I’m a bit of a fan Brene’ Brown’s research on shame but it’s been a while since I delved into the topic. Something happened on the weekend that brought the subject up again and I had a long chat with a friend about it, and it made me want to explore the topic further.
A lot of the time when we experience something our emotions and feelings are just reactions to the experience. Afterwards any emotions and feelings we have usually go away, and we understand that they were associated with that experience. However, shame does not work that way.
With shame we have a constant awareness of our own real, perceived or imagined defects. Most of the time we do not realise that we are our victims of our shame based thinking when we focus on our failures more than our successes. Shame makes us refocus on how faulty, broken and defective we think of ourselves as being. We judge ourselves, we constantly regret and we fear impending failures.
If we start to pay attention to our thoughts and start to see the shame based statements that are in them and how we use those statements against ourselves, we may be shocked at how severe we are with ourselves and how harshly we are judging ourselves. Some examples of common judging shame statements that we use against ourselves are:
There is something wrong with me.
I am worthless.
Nobody loves/wants me.
I am not good enough.
I am a bad person.
I am disgusting.
I am too fat.
I am ugly.
I will never amount to anything.
Shame is born out of prolonged reinforcement of these kinds of self-inflicted put-downs. We direct these insults at ourselves over long periods of time. They are firmly directed at us and they usually start with the words I am. The use of I am reinforces the perception that we are that, that it is not a behaviour we exhibit but rather something we are, that is part of who we are. It goes a lot further and deeper than what we do or do not do.
The statements are usually multi-levelled. First there is the long list of our faults and failures, and then there is the thought that these faults and failures are permanent and part of us, i.e. I am worthless and I will always be worthless. It does not matter how well we are doing in any areas of our lives, the shame based thinking sticks and becomes the lens that we see everything through. If we receive appreciation, recognition or compliments we think I do not deserve it or they are just saying that because they have to or they are just being nice/polite, or even they are lying to me.
Shame based thinking leads to perfectionism. Only perfect results can satisfy the impossibly high standards we have for ourselves. Even minor mistakes are seen as disasters.
Being highly critical of ourselves leads to being highly critical of other people. There is a tendency to have negative explanation of other people and their behaviour, to expect the worst, focus on the bad, doubt your own skills however great they are and to have very rigid rules for how other people should behave. Shame based thinking leads to controlling behaviour because of those rigid rules. It leads us to monitor other people’s behaviours and to trying to correct them when they do not live up to our expectations.
When we are suffering from shame based thinking we have a tendency to use the self-critical thoughts as a sort of protection and aa an attempt to escape from shame. The more we do this the deeper shame takes hold and we become even more victimised. We focus on disaster scenarios and relive old failures in an attempt to understand, explain and make sense of them hoping we can prevent similar things from happening in the future, but in the end we just reinforce the shame even more.
So, how can you challenge shame based thoughts?
The core principle of cognitive behavioural therapy is not to believe everything you think. Instead of thinking of your thoughts as the truth or as part of you and your personality, you realise that they are separate from you so you can begin to observe, evaluate and challenge them. The best way to go about this is to begin to single out thoughts and start to ask a series of questions that challenge the thought, for example:
Is this thought actually correct?
How do I know it is correct?
Is there evidence for it being correct?
When was the first time I thought this thought?
Can I think of a time when I have thought this thought and it was not true?
Is this thought helping or hurting me?
What would it be like if I let go of this thought?
What could I do if I let go of this thought?
What is the worst that could happen if I release the thought? Is that something I can live with?
Can I release the thought and am I willing to do it?
What are the gains for me if I release the thought; how would it improve things for me?
Working through the thoughts by isolating them so you challenge them is the first step in releasing shame based thinking. It is also an opportunity to work on replacing the shame based thoughts with thoughts that serve you better. Creating a new ‘truth’ that you can view the world, other people and what you experience through will help further support the erosion of shame based thinking and how it affects you, and will help ease the pain of living with shame until it eventually is no longer part of your thinking and you view yourself.
Check out next week’s post for more about shame.