No matter where you live, the subject of shame is being addressed in a more global way than ever before.  Social movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, have had us all facing situations from our past that we may have wanted to keep hidden and the unconscious beliefs that we may now need to address. 

As far as emotions go, I’m sure we can all agree that shame doesn’t feel good, but it is one of the most common human emotions.  Although it may be common, it is also among the most corrosive emotions that women can experience, often leading us to turn it inwards and against ourselves.

Whether we wanted it or not, movements like #MeToo has brought up the subject of shame for a lot of women who had been silent about things that had happened to them.  It shined a light in the very dark corners of many women’s lives, helping us to speak up and speak out.

The most recent #BlackLivesMatter movement has also led us to face our biases whether we are a person of color or not.  Dialogues in our homes and in public, are being brought to the forefront, offering us an opportunity to really look at what we may have been taught to believe and what we now choose to believe.

Even though you may feel shame often and it shapes and drives so much of your behavior, like most of us, you still probably understand it very little.  Whether you are feeling shame or resisting it, shame has a lot of power over what you think, say and do in your life.

Since shame is having such a global moment, it’s also time to take a look at it on a personal level, as a woman and a mother.  It’s important to understand shame better and to learn how to manage it so that it doesn’t derail the hopes and dreams you may have for you and your family.  

Shame is actually a great indicator that some powerful work can be done to uncover what’s causing it and to move you forward from it.  Once understood and addressed, shame can become an amazing signal that you might need to make some changes.

As mothers we also have an incredible opportunity to deal with shame in a way that empowers our children to not stay hidden.  When we understand our own feelings of shame, what’s causing it and can powerfully deal with it, we can teach our children a better way as well.

Don’t ever think it’s too late to deal with shame. There is no time limit on honesty and you have the right to take whatever time you need to come out of the shadows. 

This week I’m going to discuss where shame comes from, my own issues around shame and how to take back control of shame.  

Where shame comes from

For myself and for the women I know, shame is what we experience personally and collectively due to something we did or chose not to do, or something that was done to us.  It can feel like a dark shadow that keeps following you, no matter how much time has passed or what has changed.

Until these global movements became mainstream, shame was something we just didn’t speak about,  publicly or privately.  Since shame thrives in darkness and secrecy, we often felt like the best thing for ourselves and others was to keep silent, not allowing shame to be acknowledged.

But as the saying goes, “You’re only as sick as your secrets” – unfortunately shame has been making a lot of us very sick, for a very long time.  It has stopped us from taking action like speaking up, telling the truth, owning our inherent self-worth, making amends when necessary, moving on or just doing better.

The sad thing about shame is that because of its very nature, it festers and often gets passed down from generation to generation.  In order to stop the cycle of shame, we need to understand where it comes from so we can take back control of the power that shame has robbed us of.

What I’ve learned about shame is that it doesn’t come from any particular action that you’ve taken or any experience you have had.  Shame actually comes from your thoughts about yourself, your worthiness and your adequacy. 

It is entirely caused by your thoughts about yourself, which means that you can feel shame about almost anything.  You can feel ashamed for going after the promotion and you can feel ashamed for not going after the promotion; you can feel ashamed that you got married and you can feel ashamed that you got divorced.

Shame is often what we feel when we anticipate the judgement of others.  Thoughts like “If they knew the truth, they wouldn’t accept me” or “I’m so embarrassed; I don’t want anyone to know” seem logical when dealing with shame.

Unfortunately, even as young girls we can get a lot of shameful messaging when it comes to our bodies, our emotions and our goals.  The mixed messages we get about being smart but not too smart, being driven but not too driven, to go after a career but not at the expense of your children; these all add to the shame cycle that a lot of women experience.

The truth about shame is that things that you or others have or haven’t done, doesn’t create shame; your thoughts about those things in relation to your self-worth and self-acceptance does.  Someone else could have had the same experience and not feel shame, because shame is based on your own personal belief system about yourself. 

To deal with shame, you need to become aware of the thoughts you think that are creating it.  You need to allow your self-judgment to come into the light of your awareness so that you can take back control.

My own experience with shame

I am definitely no stranger when it comes to the feeling of shame.  I’ve had various situations in my life where I felt shame then, and still feel shame now, for something that I said, that I did or that I didn’t do.

Like the times I gossiped about someone in a mean way, the times I dabbled in drugs when I was in college and the times I didn’t speak up when someone made an off-color joke or remark.  I have felt ashamed for the struggles in my marriage and also for getting divorced, for being a working mom and also for walking away from my career for a few years to stay home with my children.

