Why Highly Sensitive People are More Prone to the Burden and Gift of Shame

by | Sep 4, 2022 | Anxiety, HSP, Intrusive Thoughts, Shame | 52 comments

Following up on my post from a few weeks ago where I talked about how intrusive thoughts both originate from shame and cause shame, I’d like to explore some of the root causes of shame.

As I wrote about in the post:

Intrusive thoughts also arise from shame as attempts to “prove” goodness or badness. The anxious part thinks, “If I can answer this one question with 100% certainty I will be exonerated from shame” or “If I can execute this compulsion perfectly I will prove my goodness (outer perfection will be evidence of inner perfection)”. But since you can’t answer these questions with total certainty, and you can’t achieve perfection with compulsions, you then assume that you’re bad. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle; in its attempt to prove “goodness”, it ends up confirming “badness”.

Sources of Shame and the Fear of Humiliation

Note: I encourage you read this through the lens of your own early years and, if you’re a parent to highly sensitive kids prone to anxiety or OCD, through the current lens as well. Also, this is a long post. Please take your time with it. I deeply value any thoughts or comments you’d like share below.

  1. Protection Against Powerlessness and Heartbreak

Shame is the first scaffolding that gives a child illusion of control: if it’s my fault, I can fix it. This shame belief becomes a structure inside, a rigid scaffold to climb onto to keep a young person just above the roiling, churning seas of powerlessness and groundlessness and heartbreak that are woven through this life. Shame is another intrusive thought and, as such, a protector. There is no truth to shame; the truth is that you are good and worthy and lovable because you exist. But shame takes hold quickly and tenaciously because a young child may not intrinsically know that they’re good.

In one sense, the shame is absolutely necessary. It’s a life raft that lifts the child above the devastation of their powerlessness over the pain and brokenness in this world, and the fact that change and loss and death exist and there’s not a thing a child or anyone else can do about it. It seems to me that shame comes first and the obsessions and compulsions follow. Which means that unless that first faulty belief of shame is addressed we’re only going to get so far in our healing.

To break open the lie of shame is to dip into the vast sea of groundlessness and pain that’s a part our world. And a highly sensitive child, who is the one most susceptible to anxiety and OCD, may not have the ego-strength to tolerate this truth. In other words, it’s easier to feel shame and attach to the belief that there’s something they can do to repair the brokenness in our world then it is to feel the core feelings of powerlessness and heartbreak.

 

  1. Heightened Responsibility for the Community: “It’s my job to keep everyone safe”

One of the deepest needs for the sub-type of the highly sensitive person (what I think of as the highly sensitive person to the tenth degree) is to keep the community together, and the deepest fear, alongside excommunication, is that failure to keep everyone safe will be their fault. There is something utterly beautiful about this need when we can track it back to our tribal roots. These people were the connectors in the community, and it was, in some sense, their job to keep everyone safe and to protect the perimeters, if not literally then spiritually.

The literature calls people with OCD people “overly responsible” but the sense of responsibility almost always comes out around family, which leads me to think that there must be an ancestral obligation; they must have been the person in a community whose task it was to rupture the repairs in the lineage and right what was made wrong. This was/is part of their role.

Last year I read Malidoma Somé‘s book Of Water and the Spirit and when I came across this passage where he describes his grandfather’s dwelling it landed as resonant with the OCD experience. His grandfather was the shaman, and part of his responsibility was to keep the family safe.

“Grandfather space housed the pharmacy of the entire  clan – an array of roots, daily collected, nightly prepared, to face emergencies of all sorts. These little dwellings contained the prosperity – spiritual, material, and magical – of the clan. Some of these roots were good for physical illness, but most of them were good for illness of the soul. These little buildings held the spiritual destiny of every member of the family. There, each one of us existed in the form of a stone, silent, docile, available… Through his magical means, grandfather could check on each of us at his leisure.”

“After my father had finished his tour of the family units, he had to make sure that all the domestic animals were where they ought to be. Then he would close them in for the night. Finally, he would close the main gate and secure it from the inside by tying it to an old bicycle pedal fastened to the wall. This “lock” was one of my father’s inventions since his return from the Gold Coast.” – p.31

The checking. The sense of responsibility. The OCD compulsion of checking stoves and locks as the maladaptive version of the spiritual and physical “checking” that the heads of the communities engaged in nightly. It’s important to make these connections so that we can track symptoms back to the root.

When I express to my clients that they’re not responsible for everyone’s well-being they say, “Yes, I am.” Consciously and rationally they know that they’re not entirely responsible, but as children some part of them seemed to know that they were the shamans of the family and that they actually were responsible for the family’s well-being in some way, and they were trying to go through the checking sequence in the only way they knew how. But – and this is a huge but in the conversation around shame – they also knew that these morphed compulsions were falling short of the healthy rituals they should have been trained in, and in the falling short, shame ensued.

Let’s take another textbook OCD compulsion and view it through this lens: Hand-washing.

