Of all the difficult feelings we can experience, shame is perhaps the most devastating.
I know for myself that nothing spirals me down into anxiety and depression faster.
This is not surprising. Shame can be described as judging oneself as having done something unacceptable, and finding not only one’s actions and their consequences, but one’s self wanting.
It is possible to feel shame without anyone else knowing about one’s actions or their consequences, but for myself, shame most often results when my mistakes and their consequences are on public view, and are judged by others as being unacceptable.
When I make a mistake but nobody else witnesses it, I can stay calm and correct things as far as is possible. In that situation, I may feel guilt about my actions and their consequences, but I do not find myself wanting.
When I do something that others find unacceptable but I disagree that it’s wrong, or I know things didn’t happen that way, I may feel angry that I am being misrepresented, or surprised at another’s moral compass, but it doesn’t affect how I feel about myself.
But when I make a mistake and am witnessed in the act, and those witnessing me make their anger, disgust or disdain clear, I feel ashamed, and am overcome by a desire to cover myself, for the ground to open up and swallow me, to disappear from public view.
This feeling, rather than supporting me to get on and do all within my power to correct the mistake I have made and to mitigate its consequences, gets in the way of any action on my part. Instead of reaching out to right things, my urge is to contract inwards and shrink away from everything outside myself
So what can we do, when feelings of shame arise, to enable us to stay open and carry on engaging?
I had the opportunity (ahem) to consider this question just a couple of days ago. I made a mistake which could have had serious consequences for those around me, because my attention wandered for a moment. With the help of others, the situation was brought under control, but not without their anger and frustration with me being freely expressed.
I felt an intense feeling of shame, followed by strong anxiety and depression, and a desire to hide under the bed covers for the rest of the week, and possibly the rest of my life.
By observing myself through this experience, and noting what helped and what hindered me in my response to the situation, I came to the following list of actions to help us through shame.
The first thing is to keep breathing.
Constricting and interrupting our natural breathing pattern is one of the most common reactions to difficult feelings, yet nothing blocks our ability to process emotion and take positive action more effectively than when we stop breathing.
The easiest way to keep breathing is to concentrate on breathing out; when we reach the end of our out breath, our lungs fill naturally, gradually re-establishing a natural breathing rhythm.
The second thing is to find someone we trust and who is reliably non-judgmental, and get what has happened off our chest.
The emotional and mental relief and the physical release this enables allows our feelings to shift, and opens up the possibility of viewing our situation objectively.
The third thing is to think of how we would react if a dear friend had made the mistake we have just made, and offer that reaction to ourselves.
We are usually much more forgiving, supportive and helpful when faced with the mistakes of someone else who we love than we are when looking at ourselves.
Offering ourselves gentleness and forgiveness – without denying our responsibility for what has happened – can free us to respond to our situation constructively, and to look at how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
The final thing is to consider whether others’ reactions to us reflect our own beliefs about ourselves.
This is perhaps something best done some time after the event, so may not be much help in the moment, but it’s still a worthwhile exercise.
Knowing ourselves better is always, in my view, a good thing. This kind of consideration can also help to interrupt the cycle of anger and resentment at others for their reactions to us, which can be so destructive of relationships and of our own peace of mind.
The repercussions of my actions, what might have happened, others’ reactions to me and my own reactions to the whole thing are still ricocheting about my body, my heart and my mind. I’m continuing to breathe into my feelings, to offer myself love and support, and to explore my beliefs about myself, as well as putting in place rules and routines for myself to prevent that particular mistake happening again.
I know I will make mistakes in the future; I know that some of them will be made in public, and may have serious consequences; I know that others will judge me, as I will myself. But I also know that, when this kind of situation happens again, I have a list of solid practices to enable me to respond constructively, and right things again as far as I can, without crumbling.
What is your experience of shame? Do you have a set of practices which help you maintain equilibrium and take positive action when shame arises?