Releasing Shame to Reclaim Your Self-Worth

When we keep shame hidden, it has a way of taking hold of our spirit.

pikepicture/Getty Images
pikepicture/Getty Images

Identifying and confronting the root causes of shame allows you to release yourself from its limiting clutches and reclaim your self-worth.

On this grand life adventure, we all suffer, we all have hurts, and at some point or another we all experience shame.

When we keep shame hidden, it has a way of taking hold of our spirit. It has a way of tricking us into thinking we aren’t enough just as we are. When we let shame guide our path, we minimize who we are. Through our suffering, we fuel shame’s power over us.

We all have stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Some of our stories help us, but some of our stories harm us. The stories that harm us are generally the ones we feel desperate to keep hidden in the dark. When we set our stories free, we shine light on what feels impossibly heavy and dark. When we lift the lid on the darkness of our shame, we begin to remember the essence of who we are.

Who we are, and our sense of self-worth, have nothing to do with what has happened in our lives because our spirit and worth are always intact. When we remove the dark cloak of shame, we begin to see ourselves. We start to remember we are so much more than the stories we tell ourselves.

Our hurts and our stories can keep us stuck in a lifetime of shame and guilt, or they can elevate us to our highest path — a path where we love who we are, no matter what dark storms we’ve traveled through, a path where we love ourselves all the more for all of our travels and all of our darkness and light.

Whatever our shame stories are, the content isn’t what is at the core of the pain; it is how we hang on to and hide shame that makes it painful and powerful.

Every time you hear someone else tell their shame story, if you are still hanging on to your own, you will believe with all your might that your shame is worse. And if you are still hanging on to your shame – you are right.

You may also tell yourself that your shame isn’t as bad as someone else’s and therefore trick yourself into believing it is okay to keep your shame hidden. Just remember, it is the hanging on that makes shame hurt us over and over; it is never the content – that part already happened, it is over now and it is okay to let it go.

Shame is really good at keeping our truth and voice hidden and safe. The danger in allowing shame to guide our journey is we never get the comfort of feeling like we are okay as we are. Instead, shame demands we must keep fueling it with the story that we aren’t enough. We keep the lid on our stories and shame loves to hide out in the dark. Mistakenly we begin to believe our shame story is part of who we are.

Removing the lid on my own shame story begins with a clear memory of what it was like to be eleven-years-old.

It was the best time of my life, though it would quickly become a dark and stormy stage of life. I was happy, healthy and well-liked by my peers. I was a natural athlete and excelled in track and field. I felt proud and strong in my athletic body; it helped me run like the wind! I remember that period of life and what it felt like to truly love myself with reckless abandon, to feel like all was right in the world.

I also remember the day this safe world would come crashing down and mark what would be the first time of many that I would look in the mirror with anguish and remorse for having to be this human being, this Emily. I went from being revered by my friends to being despised by them. The reason — obvious to me now, though unfathomable at the time — was that my light shined too bright. It made me an easy target.

I remember the day my friends became my bullies. They gathered together and swarmed me on the playground with hurtful words filled with hate. Earlier in the week, we had all exchanged our school pictures; now they stood before me and ripped my picture up. One by one they threw shreds of my happy, vibrant eleven-year-old self in my face. Some spit at me, while others stood back and watched. One thing was clear: Everyone was taking a stand and it was that I was no longer okay being this Emily.

I was devastated, but this was only the beginning of what would become months of physical threats, prank phone calls, and a targeted effort to dim my light. I eventually turned my back on myself and joined in on the belief that I was not enough, that I was unlovable. My mom stood by helpless as I sobbed night after night. We stopped answering the phone and my mom’s attempts to reach out to the parents of my former friends were brushed off with statements like, “Girls will be girls.”

Eventually I stopped crying myself to sleep and instead withdrew into a world of loneliness.

Stuck with the ‘me’ who everyone had figured out was deeply flawed, I began filling my days wishing I were different than I was. At night I would get a very temporary reprieve thanks to a recurring dream of being free: I could fly. It felt amazing! I would flap my arms and before I knew it I was soaring through the clouds with a sense of freedom and joy. But part way through the dream, something always went wrong. When I got really high up off the ground I would start to doubt my ability to fly and ended up crashing down to the ground. I would wake up in a panic and sweat. I couldn’t seem to escape my painful daytime thoughts that would follow me into my dreams. I felt so uncomfortable in my skin, even my athletic body that helped me run like the wind, began to feel bulky and out of place.

