How to deal with shame

May 02 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Alex Tabrizi / Holly Stoppit @ Beyond The Ridiculous April 2019

Hello and thank you for reading this blog. The first part is all about the relationship between vulnerability and shame and the second part is 10 things to do when you're experiencing a shame attack. I hope you find it helpful.

Congratulations! You took a risk! You put yourself out there! You did a new thing! You let the world see you! Now what?

Well it could go either way. In the best case scenario, you feel stronger, more powerful, more yourself. You've paved the way for deeper, more meaningful connections with other humans. People have been moved by your bravery, they've embraced you and accepted you, just as are and they in turn have showed you some of their hidden selves as an act of glorious reciprocation. You feel connected with the human race and glad to be alive!

Worse case scenario, you're feeling incredibly vulnerable, exposed, self critical and alone.

Vulnerability and shame researcher, Brene Brown explains how taking risks, emotional exposing ourselves and stepping into the unknown, all trigger feelings of vulnerability. In her book(s), learning to tolerate and embrace the feelings of vulnerability opens up a deeper experience of living and loving. Without risk, emotional exposure or stepping into the unknown, our lives can get pretty dull.

So you take a risk, you let the world in, you try something new and if you're anything like me, immediately afterwards, you're greeted by your dear old friend, the Inner Critic. Good old, dependable Critic, has been waiting in the wings with a great big bucket of shame, preparing to douse you from head to foot in paralysing regret and toxic self-hatred.

As a teacher of Fooling, part of my job is to prepare my students for the inevitable Inner Critic tango that follows an improvised performance. The following advice is based on my own frequent ferocious foxtrots with my fantastic friend, the Inner Critic. Over the years I've got quicker at spotting it and more able to create space around it's voice, so that I am now less affected by it's tirade and able to chat as old buddies. 

10 Things To Do When Shame Descends

1.) Pause

Shame spreads quickly and insipidly, like the smell of an unwanted house guest’s cheesy socks. So. Stop it in it’s tracks. Right now is a good enough time. Press pause. Stop. Come into your body, your experience of this moment. Notice any sensations in your body, breathe with them, choose to relax for a short moment (you can go back to fretting in a bit if you really want to, but just give yourself a little break right now.)

2.) Get Present

Presence is your anchor and absolutely crucial to facing down shame. You can get there through tuning into your body, your breath, the contact with the ground or through any of your senses. Sit quietly, dance or go for a little walk, whatever helps to get you present.

3.) Get specific

The Inner Critic wants to smother you and all your experiences with a huge great wet blanket. That’s it’s favourite strategy. Slow death by doubt. The way to get beyond this is to GET SPECIFIC. The Inner Critic hates specific thinking. It wants you thinking general and it wants you thinking that you are generally awful in all areas of your life. So let's get specific! What exactly was the trigger? Was it something you said or did? Was it something someone else said or did? Remember as many details as you can about you and the other people present, what was said, what was done? Don’t embellish. Try and find the bare truth of the situation and keep emotional language out of this bit. You’re just looking for facts. I find it helpful to write this down.

4.) Notice body sensations

Now, as you go back into this memory, see if can notice any body sensations that flare up in response to the memory. Just notice these feelings, hold them gently in your attention.

5.) Name the stories

Now take an even wider look at it. When you recall the memory and the body sensations, what thoughts enter your head? What are you making this mean? What is the story you are attaching to this experience? What are you projecting onto the other people in the situation? How are you interpreting their responses? What does this all mean about you? (These stories will feel familiar and will always cast you as faulty, unworthy and separate from the rest of the human race in some way. This is shame’s function. To alienate you, sever your connection, get you alone, unworthy, unlovable and unacceptable.) Get clear about the stories your mind has attached to this experience. Your wonderful mind is trying to be helpful by giving you a very clear moral tale to stop you from taking similar risks in the future. Your Inner Critic is frightened of you getting ousted from the human race and is trying to keep your experiences limited to the safe ones that keep you safely belonging to the tribe.

6.) Write a love letter to your inner critic

Take another step back and see if you can offer your Inner Critic a bit of love and gratitude for trying to keep you safe. You can write a love letter or just visual your critic receiving your heart-felt gratitude, start with “Thank you Critic, for trying to keep me safe.” (this may or may not be possible, if the shame is still really fresh it might not allow you to do this, be gentle with yourself if this is the case, there’s no need to heap on more shame right now.)

7.) Come back to presence

How are you feeling? What's happening in your body? Come back to your breath. Get anchored in presence again.

8.) Call in a kindly being

Call to mind a kindly being, someone who has your best interests at heart, someone real or imaginary, living or dead. Imagine stepping into their skin and seeing through their eyes. As the kindly being, go back to the moment when the shame was triggered and watch it play out. Let the kindly being explore whether there is any learning to be taken from the situation. Is there any action that needs to be taken? A conversation that needs to be arranged? Boundaries that need setting? Self love that needs cultivating? Listen to what they say and act on it.

9.) Send love to your brave, vulnerable self

Now bring your attention to the part of you that took a risk, the part that stepped out beyond your life experiences to date, the one that put their neck on the line, the one that made a proposition to other humans, the one that made an invitation, opened up a game, put their heart/mind/creativity out there. Now give that one some super serious loving. What action could you do, to let that part of you know they are loved and accepted by you? It doesn’t need to be elaborate, you could just give yourself a cuddle or a bubble bath or a piece of chocolate or a walk to the top of a hill. But do something to physically demonstrate your love for that part of you. This is THE MOST RADICAL THING YOU COULD DO! And it works. The Inner Critic would prefer you to punish yourself and take away all your treats, this radical way does the absolute opposite. We grow through love and love starts with how we give love to ourselves. Just do it. Now.

10.) Reach out to another human!

Shame researcher, John Bradshaw says: “The antidote to shame is empathy.” I know, it can feel like the hardest thing to do, to reach out to another human when you're steeped in shame. Shame separates, alienates and isolates, making you feel like you are the only person to ever feel this way. You are not. Shame is a normal response to having exposed yourself, it's one of the ways that we learn our social code of conduct as kids. It can be useful, it can show us when we've overstepped a boundary or caused suffering to others, but if our automatic response is to always listen to and immediately act on shame's advice, our lives will lack risk, depth and meaning. Reach out to a pal, ask them if it's OK to rant for a while, tell them you don't need advice, you just need to be heard and offer to return the favour. You can set a timer if you like. Be brave, you can do it! Feelings met with empathy will pass and make way for other feelings to emerge. 

We can't avoid shame, it is part and parcel of being alive. What we can do is sharpen our tool kit so that we are able to hold ourselves and each other when shame descends. Stay connected, stay alive, big love xxx

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