One of the worst moments of my life was winning the grand and oh-so-important title of Homecoming Queen. I know this sounds ridiculous, however there are two main reasons why this day sucked so royally…For starters, I had no idea until that moment how truly mean people could be. Even friends that I was used to having in my corner were not, and I was blindsided by this. It was a time in my life of being very hurt, confused, and emotionally drained. I knew back then that homecoming was not something people remembered or that even mattered after high school. And frankly, I did not care whether or not I ‘won’ anything like that. But winning was the best thing that could have happened to me, because experiencing this kind of hate made me realize how important friendship is. I recall telling myself that I would never make anyone feel the way I felt. I decided in that moment if I am anything in this life, it’s that I will be remembered as a damn good friend.
The second reason this day sucked was because people I was not close with at all or spoke to much were the ones that were there for me. I was so grateful for them, but immediately felt an intense amount of guilt for not noticing or spending more time with these people throughout high school. That guilt has carried into adulthood, and I sometimes find that the guilt starts trickling into the most damaging feeling of all; Shame.
One thing we know about guilt is that it co-exists with shame. I still have small, random moments of feeling shame over that experience in my life. My thoughts go something like this, “what kind of person was I that I did not thank them more for being so nice, or that I didn’t spend time with them? I wonder what type of person they think I am. Did I hurt their feelings? Did they regret being so nice to me?” …Isn’t this absolutely ridiculous? The shame I still hold onto for something so small and irrelevant upsets me.
We all do this. We feel badly for so many things we did or did not do, or messed up, or regret (guilt), and then start to allow that guilt to define the type of person that we are (shame). Guilt is the feelings associated with I did something bad (the behavior), whereas shame is the thought that I am bad (self worth). Often times our guilt turns into shame…But it is so important to separate our behavior from who we are as a person.
It’s also important to understand that guilt is how we feel we have affected others, whereas shame relates directly with our feelings/beliefs about ourselves. Guilt is where we feel responsible for something we did, and shame is the painful awareness we are flooded with when we feel we are ‘improper’ or are now damaged in some way. The feelings we get from chalking ourselves up to being ‘damaged’ can be so overpowering and painful that it fogs our ability to further develop our sense of purpose, confidence, and worthiness. Once we move past the healthy feelings of guilt (empathy and recognizing that we feel badly for hurting someone) and into this feeling of being less-than (shame) is when we stunt our ability to grow. It’s when we listen to the internal beliefs we have about ourselves…The little voice that says, “I knew you couldn’t do it”, “I knew you’d fail”, or, “no one will ever love you”.
I am surrounded by shame, not only because as a female it’s unfortunately such a societal norm to feel shame, but also working with victims who are often blamed for the abuse they have experienced…Being told countless times by society that they had a choice or ‘asked’ for it, or are questioned for their decisions. Through these victims, I continually see how much shame interferes with personal growth. It is devastating to watch shame take over someone’s whole being and sense of self, and cause them to continually face the downward spiral of self hate. This is where people feel unworthy, self-loathing, and a sense of not belonging. There is nothing productive about shame because it’s where we become self destructive, careless, and defeated.
- It is so important to separate person from behavior. Labels lead to developing a sense of shame.
- Surround yourself with people who do not judge, blame, or label.
- Tell yourself you love yourself, daily, and why. If this is hard or awkward for you, I would challenge you to have an honest conversation with yourself and unpack that. Find where the why is and start to explore reasons to love who you are and what you bring to the table.
- Be more aware of positive/negative self talk. When you mess up, do you say, “I should not have done that”(guilt), or, “I am not a good person” (shame)? Focus on your behavior and how to change/learn from that, but you do not need to correlate that with the kind of person you are.
- Think about all of your positive qualities, and then think of your flaws. If it’s uncomfortable or difficult to think of your positive traits, and/or your flaws list is larger and easier to talk about, work on changing that. Life is too short not to love who you are and celebrate that each and every day.
- Talk about it. We cheer on people around us when they are vulnerable, yet we don’t want to do it ourselves. It feels scary, foreign, or like people will judge us. But talking about it helps us recognize and work through it, gives the shame less power in our brains, and provides some relief. We continue to go down the rabbit hole in our heads when we stay silent.
- Accept that you are going to mess up, hurt people, embarrass yourself…These are normal experiences and we will never outrun them.
- Learn what your triggers are…What are some environments where that little voice likes to chime in? Prepare yourself for this and be vigilant about identifying the feeling before it expands.
- Quit apologizing for everything. We say sorry for being who we are, or for things we have no control over. Focus on and work towards letting go of this habit.
- Do not give shame space in your head. You are lovely, just the way you are, but the key is that you believe it too.
Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change~