The first task to building shame resilience is becoming aware, as best as you can, of the feelings of shame that you do have. Its harder than it sounds because shame mostly works at an unconscious level. You have to become a bit of a mind detective and work backwards.
Before exploring your shame effects, you might want to have dipped into the articles about shame effects first (opens in a new tab). It also helps to be aware of how you feel shame, so you can be more mindful of the effects.
When I first started thinking about my own effects of shame, I thought of more simple, obvious things like anger outbursts, being critical about others, or becoming distant in my relationships with people.
Other more subtle effects were expecting people to not really notice me, feeling like it would be wrong somehow to talk to a stranger, and being rubbish at imagining positive outcomes for personal projects.
Later, I began to recognise shame in more sinister, insidious ways.
I’d let certain opportunities slip through my fingers because I didn’t feel I was worthy of them – surely I wasn’t good enough to achieve something like that. If I reached out for things that were too high, I’d be “found out” as not being good enough, and made to feel shame and embarrassment.
I realised that whilst playing games for an hour or so or getting addicted to seasons of a TV show, I would notice those typical feelings of shame. It was another effect of shame – procrastination – a way of delaying the possible fears I’d face if I really pushed forward and challenged myself.
I hadn’t updated my ancient, shitty inefficient Peugeot 206 like my brother kept suggesting I should. My conscious excuse? Because it still gets me from A to B, and I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of finding a car, going out for test-drives, and spending a bunch of money.
The real reason?
I deep down saw myself as the kind of person who would probably drive a shitty a Peugeot 206.
The idea of buying a newer, better car more in line with my income these days posed a psychological threat – what if I didn’t feel deserving, or worthy of it? I know it sounds ridiculous now, but shame really is ridiculous. There’s nothing rational about it.
Since, I’ve discovered many more ways that I have been, and sometimes still am, affected by feelings of shame.
Its an ongoing process.
Work backwards from actions or behaviours
Sometimes you won’t have the controlling luxury of being aware of shame feelings.
They’ll just be automatically doing their thing, below the surface, and you’ll be getting the consequences instead – the shame effects.
Maybe you had an angry outburst.
You flaked out on a social engagement, and made a rubbish excuse (to them as well as to yourself).
You didn’t listen to someone properly, even though they clearly needed your help or support on something.
You thought that someone didn’t like you, without any actual evidence.
You offended someone somehow, pushed them away, then hated yourself for it.
You found yourself hiding behind a prop or distraction.
You realised that you talked too much in a conversation, dropping achievements or experiences, like it was some competition.
You found yourself being the talker rather than listener – always answering rather than asking.
You became overly critical of something, focusing on the negative qualities and talking yourself out of liking it.
You became overly critical of some one – talking to someone else about their “flaws” or annoyances.
You joined in with some negative criticisms that others were dishing out, as a way to feel liked, even though you knew it was bad deep down.
You found yourself moaning or whinging about something that you could do something about, but chose not to.
You got caught in an argument with someone over what you imagined they meant, rather than what they actually said.
You felt embarrassed to talk to someone you know in public, because of your appearance.
You traded better quality for a cheaper price, even if you could afford both, because you’re “that sort of person”.
You change when talking to your manager at work, as if they’re above you in more ways than just corporate structure.
You find yourself putting much more effort into saving money, than making money (when the time would be worth more by doing the latter).
You notice that your friends bring you down and don’t encourage you – because you somehow attracted these people into your life rather than people who would be more caring.
That’s a pretty long list – and hopefully you can now think of your own moments where you think…
“Hmm, something’s not right here. Surely I’m better than this?”
Get good at spotting those moments!
Becoming more aware of the patterns
When you get shame-triggered, your effects are likely to fall within one of three main tendencies:
Retreating – this is where you close down, walk away, avoid something, cancel at late notice, appear “flaky”, go all quiet and shy, “freeze up”. Normally its a crisis of confidence, courage or even just knowing how to act appropriately to get through the moment. It feels like all avenues lead to shame triggers, so your mind tries to protect you by escaping, avoiding, withdrawing, retreating. Lying and denial are also examples of this.
Attacking – this is where you tend towards power, which may be in the form of aggression, anger, or “one-up-manship” where you use passive aggression to belittle someone else when feeling shame. It includes becoming louder in an argument, sudden outbursts, criticising or shaming someone, guilt-tripping, using implication or manipulation to “bring someone down” in an attempt to make yourself better. This tendency will depend on how confident you feel, the nature of the shame trigger, and the dynamics with anyone you’re in the situation with. It will be far more likely within couples and family members, than an employee to their boss for example (although the other way round is perfectly likely).
Connecting – after a shame trigger, you might immediately seek approval, warmth, care and empathy from someone. Its the tendency that gives you the opportunity to share your story and discuss your feelings with someone else. Its clearly the most constructive and beneficial approach, and can be really effective at neutralising the underlying shame (and even prevent the trigger from happening again, if handled well). Unfortunately though, its the least common approach too. This is because its really hard to always have people around that you can trust enough to have the courage to be vulnerable. With practice though, the feeling of threat and shame that comes from feeling vulnerable will also soon subside, so you’ll build courage to become more authentic and honest about a person. Rather than fighting or running away from shame, you can let it flow through until it runs out and is gone for good. Be wary though, what might look like connecting could also be attention seeking in disguise. Connecting is seeking attention for a wholesome reason, but you need to make sure that you’re honest and aware about the shame being shared, and not just using the opportunity for approval because of some other form of shame which isn’t being shared.
Share your shame awareness
If you manage to recognise your own shame effects and tendencies, then please share them!
It would be great to hear what you realised, recognised or learned about situations specific to your life.
Then, maybe others could feel more “normal” and relate to what you’ve written, and share more stories, empathy or encouragement.