When covid first hit we saw a huge upsurge in compulsive hand-washing. The heightened sense of responsibility that says, “It’s my job to keep everyone safe” intersected with feeling the pain of the world more acutely and, in response to the feeling of helplessness, many people prone to OCD assumed that it’s their fault as a way to try to have some control; again, obsessions and compulsions as a way to try to manage the pain and keep the world together. Without healthy and effective ways to create wholeness from fragmentation and safety from danger – without the shamanic rituals – they’re left to find their own misguided ways to create order and “perfection” and control.

  1. Awareness of Our Humanness and How Far we Fall from Perfection in the Spiritual Realm. “I’m not moral or pure enough.”

Highly sensitive people and empaths are aware of everything and feel everything, including how far we fall from an ideal state, both physically and spiritually. They carry a heightened awareness of the possibility of perfection and are continually aware of how far short we fall from these ideals.

Let’s take the “just right” anxiety theme. Those who struggle with this theme seem to have a high sense of justice, morality, honesty, equality, and fairness. This is true for most highly sensitive people, but it’s especially true for those with “just right” anxiety. Of course, these are exceptional qualities and the very ones that our world needs. The challenge is when the person with these qualities is unable to accept the imperfect nature of our world and other people who will not always be able to measure up to their utopian ideals of “rightness.” When they can learn to accept “just enough” then channel their demand for justice and equality into their life’s work, they can change the world. These are the people who are working to create a kinder, more utopian world (think Star Trek).

A helpful slogan for someone with this theme is, “Perfection rarely exists in this world. What we’re looking for is good enough.” One of the growing edges here is to learn to tolerate paradox and inconsistencies as they recognize that the world is a not a black-and-white place but instead is painted in murky, messy shades of gray. When they can accept the gray, the brilliance of color fills in the rest of the landscape.

We all have a template of perfection inside of us. We remember the perfect symbiotic relationship in the womb and possibly before that in the spirit realm. I can’t know this for sure, but I have a strong sense that those with “just right” anxiety are trying to replicate that feeling of perfection in some way – again, not for approval but from the inside-in. I imagine it’s like seeking to step into a familiar suit, one that used to exist and that they believe could still exist if everything were “just right.”

One of the key tasks for someone struggling with anxiety and OCD is to learn to tolerate discomfort. They need to learn to change the quest for “just right” to “good enough”, which is, at the core, a spiritual quest. It’s also about recognizing that there is a great gift embedded in this need for something to be “just right”. As most people who have this form of anxiety are highly attuned in certain areas, when the need for just right can be channeled into just enough, brilliance can occur.

I find it fascinating that at the core of the two primary obsessions that highly sensitive people struggle with are the need for certainty and the need for completeness, both of which speak to the core of being human: we’re looking for certainty in an uncertain world where the passage of time ends in death and we know that our physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual selves rarely feel complete or just right. We see here that the highly sensitive heart is also the highly inquisitive mind, pondering our existence in this vast and unknowable universe on this beautiful and painful planet.

The need for perfection is also connected to the need for purity. Again, this need can become compulsive but there’s an archetypal quality to the intense awareness of purity and morality that certain highly sensitives carry. As Malidoma Somé says: “The indigenous spirit in each of us is calling for cleansing and reconciliation.”

There’s a calling for cleansing and then there’s the wrestling with our very human lot that we exist in bodies and we make mistakes. HSPs are more aware of this than a typically wired person, and those prone to OCD may have an even more heightened awareness of our messiness, fallibility, and risk involved in being human.The task is to be able to hold that paradox of both the calling for cleansing and the challenge of accepting our humanness.

These words might help:

We’re messy and we mess up all the time (thus the need for order).

We’re dirty and we fail ourselves and others and we do harm (thus the need for cleanliness).

We die (thus the need for safety).

We are human.

We have bodies.

We poop. We pee. We fart. We burp. We spit. We have boogers. We sweat. We have bad breath. We have body odor.

Also…

We make and eat incredible food.

We walk, dance, and do martial arts.

We do magic.

We make music, and hear it.

We run. We play. We swing. We do flips. We do cartwheels. We roll.

We travel. We have new experiences.

We laugh. We tell jokes.

We watch movies.

We eat popcorn and potatoes and pizza and cupcakes and mango ice cream.

We can create extraordinary things, from musicals to buildings.

We smell good.

We sweat because we use our bodies in beautiful ways. It’s a sign of being alive.

Our bodies have a deep intelligence.

They house our dreams.

They allow us to good in the world.

Also…

We lie. We steal. We yell. We hurt others. We gossip. We think mean thoughts. We think hateful thoughts.

And also…

We love. We care for others. We help the poor and needy. We put others before ourselves. We run into burning buildings. We sacrifice ourselves for our children. We rescue animals.

We do good things. A lot.

***

The need for purity and cleansing is where ritual comes into play. Humans have a deep need to “purify” ourselves because we know we fall short and mess up all the time, and yet we’ve either lost touch with the spiritual rituals that help us do this regularly OR we’ve been inundated by a control-based religion that has turned these rituals into another fear-based compulsion. I encourage you to creatively ponder what kind of healthy cleansing ritual you might enact on a regular basis that could “cleanse” you of the beliefs that you’ve done wrong, and also allow you to cleanse the very human mistakes that humans make daily. Something with water and stones can be very powerful – like placing a stone into a bowl of water for each hurt, pain, or “bad” thought that you’ve had and allowing the water to cleanse it away, then pouring it into a plant or onto the ground and trusting that it will be transmuted into new life. But it can be any ritual. Trust your unconscious and listen to your dreams. If something arises, I’d love to hear about it.

I truly, deeply believe that those who suffer with OCD are the unsung priests and priestesses of our time: the people with the highest moral bar who are acutely aware that they and all humans invariably fall short daily and, as such, need rituals and practices that allow us to be cleansed of our “sins” (in Judaism the word for sin in “chet” which means, “missing the mark”) and forgiven for our humanness.

These are the people who are aware of impurity and who used to clean the temples to make them pure for sacrifices. These are the ones who enacted the holy rituals, who reminded their community of the harm in gossip. These are the holiest people on our planet who are being tortured by psyche’s urgent need for ritual.

In other times, in other places, you would be taken under the wing of a shaman or high priest or rabbi or wise elder and taught how to be a ritual leader. They would have seen the early signs – what we call “symptoms” – and known that you were destined for a high role in your community, and they would have taught you how to step into that role. As it is, parents and their children are left to stumble their way through the ordeal of compulsions, often with tattered hands and battered souls gasping for air on the other side.

  1. Inherited Shame

If one or both parents carry shame (and who doesn’t), the most sensitive child in the family will likely absorb it. As the sensitives carry an innate need to be the connectors and repairers, when their highly acute antennae sense a parents’ shame, they might take it on as their own as a way to try to metabolize it. This is how wounds are unconsciously passed down through the intergenerational relay. You will likely experience this as a burden until you learn how to wield and work with your sensitivity as the gift that it is, and realize that much of your pain didn’t start with you.

There is a great fulfillment when you’re tasked with resolving what is unresolved, not only in the personal life but in the ancestral line, the blood line. When we do this layer of ancestral work, we repair not only for ourselves but for the generations above us and those who come after us. In one sense, this may be there very reason why we’re on this planet (more on this next week).

  1. Heightened Need for Connection and Belonging

Highly sensitive people are also highly aware of social norms, and have a deeper need and longing for belonging than a typically wired person. As I mentioned earlier, one of their most terrifying fears – and I think this extends back centuries and links to our historic cell-memories – is of being shunned by the community. When we lived in tribes, being shunned would equate to literal death. Now, being shunned or rejected by a family or social circle doesn’t mean you’re literally going to die but it certainly feels that way.

An OCD expert once shared with me that, from the work he’s done in the field for twenty years, he’s come to to believe that the deepest fear for those who suffer in this way is of ending up alone. I agree, and I’ve come to see that there’s an additional layer to this fear: it’s not only the fear of ending up alone, but it’s that the shunning and judging will be a result of people discovering how bad you are. The root is shame. And so you have to spend inordinate amounts of energy to prevent that from happening.

The thought process goes like this: “If people realize how bad I am, I’ll be shunned and end up all alone. And it will be my fault because of my inherent badness. Therefore, I need to pretzel and work and manage as fast as I can and with total perfection so that nobody realizes how bad I am.”

  1. Heightened Sensitivity to Parental and Peer Criticism, Irritation, Punishment and Withdrawal

It’s not possible to parent without shaming your child. Sometimes this shame has a positive result, like yelling at your child for touching the plug socket or not looking both ways before crossing the street. Shame has a social function, and it comes out when we’re trying to protect our kids from danger.

It comes out in other, smaller moments, too: shaming a child for spilling milk or squirting ketchup all over your new white shirt. While a typically wired child might feel hurt but ultimately be able to shrug their shoulders and move on, the highly sensitive child interprets this response as “I’m bad and I’ll never be good again.” Again, it’s like a soul-death, a spiritual shunning that cuts to the core of their being.

This is also a root of perfectionism: the feeling of shame is so unbearable to the highly sensitive child that they’ll do everything they can do avoid it. This intention carries over into adulthood, even when we likely have more tolerance for shame. As Linda shared in the comments on the other post:

“Yes I plan a lot of my day to day activities and conversations with an intention to avoid people finding out I am ‘bad’ – lazy, selfish. I constantly make small adjustments to make sure I don’t seem this way. I think it is where most of my anxiety comes from.”

There’s another offshoot to this element of shame: Some highly sensitive kids (not all) manage their shame by explosive anger. Here a vicious cycle can arise where the parents’ initial human irritation with their child is met with reactivity and sometimes rage, which the parents then meet with more shame.