There was nothing surface about this shame; it cut deep and the story feeding it felt real. What I didn’t understand at the time was that turning my back on myself only perpetuated my shame. Disconnecting from my inner truth gave fuel to these girls, who together were powerful and daunting. But separately, these girls were regular 11-year-old human beings, with all of the same insecurities and vulnerabilities—the same ones I had. They weren’t experts on who Emily was at her core. I was the expert, but by believing their stories and responding in shame with my head hung, I had handed over my personal power and severed my connection to myself.

Months later, school counsellors finally intervened and gathered me and all the other girls together. They spent 15 minutes scolding us all for being catty. They didn’t seem to realize the depth of the damage done. I wanted to scream at everyone in the room, “Do you have any idea what this has been like? How horrible I feel, yet how badly I want back in?” Of course I said none of this, I just stuffed down my truth and sat with my hands firmly clasped on my desk and my head hung in shame. Hoping with every fiber of my being I would be allowed back in.

Luckily, we were all in a stage of life where a day can seem like a month, and a week felt like a year. Our flighty attention spans and elevated hormones helped my cause and I was finally dropped as a target and welcomed back in. Some other poor soul became the next target and on it seemed to go, with “girls being girls.” One by one, each girl had her turn to be rattled, none realizing the painful effect until she was on the receiving end of this girl-shaming.

There was a deep part of me forever changed that year.

Instead of celebrating hopeful rites of passage, like training bras and experimenting with eyeshadow, I skipped over light and happy and learned what it was like to bond with shame and befriend guilt in my eleventh year of life.

I was careful not to shine my light or stand out and be good at much of anything. It was dangerous to excel and there was no way I was going back to being the target. Instead I mastered the art of people pleasing, and I did that well and protected myself because nobody notices the artful people pleaser.

My eleventh year was about to get a little trickier. During summer break I had a terrible bicycle accident where I flipped over the handlebars and landed on my face. I was knocked unconscious and when I came to I was overcome with shock and terror—not because of the sting from the gash on my chin or the bloody road rash that covered my face from my nose down—no, the terror came when my tongue moved over broken shards of what was supposed to be my front teeth. Sheer panic set in as I wondered how I was ever going to face my peers again. I spent the rest of my summer, and pretty much the whole next year, at the dentist’s office. I mastered not moving or crying during root canals and painful procedures as they attempted to put my mouth back together.

From that point on, I became really good at keeping my mouth shut and staying small, believing that if I was good at being good then nobody would point out how obviously flawed I believed I was.

I would continue to allow shame to guide my path throughout high school and into my twenties. I was married and divorced by twenty-three, all the while feeling deeply unsettled inside of myself.

Life can have a funny way of presenting opportunities to learn. Sometimes the lessons we receive don’t become lessons until much later in life, particularly if shame is leading the way.

Shame has a way of armoring us for the lifetime ahead. It also can shine a light on the need to teach our children the ins and outs of self-love and self-care as a central life skill and survival tool.

When we don’t heal the deep wounds within us, we keep repeating what we need to learn in order to finally face our hurts head on. It is when we turn toward ourselves that we can begin the journey home. When we turn inward and offer comfort and care to the parts of ourselves we turned our back on, we begin to love all parts of ourselves—especially the bits we have kept hidden in the dark wrapped in shame.

Going through a divorce at twenty-three was a life event that forced me into deeper introspection and self-reflection. I could begin to hear my inner voice, but the whisper of my truth was so soft and my ‘not enough’ story was loud and well practiced. Instead of building myself up by trusting that voice and honoring my inner guide, I took control of matters by staying firmly planted in my private world of shame. Publicly, I pushed myself to prove my worth in the world through accomplishment and perfectionism. External validation became my medicine. I worked hard to gain the approval of others. It wasn’t enough for me to push my limits to be a good student, a hardworking employee, a devoted friend, and to always look polished on the outside. I needed external feedback that I was all of these things and more. I was desperate to hear I was good enough from others because I wasn’t giving myself the gift of self-love and approval. Each time I accomplished a goal or expended energy towards proving myself, I drifted a little further from my inner truth.

I continued going to university and channeled my energies towards perfectionism and people-pleasing. I met someone new who was safe and was a right fit. But it was too risky for me to reveal all of my layers. After all, he fell in love with the shiny me. Shame was so dark and I remember feeling ashamed of my shame. I couldn’t bear to face his disappointment and disapproval if he met all of me. But what I came to learn is that staying small to avoid being seen is a misconception. We may believe we can hide ourselves and hide our light, but this just isn’t the case. People who want to see us, see us. We are all beautiful no matter what wounds we have or what bumps we have travelled through in life. I was never under a dark cloud hiding my truth from the world. I just felt like I was.

