Coping techniques: Shame

Please note that you should always consult with your physician before making any changes in your diet, your level of exercise and activity, medication or behaviors related to substance use.

The best way to make use of these techniques is to read through them, select three that stand out to you and practice them. I would be glad to hear from you on your responses.

  1. Although shame is a painful experience, there is nothing shameful about feeling shame. It’s an emotion common across cultures and generations. It consists of the almost physically painful perception that we’re wrong, bad or broken.
  2. It can be useful to become aware of shame. Not to suffer the experience of it, but to acknowledge that it exists, become familiar with what situations trigger shameful feelings, and the history of shame in your life. What is your earliest memory of shame? Who in your early life do you associate with feelings of shame? How were your needs responded to when you were a child? What were you told about your needs? About your body? About your feelings? If you were punished, what were you punished for, and how? Is there anyone in your life currently who shames you?
  3. What beliefs does shame influence? Beliefs about yourself, about others, about the world? What feelings does shame bond with, so that they seem shameful themselves? Grief, love, anger, desire?
  4. Sometimes we develop an ideal personality to compensate feelings of shame. A problem here can be that there’s a gap between who we want to be and think that we should be and the person we are. This discrepancy can reinforce the feeling of not being good enough. It can also make us forget about our authentic identity. Who do you feel you’re supposed to be? Why do you think that’s a good way to be?
  5. Thinking harsh, unforgiving or demeaning things about ourselves is called negative self-talk. Because such talk, even to ourselves, is abusive it can increase feelings of shame. Make a list of the negative things you say to yourself. Consider not saying these things to yourself.
  6. Make another list of positive things that are true about you. These might not be related to your ideal self but to your authentic self. So it may take you a little time to locate them. Does thinking back to your childhood make it a little easier to recognize these qualities? Say them to yourself when you’ve had a tough day, or are facing one. As more positive qualities occur to you, add them to your list. How do you feel when you say good things to yourself? If you feel good, continue doing so. If you feel uncomfortable, be courageous and continue doing so. Notice what an interesting thing it is that shame doesn’t want us to feel good.
  7. Many of us have an inner critic that uses shame to get us to behave or not behave in certain ways. Notice when the inner critic speaks to you (perhaps when you say good things to yourself). When does she or he speak up? What does s/he say to you about yourself? About other people? About life? You don’t have to do what your inner critic directs you to do. But it can be very useful to get a sense of what s/he is trying to accomplish, and why. One way to learn about such inner figures is with the “empty chair” exercise. If you want to try this, here’s how. Place two chairs facing each other. Sit in one. In the other imagine that your inner critic is sitting and that you can ask them any question. You may not like all their answers but remember, you don’t have to act on any of them. You can ask them what their plans are, what they want to accomplish, what they believe about the way the world works. Is what they “say” true? Even if it was true once, for instance when you were a child, is it still true now in your adult life? If their goals seem like good ones to you, are there better ways to meet them? Here better means less harsh, rigid or punishing and more self-loving.
  8. When working on shame it’s good sometimes to take a break. One very good way to take a break is to shift your focus from inside to outside of yourself. For instance, count the number of blue objects there are in the room. Look out the window and describe how the plants and trees are responding to the season. Name as many state capitols as you can.
  9. The heart guardian: In the same way that you can visualize and interview the inner critic, you can also visualize someone who makes you feel safe, respected and loved. For some people this can be a person they’ve actually known—a loving parent, a protective grandparent, an encouraging teacher. For others this is a figure from their spiritual practice, such as Buddha or Saint Joseph. For still others it’s a person from history with whom they feel kinship and safety, such as Oscar Wilde or Joan of Arc. What would this person say to you if they knew you were feeling shame? What is it you most need to hear them say? As you imagine this, as you recognize what it is you need, picture your heart guardian speaking these words directly into your heart. Accept this message of comfort and compassion and allow it to enter into the center of you. Practice this on a regular basis, and especially when you feel tired or challenged or in the presence of triggers for shame.
  10. Self-compassion is the natural counter to shame. Practice appropriate self-soothing when you need it, whether that’s a warm bath, meditation, calm music or spending time with a friend who makes you feel good or riding on a train. Some folks keep favorite books or movies on hand, ones they’ve read or watched many times already, as a reliable form of comfort. If there are people in your life with whom you feel safe and respected consider sharing with them when you’re having a tough time. Keep yourself safe. Treat yourself gently.