using shame for change

this morning tears of shame ran down my cheeks. I felt the hot flush from my face to my feet. when I recognized, that I started to sweat, another feeling came up: I wanted to hide, leave this situation and never talk about it again.

shame is a powerful emotion, that can lead to blockades and ignorance or to change and healing. in each situation we have the choice of decision, how we want to handle our shame and deal with it.

when I felt this shame this morning, I decided to be bold and face it. not just saying „I am sorry…“ to bring this situation to an end as soon as possible, but to make the whole process of healing shame.

before I start to dig with you deeper in the mud of shame, I think it is important to distinguish the difference sorts of shame from each other.

  1. shame about something we am responsible for. here is the potential of growing and healing, because it is in our hands to learn and accept important lessons.
  2. shame about something someone did to us. it is about healing and so important to understand, that it had nothing to do with us, what happened. it was not our fault.
  3. external shame, the shame about some else behavior. we can´t change the behavior, so it is about boundaries, healing and speaking up.

this article is about the first one, the shame about something we are responsible for.

walking through a mine field of shit

when I lived in berlin for some time, I was really scared. though I am queer and reading a lot about gender-identities and diversity, I was scared to use „wrong“ pronouns or behave in a way, that might discriminate other people, because I was living in a small town, where no one cared about pronouns. I felt like I was not used to, not trained in. so I avoided to speak with other people. one evening I was having dinner with a friend, who lived in berlin for years and talked about that fear. she looked at me and said: „Judith, you will step into shit. it is a mine field of shit. and then you learn from it, clean your shoes and do it better.“ I stared back and I silently realized the truth behind it.

the fear of making mistakes is nothing else than shame. we are afraid, that other people see our imperfection. and this one is a tough one. but how could we learn, if we do not dare to make mistakes?

making mistakes is human. being closed and ignorant isn´t. shame has a high potential to close ourself from the lessons, that we have to learn. it blocks us from doing better, because shame can lead to denying what happened. and this is not about self-improvement, but evolving, growing and healing.

welcoming the unwelcome

when we are ashamed about our own behavior, we literally can´t believe, what we have done. in our head we repeat „I can not believe, that this happened!“. maybe we are somehow disappointed, we are afraid of punishment, or we are frustrated and angry. the burden of shame weights so high, that we change the narrative of what happened. „this is not how I want to behave, I did not mean to…so how can I believe, that I did?“. it is even paralyzing. but there is just one way to work oneself through it: we have to accept it.

in my case from this morning, I have been referred to something that I have should done weeks ago. it might be a „small“ example, but shame works the same. one of our dogs has puked on the carpet and I said, that I will clean it. after…well… removing the obvious, a bright spot left. I had started one try with water, soap and a brush and scrubbed for half an hour. and it didn´t work out. instead of trying something else, I was ashamed, that I couldn´t do it. it reminded me of experiences of my childhood, when something had happened and I wanted to fix it. when I couldn´t, I got into trouble. as an adult I should have known better, but instead I was paralyzed out of shame.

when I was referred to my statement, that I would clean the carpet and that I didn´t do it, my whole body got hot, I was close to tears and I felt caught. in a moment of silence, I started to reflect my emotions, took all my courage and said: „you are right. I choose to be ashamed and knew, that it would stress you out. I am sorry. I won´t let shame or guilt paralyze me again.“

by welcoming this unwelcome feeling, I could prevent to bring other persons in a situation of carrying the results of my shame for me. it is about taking responsibility for the situation and learning the lesson. and no, it is no joy, but if you want to have a relationship, that is based on love and respect and don´t want to reproduce old traumas, you have to walk through this mud of shame.

the psychologist, author and coach Ralph Smart has two very important questions, that might motivate you:

  1. would you change your decision, if you could get back in time? -> absolutely YES! we all wish, that we could turn back time and walk another way.
  2. would you let me take the lesson, that you have learned, away from you? -> NO! because we need the lessons to make our own map of the landscape of life.

but there is no way of having the lesson without the experience.

so how can we deal with shame and use it for change?

Courage over comfort

Brené Brown is a leading speaker and author and as studied vulnerability for ages. she has had a very important TED talk, in which she talked about her own shame. according to her book „daring greatly“ and the results of her studies, I want to give you 4 steps to deal with shame and use it for sustainable change.

  1. recognize. shame is a very physical experience. as you can see…my body reacts very heavily to it! when you feel, that shame comes over you, STOP. stop, whatever you wanted to do and breathe. if you need to, take some time alone and cry, scream, sweat it out. but do not react to it and do not react it out on others.
  2. critical awareness. this is a very heavy part, but I know, you can do this. be aware of what happens inside of you. what thoughts about yourself cross your mind? how do you walk with yourself? do you remember, what has been said to you in the past, when you have had this emotion? you don´t have to be too analytical in an acute state of shame. this is more about awareness, so you can get back to it later, when you have cooled down.
  3. talk about shame. bringing light over shame takes its teeth. shame subsists from judgement, silence and guilt. to be more clear about emotions, that hold you back, I invite you to read my article about being mindful in your everyday life. READ MORE.
  4. do it better. you know, this is why we should not make excuses before we are aware of what happened inside of us. when we have recognized our shame and are aware of our thoughts, we can choose to do it better.

at least I want to talk about another shame, that many of us know, and has a different step 4.

shame of being vulnerable

when we show up and show our authentic self, we might feel ashamed. we don´t feel good enough, smart enough, pretty, active, educated, whatever enough. in this case, shame is not only paralyzing, but also toxic. it is not about „I haven´t cleaned the carpet“, but „I don´t want to publish articles, because I am afraid, that people think, I am not educated enough and I am ashamed of spelling erros.“.

I would like to suggest a 4th and a 5th step, to use this shame for change.

4. flood yourself with positive thoughts. what are you proud of? what are you good at? you have made the 2nd step and watched behind your thoughts and emotions, that gave you this feeling of shame, now you need to reprogram your thinking patterns. if you want to dig deeper, I highly recommend a therapeutic guidance. many feelings and emotions have their core in past experiences and need to be seen and healed.

5. do it anyway and show up. some people are blessed with a shield of a high self-esteem. others have to learn it and walk through it. by showing up and facing our fears and shame, we can shrink it. and I am pretty sure, that you have a beautiful gift, that you can share with the world. your existence is. so please show up!

if you want to learn more about being vulnerable, check out my article „the art of being vulnerable“.



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