Again, it’s not possible to parent without getting irritated and angry with your kids. It’s not possible to parent without shaming them sometimes. It’s a horrible feeling to shame your child, but we’ve all been there in moments of frustration.

HSPs are also highly attuned to disconnection from their primary attachment figures. My children have zero tolerance for being disconnected from us (we can’t tolerate it, either). If we get into an argument and I leave the room (this happened a few weeks ago), it’s not long before they come to find me or I come to find them. Sometimes I do need a break from the intensity of the emotional maelstrom we can find ourselves entangled in, and I leave the room. But when I’m lying on my bed I’m soon overcome by an ache of emptiness that floods my body, as if I’m feeling not only into my own pain of disconnect but also my son’s. I can feel his loneliness, his desperation at being disconnected from me, and it’s this empathy into his despair that brings me back into loving connection with him.

There are much more overtly damaging roots of shame, like physical and emotional abuse and being told directly, “You’re a bad girl/boy” for innocent childhood behavior. This often comes out when a parent finds their child engaged in sexual play or exploration, but it can come out around any topic if the parent is abusive (and likely suffering from their own shame wounds).

  1. Protecting the Deepest Glory of Self Because They’re Not Ready to Share it Yet

Last year I had an amazing walk-talk with my neighbor where we discussed our highly sensitive kids and how we’ve learned not to comment on the moments when they share the deepest gifts that they’ve kept hidden because they will retreat again. These are kids who are keyed into rejection. The good comments are invalidated because they think the person is lying and the bad comments make them self-doubt because deep down they know that they’re good and smart and worthy but they’re not ready to share that with the world yet. Our children protect their deepest self because perhaps some part of them knows that it needs to stay protected.

The conversation allowed me to see that an element of shame isn’t caused by parenting or culture but is more a personality type or temperament, and even a built-in protection system that carries some wisdom. The parent’s role is to usher their children through childhood, and especially through the incredibly rocky 11-14 years, so that their true self can emerge. These children have something exquisitely beautiful and powerful inside and it can only come out when there’s enough ego-strength that they can handle the comments from the outer world, good or bad. The shame-story is, again, a protector – not the deepest truth; it’s truly a story, a mask shielding a child’s soul. If we keep nurturing them, there’s going to be a reveal. The song is going to emerge in some form when it’s ready.

As a parent, I encourage you to hold the highest vision for your child. Notice their spark and notice how they might be hiding it. They can keep it hidden for as long as they need to; your job is to keep bolstering your child up so that they have enough strength to let their soul emerge when they’re ready.

***

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

And if you’d like to receive a roadmap and community of support to help soften shame at the root, please join us for the fourth round of my course, Break Free From Anxiety: A 9-month course on the art of living. It begins Sunday, September 18th, 2022, and I look forward to seeing you there.

In advance of the course, I’ll be offering a free webinar called “Breaking Free From Anxiety and Shame Requires These Four Pillars” on Monday, September 12 at 6:15pm ET. You can sign up here, and if you can’t make the live event you can listen to the recording afterward.

52 Comments

  1. Fascinating and insightful, as always. I definitely believe that, for a certain type of personality, we need to find meaning in our ‘symptoms’, rather than simply train ourselves out of them, like rats in a lab. Once we find a meaning we might be less likely to view our condition as a ‘disorder’. At any rate, I wrote a poem that touches on my own perfectionist tendencies. You and your readers might like it.

    http://joshuaseigalpoet.blogspot.com/2022/08/and-so-i-write.html

    Peace x

    Reply
    • Oooo, I like this, thank you so much for the beautiful and detailed breakdown on shame, Sheryl!

      I resonated with the comment from Linda about feeling a need to show other people that I’m not ‘bad’; while it’s lessened now I used to have a compulsive need to prove that my motivations were pure, and the hardest feeling for me was when I felt other people misinterpreted my motives. But really – it’s not my job to maintain other people’s opinions of me! How boring! I want to be fully immersed and enraptured in my own twisty, messy, fun river ride!

      I feel a tinge of it whenever I see a dish I left unwashed in my flat, or making the decision to work part time and enjoy skiing and outdoor activities more, that my flatmates who are overworking will resent me for it. But in learning to make decisions that honour my soul and thriving, I will be my ‘just enough’ best self and hopefully encourage other people to make their own decisions.

      Another good reminder that everybody’s well being is not my responsibility! My brother and his partner from Colombia are doing the challenging route of honouring their highly sensitive two year old daughter’s sleep patterns and needs. I found it really hard to move away from them to live my own life, because on top of that Taty isn’t super confident in English and doesn’t have her family or many friends here. I’ve definitely been feeling guilty for not being around, and even planning to go further overseas. I want to reframe that to knowing they are doing a fabulous job, and things will get easier as their little girl gets a little older, and I can visit as often as I can because I LOVE them, not because they need me.

      I also love love love the thought that HSPs would be hand selected to become the shamans and medicine women… I’ve been reading some Terry Pratchett witches books, and the way he described the witches as caring for the souls of the community struck a longing for me!!!!

