Like everyone else, I, too, am no stranger to shame. Sometimes it can pop up out of nowhere, catching me off guard and hijacking my emotions. Other times, it is a slow-building crescendo, gradually suffocating me under its weight. Shame has a way of making me want to retreat, to make myself small, and disappear from sight. It’s as if an inner critic grabs a microphone and steps onto a soapbox, delivering a relentless assault on my self-worth, leaving me feeling like a waste of space, unlikable, and devoid of any usefulness.
In the depths of my shame, I long for an easing of the pressures, for a way to loosen the chains that hold me captive. I seek inspiration in the wisdom and experience of those who have struggled before me, who have navigated the swampy lands of shame and eventually found themselves in a place where shame no longer had a soapbox.
The Straight and Narrow
There is a place in my life for healthy shame, the type of shame that reminds me to wash in the morning before I get dressed; the type of shame that let’s the disabled elder lady take my seat in the train; the type of shame that awakens me that it has been too long ago that I called my aging parents.
Healthy shame keeps us on the straight and narrow, and act like fellow citizens, fellow human beings.
Toxic shame, however, has nothing to do with the ‘straight and narrow’. Toxic shame risks being as self-obsessed as grandiosity is. That all and everything is about me: they way they looked at me, they way they snubbed me, the way they refused to give me a discount, the way a partner had an affair. “It must all be because I am not a worthy human being…”
There is no redeeming feature in or of toxic shame.
All it does is a steady corrosion of my sense of self and my place in the world, the tribe, my family, my marriage.
Origins of Shame: Shame Too Stands on the Shoulders of Giants
From an evolutionary psychology perspective, shame can be understood as a primal emotion that served a crucial role in our ancestors’ survival and social cohesion.
In our ancestral past, living in close-knit communities was essential for protection, resource sharing, and cooperation. To maintain social harmony and ensure their place within the group, individuals needed to adhere to certain societal norms and expectations. Deviation from these norms could lead to rejection or exclusion, compromising one’s chances of survival.
The punitive power of exile kept individuals in check, ensuring that nothing untoward could happen to challenge the stability of the group. The fear of such exile, which would have meant guaranteed death for the individual, became internalized. Before the tribe could punish the deeds, thoughts, or wishes of the individual, they would go into self-exile. Today, shame can still compel us to flee a group and seek solace in isolated spaces like a toilet cubicle or a chalet in the mountains.
Perfectly Imperfect: Embracing the Human Experience
While shame may have served an important role in our past, it is essential to recognize that we no longer depend on it for survival in the same way.
One powerful mantra that resonates deeply with me is from Pia Melody, an insightful author and expert on shame and self-esteem. She encourages us to embrace our imperfections and hold ourselves in warm regard. The mantra, “I am perfectly imperfect, and I hold myself in warm regard,” serves as a powerful relief from the relentless need for perfection. Some breathing space where I can look in the mirror and simply observe the man on the other side: no judgments (neither affirmations nor negations), just presence.
Melody’s wisdom reminds us that we are all “perfectly imperfect.” Embracing imperfection means acknowledging that we are fallible beings, bound to make mistakes and experience shortcomings. It is an invitation to let go of the unrealistic expectation of perfection and accept ourselves with compassion and understanding.
By embracing imperfection, we move shame off it’s soapbox and free ourselves from the burdensome weight of self-judgment. We shift our focus from self-criticism to self-acceptance, recognizing that our worth is not contingent on meeting external standards but rooted in our inherent humanity.
Navigating the Maze of Shame
Alongside Pia Melody’s wisdom, I’ve encountered the teachings of others who have walked their own paths out of paralysing and damaging shame. Terry Real, a renowned family therapist, emphasizes the distinction between healthy shame and toxic shame. Healthy shame acts as a guide, prompting us to reflect on our actions and make amends when necessary. Toxic shame, on the other hand, cripples us with feelings of unworthiness and self-hatred. Understanding this difference allowed me to break free from the stranglehold of toxic shame and reclaim a sense of self, beyond the ever-nagging grinding voices of inner or outer judgments or a never-ending quest for external approval or validation.
Self-Compassion as a Calming Balm
On my path, I have slowly experienced the transformative potential of some basic amount of “kindness to self”: I am really not the worst human to have ever roamed planet Earth, I really am not this horrible of a person that my inner critic sometimes makes me out to be, and most of my mistakes are not the result of some fundamentally flawed moral wiring.
Author Kristin Neff gave me some pointers in her books and presentations: invitations to handle ourselves with kindness and understanding, while acknowledging our shared humanity. It is through self-compassion that we can create a safe haven within ourselves, offering solace in moments of pain and imperfection. With self-compassion, I have learned to embrace my mistakes and flaws with gentle understanding, allowing the nagging voices of self-criticism fade away enough to no longer be a daily presence. Acceptance, or so I seemed to have had to learn, is meaningless if it doesn’t originate within myself. There is no amount of validation out there in the world that could possibly fill the inner void if I don’t first mend the leaks and slowly allow the pond to fill.
Taming Shame: Embracing Vulnerability and Connection
And one of the funniest, most paradoxical findings has been, for me, that this easing of shame was not to be found in hardening my defences and sticking affirming statements on post-its on my mirror to repeat every morning. It was by moving into my own imperfections deeply, curiously and kindly that the shame started yielding. It was in confirming my worst fear that I, indeed, am not perfect. That I am flawed, human, bound to make mistakes. And to own those aspects of myself. Not with pride or shame – but simply as an observation, with no judgment.
Brené Brown, a leading researcher on shame and vulnerability, has studied extensively the path to authentic living. Based on years of research into what generates connection among people, Brown encourages us to step into vulnerability as an act of courage, rejecting the notion that it signifies weakness. Embracing vulnerability allows us to forge genuine relationships with others and fosters a deep sense of belonging. Through vulnerability, I have discovered that my worthiness does not rely on external achievements or the approval of others, but on my ability to embrace my true self and connect with others authentically.
Making peace with my own imperfections and seeing them curiously as parts of myself is far from linear and simple. It is a series of steps forward, moments of new insights where my neural pathways can experiment with new connections, and setbacks. For me, curiosity has become a good mate. “What the heck is this nasty judgment going to do beneficially? What good can I do with this shame? What is this an echo of? Where do I still have some inner work to do? What is it I fear? Who’s approval am I seeking?”
And then, more assertively: “So, yeah – I made a mistake, I lost my temper or made a bad choice – so what? Here’s the trick, you nasty inner critic, you spreader of doubt and you grinder of good moods: I did a bad thing, and now I am going to repair, I am going to apologise, I am going to learn, I am going to make an amend. And that is it…! I’m done with the inner drama.”
Each step is me getting closer to experiencing life more fully, more completely, more present. With more serenity and inner silence.
Embracing your own imperfections is a powerful act of self-acceptance and a stepping stone towards a more fulfilling and authentic life.
As I often say to clients when they leave my room: