
4.Identify the shame spiral < stop it < and climb up
Identify what triggers the response of shame. Notice whether these are events, thoughts, images, sensations or feelings. Once you feel better, reflect on the actions, events, thoughts etc. that help you stop or even reverse the shame spiral. Prepare a table with these and keep them handy and refer to them whenever needed. Although this may initially be a little difficult, however with practice and awareness of one’s triggers and one’s resources, it makes it possible to stop and/or even climb up the shame spiral.
5.Start working on your inner child
Shame voices and shame based self often start early on in our life. Some people feel like they’ve been feeling this way for as long as they can remember. By making contact with the hurt parts of the self (often a child self), and accepting them just the way they are, we unlock the hurt and lonely child who’s probably learnt how to block their shameful emotions. You can do this with the help of a therapist, through journaling, writing letters to your younger self etc.
While working with your inner child, it’s likely that there may be feelings of sadness and grief. And in order to resolve this, there needs to be certain factors that are present. The first of this is validation because for healing to take places, the hurt needs to be acknowledged. The second being support. Grief can naturally heal itself with support, it does not need to be extravagant in its presence, but it needs to be present. In addition, one needs to allow multiple feelings to be experienced- it can be anger, sadness, guilt etc. All of these feelings are valid. (You can refer to more ways of dealing with grief here). After working on our inner child part, it is important to integrate it to our overall self. One of the ways you can do this is by checking on your inner child amidst doing daily chores i.e. making it a part of your life; Another way could be offering yourself a hug as a practice with the intention of hugging the inner child within you (you could also do this as a self regulation/soothing strategy during times of distress).
Having said all of the above, I want you to remember that in the last article I mentioned how shame is also healthy because it is designed for our survival (click here for why). And how through acknowledgment and awareness about its pervasiveness, we can reduce the discomfort that shame brings with it. However, this pervasiveness can only become apparent when we start talking about it. Gershen Kaufman talks about shame as the breaking of the interpersonal bridge. The interpersonal bridge refers to the attunement between two people that allows for both of them to feel the mutual care, respect and connection. It is therefore that the antidote to shame also lies in the reconnection of that interpersonal bridge. When we are in relationships that allow all feelings, including that of shame, and when this relationship is warm, nurturing and accepting, shame dissolves. However, probably the most immediate and intimate relationship we have is the relationship we share with ourselves. Until it is us who accepts ourselves for who we are, we would not be able to truly put an end to toxic shame.
And it is this reason why probably the greatest factor to countering toxic shame is self-acceptance and self-love. To say “I love and accept myself the way I am” with conviction can become the key to the shame that binds us. This brings peace and brings the feeling of oneness with oneself. And as I say this, I would like to particularly mention that even if we have negative feelings about ourselves, we can still choose to love ourselves. It is a decision that not only helps us reconcile the hurt parts within ourselves but also in practicing compassion. It increases our self-value, and when our self-value is increased, self-assertion increases. This happens when we practice assertiveness with other people which in turn helps in meeting our needs and living a life of impeccable authenticity.
“It is entirely conceivable that life's splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from our view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons.”
- Franz Kafka