By Shannon McQuaid, LMFT, LISAC, CDWF, CSAT-C, Executive Director/Clinical Director at Promises Scottsdale
Shame has been referred to as the “silent epidemic.” Although it’s something we all deal with, it’s still considered a taboo topic. Just the mention of the word “shame” can make us shy away and withdraw. But when we live in silence, secrecy and self-judgment, we’re more likely to take an unhealthy road. We get stuck hiding behind defense mechanisms and we easily fall into behaviors meant to mask the symptoms of our pain.
Shame underlies all addictions and can be a secret source of many other troubles, including;
Fear of disconnection. We worry others will learn a horrible truth about us that will cause them to disconnect or disapprove. We all need a sense of belonging and to know that we are loved and loveable.
Isolation. Shame can be isolating, which is detrimental to various areas of health. For instance, studies have found a link between shame and depression. We also see people suffering from spiritual emptiness. In general, human beings are not wired to live alone. When shame separates us from others it has a significant impact.
Suicidal thoughts. If someone has so much shame that they feel badly about the person they are innately, they may be overcome with thoughts of self-hatred. This, along with other factors, can lead to suicidal thinking and behaviors.
Hiding shame makes it an even bigger problem in our lives. But the minute we begin to talk about it, wrap words around it and share stories with others, it takes the power out of shame.
Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, is a leader in shame resilience education. In Shame Resilience Theory, she explains how group work can help with understanding and managing shame. She developed The Daring WayTM program, which provides a framework for the curriculum in the groups we offer at Promises Scottsdale. Here are some of the ways we help clients loosen the grip of shame:
- Uncover the origins of shame. If we don’t at least investigate where our shame comes from, it can begin to run our lives. We live by it, consciously and unconsciously. Although we can’t completely get rid of shame, getting to know where it originated can help us begin to change the unhealthy patterns it has created in our lives.
- Understand triggers. We have to identify and understand triggers in order to develop shame resilience. Maybe we feel judged when we visit a critical relative or we self-judge when we look in a mirror. Preparing for these moments can prevent decisions and reactions we may regret later.
- Embrace self-compassion. When shame rules us we can be ruthless with ourselves. But self-compassion can be an antidote. It helps to have a calming phrase we can say to ourselves, such as stay strong and stay authentic to who I am. It also helps to have a friend who can empathize and remind us to be gentle with ourselves.
- Practice vulnerability. Many of us live by the myth that vulnerability is a weakness and instead tell ourselves I can do it alone or I don’t need other people. We must be brave enough to allow vulnerability and strength to exist at the same time. Owning the idea that there is power in our imperfect human nature can help greatly.
- Develop trusting relationships. Shame goes hand in hand with trust issues since the original source of shame often involves being hurt or shamed by another. Working through shame can be powerful when we share with people who will listen without judgment.
- Identify personal values. It’s important to know: What are my values and how do I act on those on a daily basis? When we become congruent with our values, there’s inner peace and external alignment. If we feel one thing on the inside and we’re acting differently on the outside, we’re not in alignment and that alone can cause shame.
- Honor the authentic self. We put on different facades and ways to distance ourselves from pain. This often keeps the shame living within us, versus removing those masks and exposing who we are. It is urgent that we get to know who we intrinsically are. The goal is to reveal our real selves, live authentically and reach our truest potential.
- Create a new story. Ultimately, we must learn to let old messages of shame roll through us and to assert that those messages are things that we picked up and, though shameful, really aren’t true. We can change the narrative we’ve carried inside and rewrite our life stories. Using these techniques we can seize the opportunity make a fresh start in our lives.