This time when I got married I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. My life was coming together in a way that felt so dreamy. However, I hadn’t faced those old shame stories, so instead of fully enjoying my dream, my old story kept me in a place of fear by believing I didn’t deserve to have true happiness.

Gaining introspection and self-reflection through my early divorce was the first big step towards healing old wounds. But moving forward without breaking up with old shame stories is like laying the foundation to repeat the same story over and over.

In order to truly let go of old business, we have to pinpoint the shift we made inside of ourselves that caused us to believe the bullshit stories in the first place.

It wasn’t until I entered motherhood that I finally began to disempower these giant obstacles I kept putting in my own way. Becoming a caregiver for my son was my gateway to healing and falling back in love with myself after a very long break. My love for my son was the catalyst that made me finally listen to my soul and take steps toward a sense of inner peace and self-love.

It wasn’t an overnight love story, however. It was a long, courageous journey to be able to see myself in all of my light again. It required support and love from my trusted people and setting boundaries with those who did not have my best interest at heart. It meant removing the lid on my shame stories in an effort to stop attaching myself and my worth to anything that has happened in my life. It has meant establishing a consistent self-care practice that keeps me connected to my values and truth.

The lessons I was presented with in my eleventh year of life taught me deep compassion and empathy for others — and eventually myself. Most importantly, the lessons taught me to never turn my back on my self and my inner spirit. Trying to weather the storms of life while caught up in a private world of disconnection, struggle and shame—well, this pretty much guarantees we loop around and around the same bumpy path, with no end in sight.

Wherever we may find ourselves on our journey, self-care and self-love will be sure to pave the path inwards and strengthen the bond we have with ourselves. Having a solid connection with ourselves enables us to travel through life on the path of purest personal authenticity. When we turn away from shame and take steps toward our truth, we ignite our essence from within.

Shame can’t survive in light; truth is light. When we step into our truth, however uncomfortable it may feel, we set our shame free. Stepping into truth is a personal journey that looks different for everyone. Unpacking shame can take time. Shouting our stories from the mountaintops works for some, but not others. But being gentle with our selves is a must when removing the lid on shame.

With practice, we can begin to detect shame before it finds a home within us. These powerful questions have become my lifeline when I find myself forced to confront shame head on. These questions can serve as a good starting point to have a heart to heart with yourself and get real about your shame.

Soul Play Questions:

1. Take a step forward

  • What can I do to lift myself right now?
  • What one thing can I do that brings me a sense of joy and connection to my inner spirit?

2. Shine the Light

Think of a specific incident or time or interaction that led you to experience shame. Write down your reflections:

  • How did you feel?
  • What kind of thoughts were you thinking about yourself?
  • Did you give your power away?
  • Did you feel your connection to yourself start to fade?
  • Have you let go of this shame story?
  • If so, what helped you to release your shame?
  • If you are still hanging on to your story, how does shining this light on your shame dispel its power over your spirit?

When you give yourself a safe space to hear the soft whisper of your truth, new awareness emerges. Having this deep conversation with yourself helps shine light on feelings and thoughts that are keeping you living in the dark. Be gentle and give yourself plenty of room as you inquire within.

3. Truth or Tale

The story I am telling myself is part of my journey, but it’s not the whole truth of who I am at my core. So go ahead and ask yourself:

  • What is the real, naked truth?
  1. a) The story I am telling myself about why I am not worthy, OR
  2. b) The fact that I am alive on a human journey means I am worthy of being human (otherwise I wouldn’t be here).

(Hint: The right choice here is always going to be ‘b’).

4. Self-Limiting Beliefs at Play

What stops us from living a full life is often an old belief at play. But the very act of naming our self-limiting belief and shining light on it has a way of dispelling its power over us, so go ahead and ask yourself:

  • Is there an old story at play you might be telling yourself?

Dig deep in a way that works for you — whether that is journaling, getting quiet, or talking to a trusted friend — and trust that the answer will come.

Awareness is power. When we become aware of what our stopping places are and where they originated, we empower ourselves to stop the cycle of repeating old beliefs that are limiting ourselves.


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  1. If you are wanting to connect to who you are on a deeper level, or if you would like to create a self-care and self-love practice — come on over and create a space that’s just for you in the E-Course, ‘Fall In Love With Your Life, One Week at a Time’. It’s a chance to create your own life practice in a way that is meaningful to y

Article written by Emily Madill, originally published on BEST SELF MAGAZINE.

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