Shame is a feeling that you’re wrong, bad, unimportant, or unworthy. Shame defines you as “less than” or “damaged”. The terms guilt and shame are often used inter-changeably, but guilt actually refers to a feeling or belief that your behavior is wrong or bad. Shame is a much more painful experience as it’s felt internally as a core belief about who you are.
Shame erodes your self-worth or self-esteem. It’s also a huge barrier to change and asking for help.
Where does codependent shame come from?
Codependent shame can usually be traced back to childhood. People with codependent traits often grew up in dysfunctional families where they were told they are bad, deserve to be hurt, and are blamed for abuse or neglect inflicted on them. Other times, children mistakenly blame themselves for their parents’ inadequacies or for being mistreated or ignored. “It’s my fault” is the easiest way for their young brains can make sense of a confusing and scary situation. Unfortunately, these feelings of being “damaged” usually stay with you and become the lens you use to view yourself in adulthood.
So, as adults, we internalize bad things that happen to us because we already feel flawed. We shame ourselves when we criticize and judge ourselves harshly. For example, you might feel ashamed of your husband’s drinking or your wife cheating on you. Neither of these things are within your control or things you caused, but because you’re already disposed to believe there’s something wrong with you, you see these experiences as evidence of your shortcomings. You blame yourself and you fear others will blame you, too.
Chances are you’ve also experienced judgment from others about your experiences or choices. It’s very easy for others to say, “Why do you keep loaning him money? You know he’s going to use it to get high.” When sharing your experiences and feelings is met with judgment, it’s natural to stop sharing.
What activates your shame?
The first part of change and healing is always awareness. In an effort to protect ourselves, we tend to push away memories, thoughts and feelings associated with shame. You may have a general feeling of worthlessness without a clear sense of whom or what brings on those feelings. Knowing what triggers your shame can help you avoid or confront these feelings or beliefs.
Do you experience shame about your body, job, relationship, where you live, how much you earn, or your religion? Perhaps you feel shame about being sexually abused, your son’s DUI, your enabling his addiction, or your divorce?
It can be very helpful to work with a therapist to identify painful events that are associated with your shame. A therapist can help you explore your self-blame and whether the beliefs that you’re wrong, bad, or unworthy are accurate.
Shame lives in your secrets
When we experience judgment (from ourselves or from others), we tend to stop talking about it and start minimizing, denying, omitting, and lying. Remember, shame lives in your secrets. And a life filled with secrets isn’t an authentic life. Secrets keep us disconnected and alone. In order to reduce shame, you have to be true to yourself and live a life in alignment with your values and beliefs.
The clearest path out of shame is breaking the secrecy and I know that’s hard. Start with being honest with yourself. And meet your honesty with compassion. Try offering yourself love and acceptance, through caring words and actions, when you feel ashamed and unworthy.
You can use this meditation as a compassionate way to reduce shame:
Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable. Take a slow deep inhale. And exhale for the count of four. Repeat. As you relax and breathe slowly, say to yourself:
I’m flawed and make mistakes. And that’s OK.
I don’t need to be perfect.
I accept myself.
Everybody has struggles and makes mistakes. In this way I’m like everyone else.
I am completely lovable just as I am.
I don’t need for others to validate my self-worth.
And I don’t need to please everyone all of the time.
I know in my heart that I’m enough.
My struggles and imperfections don’t define me.
I will continue to change and grow from a place of self-acceptance.
I will offer myself love and compassion.
I am completely lovable just as I am today.
I am enough.
Later you can move on to sharing your shame with people who have earned your trust and really get it (this is one of the reasons people feel safe to share at Al-Anon or other such groups). People who shame and judge you are not the right people to confide in. In my experience, with careful consideration, most people can find one or two friends, a therapist, or religious leader who can listen with empathy. Empathy and connection have healing powers to reduce shame. Empathy lets you know you’re not alone – you’re not the only one who’s been through this and you aren’t an awful, inferior, unlovable person.
Overcoming shame is tough because the roots are deep and well established. I believe it’s possible to overcome shame when you view it as a process and you can peel away the layers bit by bit. I don’t recommend trying to do it all at once or you’re likely to flood yourself with painful feelings and possibly create more shame. Continue to meet your change process with self-compassion, and garner the courage to ask for help, and you will set the stage to overcome shame and reclaim your self-worth.
©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.