      Reply
    • What a great poem Joshua– thank you for sharing it. I LOVE it

      Reply
      • Thanks so much Pearl

        Reply
    • So lovely to read this…. Thank you for sharing 🙏

      Reply
  2. Stunning and soul shaking. It feels to me that this is vital growing edge in your work. It still feels somewhat complex and I imagine as you keep working it, it will reveal a deep, deep vein of healing that will take us all into new terrain. And let me say that it is so healing to read that shame, perfectionism, and the deep sense of wrongness I carry could be a spiritual gift that longs to be expressed through ritual and spiritual leadership.

    Reply
    • Thank you, ritual. Yes, I do see my work moving in this direction and I know in my bones that there’s a spiritual calling embedded inside shame and perfectionism.

      Reply
  3. I’ve recently been given a diagnosis of OCD. While I feel that understanding certain behaviours and thinking through this framework is useful, I suspect its limiting and self-stigmatising. It makes me feel ‘broken’. Is the approach you take to OCD Sheryl, one that goes back and looks at root causes as you have done in this article, rather than a symptom-led approach – CBT, DBT etc? Is a symptom-led approach useful in combination with looking at the deeper roots of OCD? So we both deal with it at a symptom level and deep psychological/spiritual level? I feel a pull between what appears to me to be two different frameworks/lenses for understanding myself.

    Reply
    • I look at this in much the same way as with my ulcerative colitis. I’ve done a combination of Western medicinal methods such as prednisone, and now mercaptopurine (6mp) to manage it, while I also see a naturopath who addresses the underlying issues (or terrain as she calls it), and I go to acupuncture, and I eat a mostly anti-inflammatory diet. To this day my original GI doc will say that stuff doesn’t do anything for me and be confounded by the fact that I’m doing so well. The short answer, and I’m not an expert, but I would say yes. I see ERP kind of like prednisone, or maybe more accurately like 6mp. It addresses the symptoms and keeps them in check so I don’t get any worse (for me ERP really helps with avoidance) but to truly heal I do the deeper, holistic work.

      Reply
      • Thanks Riley, its interesting to see how you think about/apply an integrated approach. Also, what is ERP?

        Reply
        • ERP stands for Exposure and Response Prevention. It is a method of treating OCD that derives from CBT. It is not, contrary to what some claim, the *only* method for treating OCD.

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    • Hi Anonymous – I’m not an expert, but my view is that it’s more important to find a therapist with whom you connect deeply than it is to fret about which modality (type of therapy) you are having. Many types of therapies can be successful, and they can be used in combination. The crucial factor is the personal relationsship.

      Reply
    • “Is a symptom-led approach useful in combination with looking at the deeper roots of OCD? So we both deal with it at a symptom level and deep psychological/spiritual level?”

      YES to this. I think both are important: CBT for symptom reduction and a depth perspective to address the roots. I talked about this in this podcast:

      https://theocdstories.com/episode/sheryl-paul-279/

      Reply
    • Anonymous – one thing I’d like to add as well is try not to “chase” the “just right” treatment, especially with modalities. Some will say ERP is the gold standard and it was key to their recovery while others will say ACT was key while others will say REBT, etc. etc. I could come up with a new model and call it ABC and write a book on it and say it was key and folks will ask about it, what it means, and chase it. As Josh said find someone who can connect with you and help you in ALL facets, beyond just the symptoms. Honestly the symptoms shouldn’t even be our concern, because those will ease up with time if we work on the deeper areas of ourselves. Good luck

      Reply
  4. Thank you for this thoughtful, interesting post. It read more like a chapter from a book than a blog! I identified strongly with a lot that was written. I felt a particular connection with the part early in the post about heightened responsibility. Growing up, my father had (has) a drinking problem. So did his father. Many years of trauma and pain on my father’s side. Even as a young child, I sensed my father’s shame, his pain and his struggles. When I became a teenager and learned to drive, I would spend my time looking for him in our town at local bars to try and “stop him” from drinking. “Stop him” from potentially driving drunk. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I didn’t see any metaphors embedded in any of this T the time. I needed to stop him! And it was my job to do so! As I’ve grown up and processed all of this (and continue to), I see how much I needed a spiritual elder to help me navigate this path. This life. There is so much to this post, Sheryl, and I so appreciate you sharing it with us. Lots to be said about ancestral healing and ritual work. Looking forward to reading next weeks post as well.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing part of your story, Jen. It’s often the highly sensitive child in a family who takes on the burden of responsibility for a parents’ addiction. The 12-step programs address this very well in their Al-Anon programs. I’m so glad the post landed well for you. To be continued!

      Reply
  5. You hit the nail on the head – and thanks for quoting me 🙂

    I am longing for more and more of the healthy rituals that will bring me into a higher frequency but come up against a lot of resistance at implementing them. I know what they are but it’s hard to motivate myself to do it mostly alone.

