“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.”
Have you ever had one of those moments when something in you mind clicks and you start thinking bad thoughts about yourself? Or have you suddenly felt overcome with emotion or anger?
Most of us (men and women) at some time in our lives have experienced shame and the impact we feel from our triggers. You might feel shame because of a single traumatic event, repeated abuse by someone close to you, or because of pressure to change yourself by society or your family. There are many different reasons why we feel shame.
I’ve struggled with shame all my life. My shame was brought on by years of emotional abuse. I still have those moments when I feel worthless and powerless.
Even though shame might not go away completely, there are a few things you can do to become stronger and more resilient to shame, and have a more meaningful life.
Show empathy to others and you will feel belonging
In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) Brene Brown explains that empathy is critical to “shame resilience”.
“If you put shame in a petri dish and cover it with judgement, silence, and secrecy, it grows out of control until it consumes everything in sight- you have basically provided shame with the environment it needs to thrive. On the other hand, if you put shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, shame loses power and starts to fade. Empathy creates a hostile environment for shame- it can’t survive.”
Courage, compassion, and connection go alongside empathy in building shame resilience. It takes the courage to talk about the experience that led to your shame and how you feel. Being compassionate is listening to someone’s story and helping them through their shame. And with courage and compassion you make connections.
You can’t expect people to be empathetic and compassionate to you without giving it back to them. The next time you reach out to them for compassion you won’t get it. This creates disconnection.
Brene Brown says, “If feeling connected is feeling valued, accepted, worthy, and affirmed, then feeling disconnected is feeling diminished, rejected, unworthy, and reduced.”
“…storytelling, the story you tell yourself about yourself.”
When something traumatic happens to us, that experience can change our views on life and our sense of self worth.
Psychologist Dr. Shelly Uram says that traumas come in big and small events. The big events are like car accidents and the small ones are like an argument. She explains that the brain stores both kinds of traumas as “a threat that we can’t control.”
Stop telling yourself that you don’t deserve love or success. This creates a story that stays with you and hinders you from having a meaningful life. “But we don’t always realize that we’re the authors of our stories and can change the way we’re telling them. Your life isn’t just a list of events. You can edit, interpret, and retell your story, even as your constrained by the facts.”, says Emily Esfahani Smith in her TED Talk There’s More To Life Than Being Happy.
So your story could be “I’m stupid, I’m fat, I can’t do anything right.” Or your story could be “I’m smart, I’m beautiful, I’m strong, and I can do anything. When this traumatic event happened to me I felt shame and powerlessness. But now I believe in myself and I know that there is nothing stopping me from accomplishing my goals.”
It’s not about changing yourself. Your story is about seeing the good that is inside you and loving yourself. If you do that you will have a meaningful life and become shame resilient.
“The psychologist Dan McAdams calls this a “redemptive story” where the bad is redeemed by the good.”, says Esfahani Smith, “People leading meaningful lives, he’s found, tend to tell stories about their lives defined by redemption, growth, and love.”
Change Your Environment
When feeling shame, we hide behind metaphorical “shame screens”. Brene Brown explains “When we experience shame, our first layer of defense often occurs involuntarily. It goes back to our primal flight, fight, and freeze response.”
We can’t change how often or when this happens. But if we change our environment we can come a little closer to shame resilience.
You work hard to identify your shame triggers, speak up about your struggles, and find connections. But you still may have trouble overcoming your shame. “No matter how much internal resolve you have, you will fail to change your life if you don’t change your environment” says Benjamin Hardy in his Medium article Willpower Doesn’t Work: Here’s How to Actually Change Your Life.
In Willpower Doesn’t Work Hardy compares setting goals to overcoming addiction. He says, “If you’re trying to stop drinking alcohol, you must stop being 1) around people that drink alcohol and 2) at places that serve alcohol. You need to truly decide you’re done, to commit, and then to create an environment to make the success of your commitment inevitable.”
Shame is not an addiction. But if you want to be shame resilient it’s very important that you avoid or at least limit the environments that trigger your shame.
Seeing the same people and going to the same places that have made you feel shame will stop you from going forward. It will not only prevent you from becoming shame resilient. it will also make you drift further away from building your sense of self-worth.
Originally published at medium.com