Releasing Shame (Part 2): Talking to the Voices
Shame can spiral and spread or it can be a huge learning opportunity. Shame can trigger inaction and imbalance or it can lead to a much stronger sense of self. What can we do in these moments when shame arises? If you didn’t read my last post on shame, here’s the gist: Shame is really the root of a lot of other emotions like fear, anger, or depression. And shame is sneaky.
The emotions of shame and fear can be pretty tricky to untangle. Take for example, one of my own fears of public speaking. It may feel as though you’re afraid of real things that can happen, tripping and falling or stuttering. However, what’s very likely underneath those fears are shame. Fear says “what if I fall?” while shame says “what if I’m not good enough? What if I’m not elegant, smooth, or knowledgable enough? What if I fail?”
Another example, a friend discloses to you that they’re angry with you for x reason (e.g, being late, saying something sassy, not being there for her, etc.) and you get defensive. What’s often underneath defensiveness is shame, the thought that “maybe I did do something wrong and that makes me a BAD person”. We take the action we did and make it about who we are. This is what shame is all about.
Sitting with shame is one of the most difficult things to do. It requires not falling into the secondary emotions (anger, blame, resentment, sadness) and actually recognizing the emotion as shame. To give you a good clue when it’s shame: Shame likes phrases like “not enough” “too much” “not worthy” “not deserving” and “not lovable”. Shame makes us feel really vulnerable and weak. It’s difficult to sit with and acknowledge without reacting to. Here are a few tools I’ve learned to address and release shame at the root.
As I always say, you can’t address a painful emotion until you fully get to know it. So to get some clarity, put the shame into this phrase.
“This makes me feel like I’m not _________ enough”
Write down all of the things you’re feeling about yourself or are afraid others will think about you. Get really specific. It’s really important to understand and get clear on what you’re your specific triggers are. Are you afraid they’ll all think you’re not smart enough? Are you feeling like you’re a terrible partner? What areas of life do your specific shame spots relate to? Are there patterns?
2) Recognizing Internalized Voices:
Shame is often (but not always) those old internalized voices you’ve carried with you for a long time. These can be the voices of our parents, siblings, friends, teachers, anyone you looked up to, anyone who really had an impact on your sense of self. These voices from the past can then turn into the critical voices inside our heads. We confuse these voices as our own, often not even realizing that what we are experiencing are critical, shame-inducing thoughts. Our bodies know and respond to these states with sensations like anxiety, pain or tightness in the chest, and other somatic responses.
So, consider times you felt shame in the past. Maybe you recall instances from last month or 20 years ago. Perhaps you remember specific moments or just general feelings. Whatever the case, begin to write down:
Who were the people involved or what was the situation like?
How did the people around you respond/interpret the situation?
How did you respond to the feelings of shame?
Sit or lay down with the intention to sit with the feeling of shame. Take deep breaths, notice where you feel it in your body. If no specific memories come up, try asking the feeling of shame how old it is. Then imagine yourself at that age. Greet younger you and ask her to take you on a journey, to show you anything she wants to show you. Let her be your guide.
3) Give ‘Em The Soapbox
The shamey voices in your head are hard to listen to. We often want nothing more than to shut them out. However, I’ve found that the most effective way to release shame is to actually give these voices, these characters inside your head a soapbox and let them rant like crazy. This does several things:
First it gives you distance from them. You realize they are not you and they are just parts of you. Second, it can add some humor as you build a character around them. Maybe the part of you want feels you’re not smart enough is Dr. Sally Smartpants who just loves to walk around in a pantsuit and thinks she’s the shit. Third, it allows you to talk to them face to face, to get to know them, what they want and need and desire.
Here’s the thing about the critical voices in your head - all of them are just trying to protect you and get what they need, whether that’s safety, recognition, to be understood, or to feel loved. They should not run the show or control your actions. They don’t get to sit in the drivers seat while telling you all these criticisms about yourself. BUT they do deserve a voice because they all have good intentions for you, they just don’t know how to show it sometimes. That’s your work here - to not fully give in nor deny them, at all costs don’t fight with them, your job is just to listen. The trick is to simply ask what they want for you, and what they need. And then….give it to them.
For example: Dr Sally Smartypants probably just wants to be recognized for her achievements or to have her wisdom shared and acknowledged. Perhaps she thinks she is saving you from embarrassment by being so hard on you about your intellect, she knows you can do better than those silly spelling mistakes. You can let her know her approach isn’t helpful but thank her for supporting your learning and education. THEN give her the acknowledgement she wants. Tell her she’s fucking brilliant or better yet, look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself how brilliant you are. Her job will be done as soon as you are able to fill her (your) need.
What would it feel like to be “_______enough?” Close your eyes and envision this feeling. What would it look like? How would your life be different? How would you spend your time? How would you hold your body? How would you show up differently? Most importantly, focus on how you feel, not what others will think.
Shame feeds on approval seeking. It’s a hard habit to quit for all of us but the first step is noticing and giving the power back to yourself. What is it like to feel proud of yourself? What is it like to feel worthy? What is it like to trust yourself?
Taking the driver’s seat
Recognize that fear and shame will still be around, it’s a natural part of the human experience. But when your passions and desires come first, fear and shame will take a back seat. Imagine you’re driving. There’s no way you’re going to let shame and fear have shotgun - they could take control of the wheel and throw you off course. You can’t throw them out of the car, they’ll just grab onto your bumper or tailgate you from behind which can be very dangerous. You can’t ignore them, but you can put them safely in the backseat. You can see them, hear their occasional outbursts, but you’re still moving forward anyways. With the foot still on the gas pedal, you build more courage and more trust in yourself each moment.