    Reply
    • Resistance is so powerful, Linda. I think when the suffering becomes big enough we find the fortitude to move through the resistance. This quote by Anais Nin comes to mind:

      “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

      Reply
  6. Oh Sheryl. This sparked a million thoughts and memories, as well as had me crying at the Melbourne airport as I head off on a work trip!!

    But the piece that got me most was this:

    “As a parent, I encourage you to hold the highest vision for your child. Notice their spark and notice how they might be hiding it. They can keep it hidden for as long as they need to; your job is to keep bolstering your child up so that they have enough strength to let their soul emerge when they’re ready.”

    I think you know why.

    I simply cannot express the gratitude I feel towards you shed your work. A thousand times your words have steered me towards wholeness and spirit and light.

    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Thank you, dear Clara. Your words always land in the warmest place in my heart. And yes I understand completely why that part got to you! 🥰

      Reply
  7. Hey Sheryl,

    Such a beautiful post as always. I feel very comforted and not so alone when I hear your blog posts, they always make me feel like I belong somewhere rather than an outcast like I was referring myself to yesterday. Your blog posts always remind me to be kind to myself as I have such a strong fear of being a bad person and I spend a lot of time people pleasing, and being polite around new people and have a really tough time being myself from fear of being bad. I truly believe your blog posts make my soul feel calm, and my ego seems to take a step back every time I read your beautiful writings. Thank you, a much needed message on a Monday in NZ ☺️

    Reply
    • Dear Katie: I’m so glad my posts and words give a sense of belonging and soothe your soul – and hopefully help you connect more to your intrinsic goodness. You absolutely belong here!

      Reply
  8. First… Congrats to your son on passing his flying test!
    My husband loves to fly his plane and I remember well the many hours of bookwork and flight training that were necessary to obtain his license. Pilots are a special group of dreamers who find their peace and joy high above this earthly world we live in. My kudos to you as well…. It isn’t an easy feat to smile and be happy for your loved ones as they fly off into the wild blue yonder!
    Secondly, your writing on shame and perfectionism was so deeply insightful. I have lived with both my entire life and it was only at age 63 with a therapist that I was able to unravel the stories I held around those themes.
    Thank you, thank you for your blogs, courses, and your amazing podcasts.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Mary! Pilots are a special group. indeed. Truly their own tribe of focused, driven, honest, brave people. It helps me to feel connected every time someone shares about their own experience of having a loved one as a pilot. It’s not easy to watch them fly away. Today my son will take my husband for a flight and I’ll have to hold my heart in my hands knowing that TWO loved ones are in that plane!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and what a gift that you’ve landed on the couch of a loving therapist who has been able to help you unravel the shame stories. ❤️

      Reply
  9. Congratulations on Everest’s achievement!
    This blog post feels like it was written for me. I know I’m going to come back to it over and over.
    I was raised catholic. Growing i got obsessed with being pure. And it didn’t help when the church taught that to be angry was to kill a man. And that an evite thought is as bad as an evil act.
    I used to wake up at night, as a 4-5y old afraid i had missed out praying for pregnant women and homeless children and war struck countries and that if something happened to them it would be my fault.
    I had realised through therapy that i use this is my fault as a way to control and feel better about situations. But your words soothe me in a way i can’t explain. Thank you

    Reply
    • Dear Nimisha: Thank you for the congratulations! I’ll pass it along :).

      I’m so sorry that you suffered from those extremely damaging beliefs and that you didn’t learn that thoughts are just thoughts. I’m so glad you’re with a loving therapist now, and that my words provide an additional balm. ❤️

      Reply
  10. I needed this reminder today Sheryl as my intrusive thoughts have been at the helm recently. I needed to be reminded of my innate goodness but for me, what leaps out so clearly, is the spiritual element you talk about. It’s a ‘yes’ spoken loud and clear in my body around the shamanic and ritual cleansing, protection and spiritual connection that I feel I am longing for. As highly sensitive people I do truly believe there are gifts there for our community and the ripples of those gifts spread far a wide. It can feel such a heavy burden to carry at times. Thank you for the reminder of the light that is in all of us. I would love love love to hear more on your thoughts on HSP/OCD and the connections to a deeper spiritual purpose. For me, there would be great healing in tapping into that. Your words around our roles in communities are like a light bulb going off in me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your wisdom.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Sara. Yes, the spiritual element sings through loud and clear to me as well. HSPs have always been the hypervigilent sentries in the community – standing at the perimeters watching out for danger – and now that we’re living in safer times we must learn how to re-channel this gift of protection in healthy, spiritual ways.

      Reply
  11. Hi Sheryl! Thank you for this interesting post; I feel like I need to read it a few more times. My initial thoughts after reading this were about how sneaky shame is. It’s not like I walk around feeling like I’m “bad,” but rather I’m “not enough” – around motherhood, marriage, my work, friendships, understanding life in general. I find myself afraid of life/afraid of living vs. embracing it. This is rooted in a fear of loss, waiting for the other show to drop (as Victoria described in the most recent podcast episode).