But the most shameful thing that I’ve had to deal with in my life was when I was 15 years old and my next door neighbor touched me inappropriately.  The incident was so traumatic that my brain locked it away for a number of years.

It was as if there was a vault in my mind that had closed shut the day this incident happened and it would take years before it would be reopened.  Until the time the vault was reopened, I steered clear of the neighbor but never said anything to my parents or friends, believing that hiding my secret was the best thing to do.

Looking back, I can see that I was ashamed that I put myself in the situation, that I froze when he behaved the way he did, and I questioned whether it was my fault.  The power of shame kept me fearful of boys, it kept me doubting myself and it eroded my confidence.

It wasn’t until 6 years later and a close friend shared a similar situation with a group of us one night, that all of a sudden that vault in my mind was reopened.  It was as if my brain said “Look, it’s OK.  She had the same thing happen to her too.”

I remember sharing my story with my boyfriend at the time, and being shocked at how long that incident had been hidden in a very dark corner of my mind.  But even though I was able to share the incident with him and with the friend who spoke about hers, I still couldn’t tell my parents.

I felt too ashamed to let them know what had happened and that I hadn’t said anything for so long, all while that neighbor still lived next door.  Since my mom was best friends with his wife, I swore to myself that I would tell her, but only if they got divorced or when he died.

Thankfully a few years later the neighbors did announce they were getting divorced and I immediately sat down and told my mom what had happened.  She wasn’t surprised by what he did because he had been mildly inappropriate with her, but she was surprised it took me so long to say something, especially since she always let me know I could come to her with anything.

That’s the power of shame – even when you have permission to share it, it can still take a long time to feel safe enough to come out of the shadows.  Looking back now, I can clearly see that shame came from my thoughts about myself, about my worthiness and about what others would think of me if they knew what had happened.

But that’s the thing – the only person I was hurting was me.  By not bringing my shame to light, I suffered in silence, not understanding why I thought and acted the way I did after that incident happened; I was sick from my secret and not able to see that there was a cure.  

How to take back control of shame

The reason that shame is so powerful is because it creates a warped dance of reaction and inaction.  If you have done something that you are ashamed of, you typically try to hide your shame or look for relief by reacting defensively or aggressively towards others; if something has been done to you that you are ashamed of, you typically try to hide your shame or look for relief by reacting defensively or aggressively towards yourself.

A lot of people also believe that shame is motivating, and that we need to shame and guilt ourselves into being and doing better.  The truth is that in order to get out from under the weight of shame and do better for yourself and others, you need to bring shame out from the shadows by being curious.

You need to be interested and willing to take a look at the thoughts creating shame for you, because the only thing continuing the cycle of shame are your thoughts.  You need to allow yourself a judgment-free zone so that your beliefs about yourself and others can come to the surface and be compassionately addressed.  

The key to taking back control of shame is allowing the thoughts underlying the feeling of shame to be seen and heard by you, and then, when you are ready, being willing to share them with others.  Shame loves isolation, therefore, the more you open up, the less alone you feel.

The night that my friend shared her story, she wasn’t ashamed; she was just telling a group of us an incident that had happened a while ago.  She knew that it had nothing to do with her, and that she had no reason to hide what had happened.

Although we had similar situations happen to us, the aftermath was completely different.  She chose to think in a way that made her feel accepting and open, and I chose to think in a way that made me feel ashamed and isolated.

As shame and vulnerability researcher and author, Brene Brown, offers, “When we bury the story, we forever stay the subject of the story.  If we own the story, we get to narrate the ending”.  To take back control of shame you need to neutralize it by having compassion for yourself and deciding how you want to choose to think of yourself, as opposed to worrying what others might think of you.

Whether you were wrong, or you were wronged, starting with compassion and curiosity for your feelings of shame and the thoughts creating your feelings allow you to know better and do better.  You take your power back when you meet your shame face to face and choose to address it, rather than being at the mercy of it. 

Thankfully, shame doesn’t need to be our story any longer.  As women and mothers, we get to stop the cycle of shame for ourselves and for our children by being willing to be vulnerable, by acknowledging and sharing our thoughts and feelings, and by narrating the best ending possible.    

Summary  

  • Whether you are feeling shame or resisting it, shame has a lot of power over what you think, say and do in your life.
  • In order to stop the cycle of shame, we need to understand where it comes from so we can take back control of the power that shame has robbed us of.
  • The truth about shame is that things that you or others have or haven’t done, doesn’t create shame; your thoughts about those things in relation to your self-worth and self-acceptance does.
  • Shame loves isolation, therefore, the more you open up, the less alone you feel.
  • To take back control of shame you need to neutralize it by having compassion for yourself and deciding how you want to choose to think of yourself, as opposed to what others might think of you.