I was talking with a friend yesterday who is going through a very hard time, and of all the emotions that have come up for them during this struggle (anger, despair, etc.), shame has been the most challenging emotion of all.
We all feel shame, and it’s perfectly OK to feel it. There’s nothing wrong with us if we feel shame — it’s a very human emotion.
But it isn’t very helpful in most situations, and so we can bring mindfulness to bear on the shame. And practice letting it go.
Before we can let go, it’s worthwhile to mindfully work with our shame.
What Shame Shows Us
When I said shame isn’t very helpful, I didn’t tell the full truth — actually, it’s very useful, in showing us what we think about ourselves.
When we feel shame, it usually is because we’ve done something that we think says something shameful about us. And so it shows us where we believe there is something wrong about us, something inadequate, ugly, unworthy of love.
Of course, that belief is not true. But in order to let go of that ingrained belief, we have to see it first. Shame shows us where that belief lies hidden.
I’ll give some examples from my own life:
- I’ve been overeating lately (an old habit of mine), which has led me to feeling overweight and not sexy. This has brought up feelings of shame about my body and lack of discipline. The shame says that I believe I’m ugly and undisciplined, and therefore inadequate and unworthy of love.
- I went through a very busy period lately where I dropped all of my cherished habits for a few weeks, like exercise and meditation and accountability. This brought up shame for not (again) being disciplined, but also not practicing what I preach. The shame says that I believe I’m undisciplined, an imposter, inadequate.
- I felt a lot of shame when I fell into debt. This brought up shame that showed my belief of being bad at finances, bad at taking care of my family, bad at being a father and provider. And again, inadequacy and unworthiness of being loved.
In the end, the core belief is that we are inadequate and unworthy of being loved. But the reason we believe those is that we believe we haven’t lived up to some expectation: being successful, being lean, being disciplined, being generous, being a contributor to society, being environmentally conscious, etc. The expectations are in our minds, but they were given to us by society’s messaging, since birth. These expectations and beliefs are not so solid as we believe. Once we can see them, we can bring mindfulness practices to work with them.
Mindfully Working with the Beliefs That Cause Shame
It can be helpful to write down the beliefs that are causing us to feel shame, or to speak them aloud (perhaps to another person, like a trusted friend or therapist). Getting them out of our heads helps us to get clear on them. And sometimes saying them out loud can make them feel a little silly. I’ve found that true for myself — saying a belief out loud to another person takes away some of its power, maybe shows me how hard I am on myself.
So once we’ve said it out loud or written it down, let’s look at how to bring mindfulness practices into the equation:
- Let yourself feel the shame. We don’t often let ourselves actually feel this emotion, because we don’t like it. Instead, open your heart and actually feel the shame in your body. Be curious about it: what does it feel like? Where is it located in your body? What temperature, texture, flavor does it have? See it with brand new eyes, with beginner’s mind.
- Ask yourself whether the belief is true. If you believe you’re undisciplined, ask youself, “Is it true that I’m undisciplined?” It might feel very true and solid, but in asking this question, let there be space for the possibility that it’s not true at all, or at least not completely true. Have you ever been a little disciplined? Are there examples you can point to where the belief wasn’t entirely true? Let the belief feel less solid.
- See your basic goodness. If at the heart of our shame is the belief that we’re somehow inadequate, not good enough … then it’s worthwhile to see that actually we are good. We have a basic goodness at our core. Do this meditation on your basic goodness, and start to trust that this goodness is there all the time.
- Give yourself compassion & love. If you have a belief that you are unworthy of love … you can immediately disprove that by giving yourself love. First, practice the muscle of love & compassion by feeling it for someone else. Imagine someone you love dearly, and picture them having difficulty — send them compassion, a genuine wish for their suffering to end, a genuine wish for their happiness. Feel what this feels like, and where it’s coming from in your heart. Next, try it for yourself: pour out the same feelings of love & compassion from the same place in your heart, but towards yourself. You are suffering as well, and deserve your own love & compassion. Feel how it feels, and let this be proof that you are worthy of love.
If you practice in this way, you might start to loosen your beliefs that cause shame, and let yourself feel trust in your basic goodness and worthiness of love. And if you do that, the shame might start to drift away, not needed any longer. What would you be left with if you didn’t have the shame?