It’s a character that I meet every day in my work and in my life.

It’s a character that can feel hot or cold, loud or quiet.

It’s a character that can slither into psyche expertly, quickly, often without conscious awareness, for it has likely been with you for a long time and has developed many ways to protect you from pain.

The character is called Shame, and most often it sounds like:

  • “There’s something wrong with you.”
  • “You’re broken.”
  • “You’re the only one suffering in this way.”
  • “Your thoughts are weird, bad, wrong.”
  • “Your feelings are too much, bad, wrong.”
  • “You’re stupid.”
  • “You’re ugly.”
  • “You’re a bad person.”
  • “If you don’t do it perfectly, people won’t like you.”
  • “There’s no room to mess up.”

Shame is a silencer, a protector, and a messenger, and I imagine that every highly sensitive person reading this blog is quite familiar with it.

How is shame a protector? It’s the first line of defense that protects against the wells of pain and fear that live at the core of the human experience. Shame, and its cousins, control and perfection, feed us the story that if we could only do things perfectly, or if only we were less of this and more of that (less emotional and more social, for example), we could guarantee that others would “love” and approve of us. Shame often arises when we don’t have an experience in early years from our primary attachment figures of being accepted exactly as we are. But it can arise in other ways, especially growing up in a culture that doesn’t value the highly sensitive person.

As the first protector, it needs attention before we can spiral into the more vulnerable emotions, for when shame is in the way we can’t access the softer places. What does it mean to give shame attention? The default attention will invariably be negative, for nowhere do we learn that shame needs our love and tenderness just like every other emotion. Shame needs to be named and held, but instead it’s often met with more shame: “What’s wrong with you for feeling shame when nobody else seems to feel it?” 

Can you imagine what it would feel like to meet shame with tenderness – to know that it, too, is an important member of the human psyche?

When we can soften into shame, we can touch the underlying emotions, needs, and opportunities for learning.

I’ll elucidate with two examples:

I had a work event a couple of weeks ago that didn’t go as well as I had hoped it would. I could feel that I wasn’t tapped into my most connected self and felt “off” in a way that doesn’t often happen around my work. After the event, I could feel the edges of shame taking hold, trying to lure me into a shame spiral. It felt heavy, as if a dark cloak had descended on my soul. I journaled it through, letting the shame voice have half a page of airtime (we don’t want to over-water that voice just like we don’t want to water intrusive thoughts), and then another voice came in. She said:

“Can you be gentle with yourself? Can you wrap up the perfectionist with love and hold the shame close? Instead of asking, at least right away, “How can you do better next time?” can you be with whatever is arising in you right now? Can you be okay that it wasn’t your best?”

And I responded:

I can. 

Then I invited my grandmother to come through, another voice of love and compassion. She said:

“It’s okay, my beautiful granddaughter. You made an important offering and even though you didn’t feel great about it, it’s still okay. It’s okay not to always be tapped in. Take time to replenish now. Be kind to yourself. Walk. Swim. Pick raspberries. Dance. Sing. Bless the land. Fill in and fill up. It’s all okay.”

Shame softens, and the underlying places of need filter up to the surface. The need for rest. The need for self-compassion. The need, as always, to allow a layer of grief to rise up and through.

Here’s an example of how shame frequently shows up in my work.

You’re getting married in a few months to a wonderful partner (not perfect!). You’re a highly sensitive person and you’ve felt scared the entire engagement. The fear doesn’t come out directly but instead attacks your partner/the relationship in the form of intrusive thoughts (not attracted enough; not in love enough, partner isn’t [funny, educated, intelligent] enough, etc). Shame comes in and says, “What’s wrong with you? What kind of a person gets married when they’re scared. What kind of person thinks these things about their partner?” Subtext: You’re a horrible person. You’re making a mistake and there’s something wrong with you.

The loving response might sound something like:

“Oh, dear self. Of course you’re scared! You love this person so much and the level of fear/projection is in direct proportion to the depth of the love; that’s how fear and love work. And you’re doing something new and huge. Would you tell a five-year old who’s scared to start kindergarten that he shouldn’t feel scared? Would you tell a women about to go into labor that she shouldn’t feel scared and that her fear means she doesn’t want her baby? Of course not! How normal it is to feel scared on the precipice of something big and new. And how normal it is for the fear and grief to come out as projections.”

Once the shame softens, the grief and fear can bubble up. Then things start to move and shift, and we find ourselves back in the current of life where all emotions are honored and seen, and we can follow those emotions back to our places of aliveness.

Just like breaking free from anxiety doesn’t mean that anxiety never shows up, so breaking free from shame doesn’t mean shame never shows up. It means we learn how to name what’s happening more quickly so that we can access the loving and wise part of ourselves and bring compassion and acceptance to our experience. As always, this learning happens in layers and spirals, but each time we meet ourselves in a new way, with more kindness, we lay down the neural pathways that allow a new behavior to take hold. This is how we find freedom.

How does shame show up for you? What do you notice when you can meet the shame with kindness?

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