    This shame had led to comparison, absorbing other people’s stories, assuming everyone else has it figured out or is happier compared to me, and of course repetitive worries and intrusive thoughts. And instead of realizing that this was pointing to something deeper, I spent years stuck on the “not good enough” thoughts or worse, intrusive thoughts.

    Not until I found your work in 2012 did I realize there was something more to how I feel, my sensitive nature, etc. What you continue to provide is understanding — and that leads me to not be so scared of how I am innately and now more interested in curiosity and growth. I still fear life (really, what’s ahead in the future) but my inner parent is growing stronger. Thank you!

    Reply
    • I’m so glad the post came at the right time, Nicole, and that my work over the years has helped you to grow your inner parent and approach your inner world from curiosity. This is KEY! Sending big hugs. ❤️

      Reply
  12. Hi Sheryl,

    Thank you for this post.. I’ll be returning to it a lot to digest it even more over the days/weeks ahead.

    I’ve noticed a new theme in my own personal work that is just uncovering another layer of all of this.

    A lot of my anxiety/worry is centered around fear of blame.

    My health anxiety focuses on “what if I missed something that could have been prevented/caught?”

    My relational anxiety focuses on trying to control situations because I don’t want to be the cause of someone’s sadness/pain/or upsetness…

    And so now, I wonder if this fear of blame, is actually shame, or trying to prevent shame.

    I have a hard time with health anxiety trusting “that if it’s a problem, it will make itself known”. After growing up with parents who did not take care of their health.. I don’t know/trust that this will work for me 🙁

    After growing up and being forced to be an “adult” way too early in life and having to be responsible for everyone’s emotions, it’s terrifying to trust that I don’t have to solve every problem, fix every thing, or make anyone happy.

    I know my ego is in SuperDrive in all of this work… and I’ve learned a lot.. and now I have to begin the work of telling my ego to take a back seat.. to not let the intrusive thoughts have their way with me…

    But thank you for this post, for the work that you do.

    Reply
    • Yes, it does sound like it’s actually shame underneath the fear of blame. Shame and blame are cousins :). And yes it’s so hard to trust, especially when the opposite was modeled, but I do hear that you’re putting pieces into place and learning how to step more fully into trust.

      Reply
  13. Thank you so much for this post Sheryl. This found me at a time when I am struggling – my 19 year old highly sensitive daughter has been diagnosed with OCD. Her adolescence was the period when the intrusive thoughts emerged as she found herself powerless against the pervasive patriarchy – she encountered objectification and misogynistic behaviour from her peers. She rallied against it and it resulted in being excluded and remaining friendless. As you write, she is acutely aware of the possibility of perfection and is unable to accept the messiness and imperfection in the world – the ways in which the world appears to fail bring tears of frustration and sadness. I marvel at her sense of morality, fairness and exquisite sensitivity along with witnessing the pain it causes her. To learn to hold paradox and to channelise the incredible gifts of a pure heart – she has a wise and skilled therapist who truly sees her and is a wonderful guide. As a member of your mother wound course, I can now clearly see that she has also absorbed my shame. Her therapist is helping her disentangle from what is not hers to carry – my daughter shares this with me with great compassion. This is very moving and healing for us both. Of course, seeing her suffer with OCD is not at all easy and some days are extremely hard – this post could not have come at a better time -it encourages me to slow down, take a deep breath, surface from what seems like a dark pool of sadness and despair. Thank you

    Reply
    • She’s very lucky to have you, Sandhya, and I know the pain of watching our children suffer. How good that she’s with a wonderful therapist. Perhaps sharing this post with her could help put a few more pieces into place.

      Reply
  14. I had almost a “light bulb” experience with this line – “It seems to me that shame comes first and the obsessions and compulsions follow”. I can distinctly remember how much I was questioning my masculinity – my worth as a “man” and what it meant to be one, how I wasn’t the “cookie cutter” aggressive, assertive male who was rugged and loved hunting or cars. I was starting to build my own shame story – even though logically I knew that was all just marketing and sterotyping and I didn’t judge others in that way, it was starting to eat at me like I wasn’t “man enough” and the intrusive thoughts and OCD followed that. I never even recognized that pattern until now. I thought the intrusive thoughts just came out of “nowhere” and I was just unlucky enough to have them and experience extreme anxiety due to them.

    I also really connect to the responsibility angle. When I was young, not only was I encouraged to be responsible, I was rewarded for it. “You’re so mature for your age” – “you’re such a good, nice boy”. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, but I believe I overidentified with that – so that anything that could possibly contradict that “goodness”, or “maturity” or “responsibility”, whether externally via action or internally via thoughts and feelings, again meant I was not good enough. That somehow I had to be even more responsible or more mature. So really put me in a place to live very guarded – kind of always making sure I was doing things “right”.

    Crazy how much your words connect with so many of us when most of us have never met you or connected outside of these blog posts.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you made that connection to what preceded the intrusive thought, Steve, and it makes so much sense. I’m glad you’re here in this incredible community of like-minded, beautifully-hearted people :).

