The Gifts of Shame
Shame tends to be viewed as this negative emotion that we shouldn’t talk about, let alone experience. Very seldom do people talk about the gifts of shame, and the growth that emerges when facing your shame. Shame doesn’t have to be this huge dark cloud of self-doubt, self-loathing, and fear of failure that follows you around in secret constantly. As a therapist here in Philadelphia I often see clients treat shame like it’s a stack of bills they can’t pay. They shove their unpaid bills in a drawer in the kitchen as a way to avoid their debt and the fear involved. The bills continue to pile up until it’s this overwhelming reality, and stack of debt that is too scary to face. The same thing can happen with feelings of shame as you continue to avoid it. It can become this overwhelming stack of negative thoughts and emotions too scary to unpack. Shame offers many gifts to those who face their fear of experiencing their shame and simply sit with it, rather than run away. Shame helps us take risks, be vulnerable, connect to others, and so much more.
What happens when we don’t face our shame? Avoid and it piles up (like the bills), making it harder to face. Blaming others, impairing friendship and significant relationships, numbing, which in turn will numb and negatively impact other areas of our life.
First off, almost every single person experiences shame. The only individuals who lack this emotion are the same individuals who lack the skill of empathy. Feeling shame is inevitable for most of us, it’s something that is better to accept than deny. Recognizing and accepting the shame (as opposed to running away from the feeling) allows us to fully experience all range of emotions and all types of experiences (the positive and negative). Shame does not have to be such a bad thing. It can drive us, connect us, and inspire us.
Here are a few gifts that shame can bring:
Humility. Shame is like the antithesis of narcissism. Similar to containment and connection, shame reminds us we are just like everyone else, with similar experiences and similar worries. Shame keeps us aware and honest about who we are, our strengths and weaknesses, and what we can handle. It keeps us from falling too far into the “superhero complex.”
Connection. To admit shame means you’re saying “I experience these things to.” “I have an inner critic too.” This increases your ability to relate to others and vice versa. This is the potential to create more intimacy in relationships, and allow for empathy on both ends. Nothing is more comforting than to hear from a close friend they can relate and share in similar emotional struggles. It reminds us that we are not alone, and we don’t have to do this alone. When we have shame we want to hide. Shame keeps us disconnected from others, which only adds to and exacerbates our shame. Ideally when we have shame we should be reaching out to those we deem trustworthy and capable, to share our story and create connection.
Vulnerability. You can’t have shame without vulnerability. To face your shame means to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable means you have courage, it means you take risks. When we take risks it means we are open and susceptible to failure, but we are also capable of success and achievement. Meaning, you can’t have achievement and the willingness to take risks and dare for greatness without shame.
Increases your ability of being present. To have the skill and the honesty to recognize your own shame, it can give you insight into how and why shame impacts you the way it does. To learn how to work with the shame, as opposed to against it, you need to learn how it impacts you in each role you take on in your daily life.
Containment. Just like most people experience shame, most people also experience a large ego at times. Shame can keep us grounded. Before we get ahead of ourselves and develop too much pride, ego, or success, when shame occurs in these moments it’s a humbling way to remind us we’re only human, and we’re just like everyone else. It can also keep us from acting out and making unhealthy choices.
Owning your story.
Owning and experiencing your shame is the gateway to living fully and in the here and now. Shame is the gateway to vulnerability, which leads to courage, which can lead to having enough courage to take risks and do great things. However, it’s important to remember there is no greatness without shame. What is required in facing your shame is simple, it’s acknowledging that it’s there. It’s not necessarily about wearing it on your sleeve and shouting your fears and regrets everywhere you go. It’s about not turning to unhealthy behaviors as a way to numb or hide the shame. It’s about turning to your spouse and saying, “Hey I’m feeling pretty awful right now.” It’s about writing your true feelings down in your journal and being able to look back and challenge the shame. In order to experience the gifts of shame, or to even learn strategies on how to mange your shame, you need to first have the vulnerability and courage to acknowledge that it exists.
We are all perfectly imperfect. There is only so much we can handle in a day, and only so much we control. Shame is an opportunity to admit that you are not an island, and that you need people you can trust and share your thoughts and feelings with. Whether we are parents, partners, siblings, etc. we all need support from other people in our life. The more support and connection we have with others, the less chance shame has of surviving.