Self-compassion: The Inner Resource that Transforms Shame
“I am a bad person and do not deserve love.”
“I will never get this right because I am loser.”
“I can’t be seen wearing a bathing suit because my body is flawed.”
These are the types of all stories we tell ourselves when we feel shame.
Of the myriad of human emotions — from happiness, gratitude and love to anger, fear, and sadness — shame is arguably the most distressing of them all. Shame is an innocent emotion that arises from a desire to belong and to be loved. But it is also an overwhelming, painful feeling caused by a self-judgment of our inadequacy, defectiveness, unworthiness or the belief that we are unacceptable, undeserving and unlovable as we are.
Shame often underlies other difficult emotions, such as anger, fear, and despair. And when we can’t move through these emotions, shame may be the reason. Until we address the root cause, these emotions and behaviors associated with shame will be difficult to manage. For example, in recovery from an eating disorder, a persistent fear may arise from feeling scared about how you will cope without your behaviors, which may be entangled with feeling that you are a loser and aren’t deserving of living a recovered life. Shame negatively affects your belief that you can change and can keep you stuck.
WHAT MAKES SHAME SO HARMFUL?
In contrast to guilt — which is an awareness of when we’ve simply done something bad or wrong — shame presents itself in a way to make us feel that we are bad, or that there’s something inherently wrong with us. To clarify: guilt is a focus on behavior, and shame is a focus on self. This is important because, according to Brené Brown, shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, suicide, bullying, and eating disorders. Whereas guilt, which allows us to separate who we are from our behaviors and to address behaviors that need to change without tearing away our worth, is inversely correlated with these outcomes.
Although shame is a temporary feeling, it compels us to recall the reasons why — both past and present — we feel shame, and relive those moments during which we felt the pain. We think about how we are less than others, inadequate, or small. This makes us want to hide or close ourselves off from ourselves and those around us.
Because of its pervasive nature, shame damages the image we have of ourselves in ways no other emotion can. It causes us to feel as though we are deeply flawed in some way, that we are inferior and worthless. And not only does it convince us of our own feelings, it also convinces us that others feel the same about us as well.
Shame is the root of self-loathing, which can lead to self-destructive habits behaviors such as self-neglect, self-harm, and self-sabotage. It can even cause us to repeat the cycle in the form of abuse toward others. Most importantly, as shame causes us to dismiss our value by convincing us we are worth little, we start believing we deserve little.
The truth is, you deserve the exact opposite! You deserve to feel your worthiness and innate goodness. You deserve to know you are enough and lovable just as you are. You deserve to care for yourself the way you wish to be cared for.
HOW SELF-COMPASSION COUNTERACTS SHAME
Like receiving empathy from another, practicing self-compassion has a similar effect on shame. In fact, the three elements of self-compassion help counteract the three elements of shame in the following way:
Mindfulness addresses the silence of shame. It allows us to be aware of our experience of shame and not over-identify with it or avoid it.
Common humanity addresses the secrecy of shame. Knowing it is human to feel shame provides connection because we are not alone in how we feel, and challenges the belief there is something wrong with us, which can feel isolating.
Self-kindness addresses the judgment of shame. Rather than talking to ourselves harshly, we treat ourselves with care, understanding and support that we need because of the difficult experience of shame.
The next time you find yourself feeling shame and have the urge to withdraw or lash out and blame another, treat yourself to a kind dose of self-compassion (a delightful blend of mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness) by doing the following:
Mindfulness: Acknowledge the feeling or thoughts of shame. Bring awareness to the sensations of shame in your body or notice your thoughts about being inadequate, defective or unworthy. Name what you are experiencing as shame kindly to yourself, the way you would name it for a dear friend experiencing the same thing. “Oh, it sounds like you are feeling shame.”
Common humanity: Although shame makes you feel separate and alone, remind yourself that everyone experiences shame, and it connects you to humanity. It is human to feel shame, and you are not alone because there are others right now who feel the way you do.
Self-kindness: See if you can meet your experience with warmth and care. Remember that shame is an innocent emotion arising from your universal human need to be loved. You might try putting your hand on your heart and feel the gentle touch of your care. Try offering yourself the following words, “ I’m sorry that I’m feeling this way.” You can also remind yourself that you are still a good person even when you feel inadequate or flawed, and that you don’t need to be perfect to belong or to be loved. You might even practice the following self-compassion phrase, “May I love and accept myself, just as I am.” Let go of your wish for shame to go away, and allow your feelings to be just as they are. Notice any shifts in how you feel as you hold this part of yourself with loving connection.
Fortunately, self-compassion has been shown to be a powerful inner resource that we can access during any moment of struggle, including when we experience shame. By identifying how we experience shame, we can begin to be with this painful emotion with self-compassion by responding to ourselves with the same care, understanding and reassurance we would give a loved one suffering in the same way. And, as we practice and strengthen the skill of self-compassion, we can be with the emotional wounds that often underlying the feelings of shame when they arise. As we are able to be with those difficult and traumatic memories with compassion, those wounds can begin to heal, and we can reclaim our true worth.
In order to truly recover from the negative outcomes of shame, including eating disorders, depression, and addictions, among others, we must acknowledge that those shame messages that we internalized from earlier experiences really aren’t true, so we can let them go. As we heal the emotional wounds underlying our shame, we can begin to change the narrative we tell ourselves. With self-compassion, we have to emotional resources to own our life story and live with authenticity and wholeheartedness.
So today, and every day, give yourself the gift of love you deserve by showing yourself compassion in the face of shame. Self-compassion has the power to change your life.