When I got divorced, I felt like I had a flashing scarlet “D” on my forehead. My father mourned, asking, “What am I supposed to tell my friends?” When I went for an appointment at a new doctor’s office, they actually checked “D” on my paperwork. And dating? Forget it. I was now damaged goods.
It seemed I couldn’t escape the stigma of failure tethered to my ankle. D for defective. D for defeated. D for desperate dud, doomed to damnation.
I was only 26 years old, and yet I felt certain that this veil of shame would haunt me for the rest of my life. (D for dramatic?) That’s the thing about shame: It crawls through your veins, constricts your heart and leaves you curled up in a ball afraid to face the world.
Unworthy of connection
According to researcher Brené Brown, Ph.D., shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Sadly, we all experience shame, and it’s killing our happiness. Maybe you think of yourself as a lousy mother because you can’t bake, the laundry isn’t done, and you rarely make it on your kids’ field trips. Maybe you label yourself a fat, ugly loser because you haven’t lost those last 20 pounds, and now you’re avoiding the pool. Maybe you’re berating yourself for speaking up at last week’s staff meeting and now you’re dreading seeing your boss. Or maybe shame tells you that you deserve to be alone. Shame says, “I suck,” “I’m a loser,” or in the case of my divorce, “I’m a failure.”
As mean as shame is, it does have a purpose. New research shows that our early ancestors adapted shame as an evolutionary advantage. Because we desperately want to belong, shame alerts us to stop a behavior that society devalues. We are social creatures, and we adopt shame as a way of keeping ourselves lovable, and part of the group.
According to Dr. June Tangney, author of Shame in the Therapy Hour, shame is a “self-conscious emotion.” It forces us to self-reflect and self-evaluate. For example, growing up in the Midwest with parents who have been happily married for 50 years and grandparents who had been happily married for 68 years, I understood that divorce was for “losers.” The shame triggered by my divorce was an evolutionary response, in a sense, in order to stay safe and accepted within my family.
During my divorce, the more I called myself a failure, the more I withdrew, and the more I withdrew, the worse I felt. Finally I became desperate to find others who would understand what I was going through. I found an online message board for divorced women under 30 and began reading their stories. Eventually, I posted mine, and though I was terrified, it felt so good to connect with other women going through the same thing that I started responding to every post and eventually, I became the message board leader.
I became so strong that I called my dad to heal our relationship and let him talk about his pain around the divorce. Our relationship improved. I began writing a book about young divorce and realized my marriage and divorce was a gift because it showed me that I have the courage to follow my heart, and it allowed me to understand so many women’s struggles.
So here is the way to address shame: You’re not a “fat loser” and I'm not a failure. You gained weight. My marriage failed. And this distinction is important for healing, self-worth, connection and happiness. If you see yourself as the issue, you can become anxious, depressed and desolate. But when you separate yourself from a behavior or event, you isolate it as something you want to evaluate and change.
The key is to turn shame on its head and use the experience for strength and courage. Allow it to be a trigger for empowerment, self-love and change. Here’s how:
1. Identify shame and diffuse it
Shame likes to hide in dark, isolated corners. However, we all feel shame, we all struggle and many of us have experienced common struggles. So the key is to find someone and with whom you can speak safely about your shame with self-compassion and kindness—whether that is a friend, a therapist or an online community.
Identify where you feel shame in your body. Your face may heat up, your chest may get tight or your belly may rumble. Feel the sensation of wanting to hide, but instead of doing so, lean into yourself with kindness and self-compassion. Bringing shame out of the dark diffuses it with love.
2. Learn how to cope with characteristics, behaviors and events that you find undesirable
Once you know how to work with shame, you also can begin to work with your shame triggers. Get curious about your shame. What sets it off? Which (if any) of your inherent character traits cause you to feel self-loathing? Which of your life events do you keep hidden? Then ask yourself what fear is underneath the shame? What are you really afraid of? And how could you view these behaviors and events differently?
With my divorce, I was afraid of being an outcast, and I had to face my inherent need for approval and perfection. So I began to work on my fear of imperfection and accept that not everyone will like or approve of me. By working to accept the triggers of shame, I became more accepting and loving with myself, keeping shame at bay.
3. Accept all of you
You have shame because you are deeply embarrassed by some aspect of yourself, your situation or your behaviors. When you learn how to love your whole self—good and bad—you are able to drop judgment and shame. Each of us has parts of ourselves that we love and parts of ourselves that we dislike. A major key to happiness is to accept and love all of you. Each aspect of you has purpose—even the shadows.
For example, I am more judgmental than I would like to be. While I used to be ashamed of this (and am still afraid to admit it here), it is true. My shame is that I want to be open and loving toward everyone, and instead I judge, which is a behavior I developed as a reaction against the world—in order to keep myself safe. So I can love the judgmental side of me knowing that it is trying to help.
Your turn: On a piece of paper, write your favorite traits on the left side and least-favorite (shadows) on the right. Then write how each of your traits has helped you in some way. (The late Debbie Ford shares more on how to do this in her brilliant book The Dark Side of the Light Chasers.)
4. Get support
Finally, as June says, shame is underlying nearly all of our struggles. If you feel alone, are afraid, fear rejection, have trouble communicating with your spouse, feel stuck in your career, are lost or are afraid of following your dreams, you may well be harboring shame. Diffusing shame can be hard to do on your own and you may need some help in getting to the root of it—and more so, flipping it into empowering action going forward. Get support in working through your shame so that you can have the happy, thriving life you desire and deserve.
Carin Rockind is a speaker, author and coach with a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) from the University of Pennsylvania.