In Part One of this series we looked at how we as a society do everything possible to avoid feeling painful emotions. Unfortunately, our coping mechanisms of numbing, ignoring, deflecting, projecting or otherwise not fully processing our emotions can result in unwanted conditions in our body as well as an inability to truly feel passion, joy, and happiness. In this series we are looking at three big emotions and how to process them through the body so they do not get stuck and cause problems down the road. Part One looked at Anger, Part Two looked at Grief, and Part Three will examine Shame.
While I often hear guilt and shame being used interchangeably, they are related but not the same. Guilt is feeling bad about a particular action you have taken. If you did something you consider wrong such as lie to, cheat, betray or hurt somebody, then guilt is an appropriate feeling and can be a catalyst for self-improvement. From guilt can come remorse, which generally leads to positive deeds such as admitting your mistakes, taking responsibility for your actions, a true apology, and a commitment to changing your behavior. Guilt then, while uncomfortable, is a healthy response when you have done something that goes against your moral compass, and the best remedy for healing guilt is to make amends.
On the other hand, if you know you tried your best in the situation, yet are feeling that whatever happened is completely your fault and are shouldering a disproportionate amount of blame, this is something to look at more closely. Are you someone who feels “guilty” all the time, even about things that couldn’t possibly be your fault? If so, this probably comes from a pattern learned in childhood and is actually blurring into shame.
Shame is a close cousin of guilt, but is not the same. While guilt is an acknowledgement that your behavior was bad, shame is a deep-seated feeling that you are bad. While appropriate guilt is a healthy response to wrong-doing because it can serve as a catalyst for self-improvement, shame is a debilitating emotion that keeps people stuck in negative patterns.
Just by being human, we have all experienced shame at one time or another. At some point we have all felt small, unworthy, or not good enough, and we want more than anything to hide these feelings from the world. Regardless of how good or bad our childhoods or past experiences were, we all know what it is like to feel shame. Lying below the surface of just about every issue my clients come in for is a varying degree of shame.
Shame becomes truly toxic, however, when it becomes the driving force in your life. Usually this begins very early with messages from abusive or neglectful parents, siblings or caregivers or shame-based teachers or religious leaders. These messages become internalized and become that critical voice in your head, the committee that meets between your ears constantly judging your every move, or the gremlins reminding you how worthless you are. Of course we all experience a version of this from time to time, but when this becomes the loudest most constant message day after day it can lead to depression, aggression, addiction, bullying, eating disorders, or just about any unwanted condition.
According to shame expert, Dr. Brené Brown, shame flourishes in the dark corners of secrecy, silence, and judgement, but dissipates in the light of empathy and connection. In fact, one of Dr. Brown’s most important conclusions is that not discussing a shaming event can be more damaging than the actual event. Events that we are too ashamed to talk about go into long term storage and continue to fester and grow and ultimately manifest as unwanted conditions.
In my practice, clients often share with me events they have silently lugged around for years or decades. The relief they feel at finally giving voice to these secrets in front of a compassionate witness is immeasurable. At the very least they feel much lighter and more relaxed and sometimes pain or other conditions they have had for months or years spontaneously disappear.
While shining light on the dark corners of shame in a compassionate, safe space is a wonderful start to the healing process, you can take it further with a mind-body technique such as EFT. Scientifically proven to reduce the physical symptoms of stress, decrease the emotional intensity around past traumatic events, and rewire the brain to interrupt old, debilitating patterns of thought, EFT is an amazingly powerful tool to literally have at your fingertips. For more information on how EFT works, click here.
In summary, nobody likes to feel painful emotions. They hurt! But the cost of avoiding them with all our various coping mechanisms can be damaging to our health and well-being. On the other hand, deeply processing them through the mind and body can finally bring about the deep healing, freedom and joy you have been searching for.