Recognizing the Voice of Shame
Shame is an insidious emotion that can sabotage our lives, especially when we’re unaware of its presence. Shame is like the many-headed mythological hydra. As soon as we lop off one head, two more appear.
We may be unaware of what triggers shame inside us. One way to detect whether shame is operating is when we get defensive and reactive. Perhaps our partner expresses disappointment that we didn’t wash the dishes and we respond, “Nothing I do is ever enough. I’ll never make you happy!” or, “I was just about to do it, you’re always on my case!”
Our reactive anger may spring from a fear of losing love and acceptance. We’re prey to the fight, flight, freeze response(link is external) when there is a real or imagined threat to our emotional safety and well-being. But another possibility is that a subtle shame is being triggered. Deep down we may think, “She’s right. I promised to fix the damn faucet and I got distracted.” Or, “I’m overwhelmed at work and need some down time. But if I tell her that, then I’ll feel like a failure. I won’t be the hero I always try to be.”
We might feel embarrassed or ashamed to acknowledge our limitations. Clinging to unrealistic views of our capacities sets us up for a shame attack. How can we be so sure that our partner won’t understand our need for rest and relaxation — especially if we express it in a kind, non-reactive way? It is very affirming and self-validating to simply be ourselves and not allow shame to rule us.
Here are some common voices of shame, followed by a wiser, more realistic inner voice that reflects self-care and self-acceptance.
1. “I should be able to do it all. All limitations are self-imposed.”
We’re not all-powerful. We’re vulnerable human beings who would do well to embrace humility. A wise person accepts his or her limits.
2.“Being a good partner and good person means always saying “yes” to my partner’s– other people’s–requests and desires.”
A step toward healing shame is to pause, go inside, and sense when it “feels right” to say yes or no. And don’t forget to include “maybe’ in your vocabulary. It’s OK to say, “Let me sit with that and get back to you.” Just make sure you do get back to him or her! Otherwise you might feel shame for not following through — and set yourself up for an angry, shaming response from your partner if you are unresponsiveness.
3. “I might be seen as inadequate or see myself as weak if I don’t conquer every challenge.”
We’re actually the most weak when we overextend ourselves rather than pick our battles wisely. We set ourselves up for shame when we try to tackle too much.
4. “If I try to fix the faucet and don’t succeed, then I’ll really feel like a jerk!”
If you have a tendency to procrastinate, notice whether a subtle shame is operating. We may put things off as a defense against possible failure. If we never initiate a new art project or pursue a career advancement, then we don’t have to face failure or rejection. Such hidden logic is a defense against feeling shame. Fee and Tangney(link is external) have explained how shame may both be motivator and result of procrastination.
Shame carries a signature written in invisible ink. We may sense that something inside us feels uncomfortable or squirmy, but then dismiss it or dissociate from it, rather than honor what our feelings are trying to tell us. We ignore the heaviness in our chest or the crimped feeling in our stomach. Or, we push down the anger that bubbles up, which is trying to say, “Enough! I can’t handle one more task!”
Instead of pausing and listening to what our feelings are signaling (in the best way they know how), we’re often hijacked by shame. Anytime you notice a sinking or squirming feeling inside (perhaps when someone says something critical or accusatory) or feel stuck without knowing why, check whether shame is operating. If so, be gentle with it. Be kind to yourself. Remember who you really are.
Having shame doesn’t mean we are shameful; it just means we’re human. By cultivating a gentle mindfulness toward whatever we’re experiencing — including shame when it rears its heads — we can bring it out of the shadows and offer it some light and air. Being gently aware of shame without being ashamed of our shame is a step toward allowing it to settle and heal. We are then better positioned to hear the quieter music of our authentic feelings and longings that are percolating beneath.
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book about relationships as a spiritual path, Dancing with Fire(link is external): A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart(link is external) and Love & Betrayal(link is external). He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.