      Reply
  15. Oh my. What a beautiful post. The more I read, the more understood I felt. Your words caressed my soul. I look forward to your Anxiety course.

    Reply
  16. I have just joined this community and am working through the Breaking Free From Relationship Anxiety course, and it has already been so, so helpful.

    This post is also incredibly timely for me. I’ve been in therapy with a good therapist for several years, and one of the things we talk about a lot is my “idealism” – my strong sense in almost every situation I am in of “how things should be” – a feeling that things should be different, better, more perfect than they are. This feeling is unrelenting. I am a big fan of Tara Brach’s work, and was recently listening to one of her podcasts, and she talked about deciding many years ago to work on her struggle with “chronic aversive judgment,” this running commentary in her brain that “he should be different, this should be different, I should be different.” Which is also a running commentary I have in my brain, and it robs me, often, of enjoying what is because I am so focused on my idea of how things should be.

    I have been working on this, especially using your work, Sheryl – it has been so helpful to note that when I am fixating on some “imperfection” in my environment – some less than perfect moment – to turn toward myself and ask myself what within me needs care and attention. And there is always something in me that I can find – usually having to do with fear of uncertainty and fear of the unknown. When I was a child, the unknown was pretty dangerous, so now when I am not sure of something, or something feels imperfect, it still feels dangerous and like I need to nail everything down.

    I am making this post because I have been exploring my idealism – a kind of “just right” feeling/anxiety that causes me to have a really hard time tolerating imperfect moments, and what it takes away from me. But, I was missing the idea of its possible root cause, where it comes from, and how it actually could come from a place of goodness, from some deep place in me where I was built to steward things toward beauty, If I can. But not do it in this maniacal, demanding way that does not also allow me to accept humanness, messiness, and imperfection. To look for ways I can include ritual in my life that does create beauty and goodness, creativity, while also learning to live in the imperfect real world and allow things, simultaneously, to be as they are. Such a difficult dialectic! All this to say, thank you for your work. It has really made a difference in my life over the last four weeks that I have been exploring these ideas.

    Reply
    • This is so beautifully shared and written, Katy. This took my breath away:

      “But, I was missing the idea of its possible root cause, where it comes from, and how it actually could come from a place of goodness, from some deep place in me where I was built to steward things toward beauty,”

      YES! I’m so glad you’re here. Thank you.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much! I am very thankful to be here and very thankful for your work. It feels like what I am learning here is leading me out of a dark wood I’ve been in for more than a decade. I’m starting to feel hopeful about the future for the first time in a long time, and that is worth more than anything. Thank you.

        Reply
  17. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Sheryl, I appreciate your time, research and thoughtfulness on this. I find much of this applicable to myself. Today, I want to acknowledge the ancestral possibility of being a priestess (shaman). I have such a heartfelt desire to know how people I know in my community are doing. I wondered why others didn’t have this same desire. I really resonate with this. I appreciate this greater understanding of myself, cherishing this aspect of myself and lessening my thoughts of being an oddball (smiling)!!

    Reply
    • Yes, Annette: Here’s to embracing your inner priestess!

      Reply
  18. Sheryl, Thank you for this insight piece. This article went right in, but one line in particular stood out.

    You wrote, “There’s another offshoot to this element of shame: Some highly sensitive kids (not all) manage their shame by explosive anger.”

    Have you written about this elsewhere? In retrospect, I (shamefully) see myself in this dynamic and would love to understanding how that anger existed within me alongside my otherwise quiet and shy demeanor. Thank you for your profound work. In gratitude.

    Reply
    • Celeste: I don’t have anything written directly on that aspect but I want to assure you that you’re far from alone with this struggle, and encourage you to do your best to reduce your shame around it so that you can explore it with curiosity.

      Reply
      • Thank you Sheryl. I will. Thank you for the kind remind.

        The scholar/student in me would love to hear you share more on this dynamic, if you are so inclined. You bring (and write with) such richness to these subtleties of our inner struggles and their outward expressions. Again, my appreciation.

        Reply
  19. Really powerful messages here. Thank you for sharing your deep wisdom with us!

    Reply
  20. I really felt the ‘I’m bad and I’ll never be good again.’
    I’ve always treated any perceived mistake of mine internally as the end of the world – like ‘yep, now I’ve done it. Everyone will now see what a bad person I am and leave me.’ And yet they don’t and it constantly surprises me.
    I have no grace for myself and either too much or not enough for others.

    Reply
  21. Thank you Sheryl for your posts and for your work. I’m interested in unpacking what you mean by ‘groundlessness’. To me, as a Catholic Christian, there is an element in all this of being vulnerable before God and to be in need of his mercy, to have a need for God’s grace and power, and to be aware of my powerlessness and need of that grace. To know that God never shames me, and that his grace renews and heals me.
    Kind regards,
    Chris Sumner UK

    Reply

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