I perceived I was ‘bad,’ very early on. Any discipline I received reinforced my belief, proving it was true. The way I viewed religion also went through this filter. ('I am bad/broken and in need of saving.).
This foundational shame state showed up particularly strong in my unrealistic expectations of marriage and motherhood. When the inevitable problems of life and relationships cropped up in my home, I inappropriately reacted, believing that problems meant I was doing ‘it’ wrong and any discomfort or pain experienced by others was my fault. I rushed in to smooth over, solve, eliminate any discomfort or flaws. All the while, making certain we outwardly appeared to be doing fine. I could think of no greater pain than being judged as a bad wife/mother.
Signs and Symptoms of Shame
Don’t Trust Your Inner Compass
People who feel shame look outside themselves for direction and instruction. We have difficulty deciding what’s right for oursselves. Because we believe we’re fundamentally wrong or bad, we can’t trust our own inner guidance system.
Shame leads us to constantly trying to be better, to fix what we believe is something wrong with us. Searching for ‘truth’ outside of ourselves about ourselves is constant because we’re forever searching for a state where we feel we’re enough.
Lack of Personal Space and Boundaries
Very often relationships are painful because we believe our emotions, instead of vehicles of information (see Understanding Human Emotions), are warning signals there is something wrong with us. Because we can’t trust our feelings, we conclude we are too sensitive, and any conflict must be due to our deficiencies. We overly accommodate, stuffing down our needs and wishes, believing we need to make others happy.
Need for Approval and Validation
People with shame are usually high achievers because approval from outside feels amazing. Unfortunately, the glow from outside approval doesn’t last long, so we must constantly be working to continually get outside approval and validation that we are doing a good job.
Isolation & Criticism
Because the voice of judgement in our heads is so strong, and we never want our flaws noticed, we keep to ourselves so as not to be ‘discovered’ as lacking. If you find yourself highly critical of others, it could be because your inner criticism is loud.
The work to keep everything and everyone in my home ‘looking good,’ and constantly happy/comfortable so I couldn’t be judged as deficient (not perfect), required extreme amounts of energy that eventually brought me to exhaustion. And that was the good news. I had to face that it was my beliefs about myself and the ‘rules’ I made that were off. I had to realize that there is no perfect, I can only take responsibility for myself and there is just life.
How to Overcome Shame
Come Out of Hiding
The first and best step is to share our negative, self-critical thoughts with another person, someone who’s non-judgemental. Spend time sorting through your thoughts and feelings. What would you say to your friend having these thoughts and feelings? Spend time with other people, so that you can see for yourself that non-perfect people can still be happy.
Catch Yourself Abdicating/Take Responsibility for Choice and Actions
Step two is be aware of seeking guidance from outside of yourself. It’s ok to gather information for the purposes of comparing or deciding if something is helpful to you, but don’t use anothers' judgement of what is right for you in place of our own inner guidance. There is no abdicating responsibility for our choices; we can’t blame others for our ultimate decisions and actions.
Learn to Love Mistakes
There is no perfect way of doing life. And, that’s not the point. Mistakes simply mean that we discovered something that wasn’t true. Mistakes are information, not judgements of worth. Mistakes are how we learn about life.
Be Kind and Patient
Learning self-compassion is not easy, but it is the only way to move away from shame. An infinite amount of ‘approval’ from outside can’t fix shame, it is an inside job. I have a practice of giving myself approval and encouragement daily. It felt awkward and false at first, but I got used to it, and it helps immensely keeping my thoughts and feelings in line with reality.
In desperation, I was finally willing to admit that what I was doing wasn’t working and in fact, I was probably making things worse. Once I realized and accepted that my worst fear was being wrong, I could see how shut down I was. I developed my own objective thinking practices as well as self-awareness, acceptance, compassion and eventually self-forgiveness. The practice of trusting my inner-self is on-going.