And why you should look at it with curiosity.
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about modern spirituality and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. To get more content about how to infuse your life with thoughtfulness, reflection, and meaning, subscribe here
.I’ve been thinking a lot about shame recently. It’s an emotion I’ve struggled with all my life, and the more I talk about it, the more I realize that a lot of people are dealing with it on a 24/7 basis. Why?
There are two important distinctions about shame: One, realizing it is a feeling at its core that you are bad or unworthy in some vital way (not that you’ve DONE something bad or unworthy — that’s technically guilt). Like, your very existence is bad, devalued, embarrassing, who you are at your core is just wrong.
Two, is that looking at shame with curiosity is a powerful way to understand it more and how it motivates you.
What do I mean?
Well, you weren’t born with shame baked into you, right? It came from somewhere, it was a conditioning or a lesson learned.
Babies aren’t ashamed even though they’re literally vomiting and pooping all over the place and incredibly needy and crying all the time. They don’t think twice about it. Babies do not have shame.
That means once, you and I did not have shame. It came in at a different point in time.
Therefore, exploring its origin to gain an understanding can be a wild exercise.
Next, we often assume that voice in our head is… us. That it’s a part of us that we can’t control. This is the voice telling us that we’re shameful, we’re bad, we’re an embarrassment, a failure.
The truth is, that voice can be looked at much like a scientist looks at data under a microscope. That voice also came from somewhere. In fact, it’s an entirely different entity from our actual selves. It’s an other. So noticing it, and being curious about it when it starts speaking, is a really fascinating practice.
What do I mean, exactly? Well, let me give you an example. I carry around some shame, still — much less than I used to, but still a fair amount. I could name a variety of areas where I hold it, but let’s try one for the purpose of this example: body image. It’s a rare time I look in the mirror and don’t immediately start lambasting myself over one thing or another.
Productivity is another area where I hold shame. The number of times I’ve called myself lazy or blasted myself for not achieving enough are countless.
In the past, I thought this was a natural extension of who I was. That lambasting, negative voice was me. So I had to listen to it. What other choice was there?
Through a variety of work and practices, I now know that voice is not me. It’s an other. So in the times it comes up, I try to be curious about why it’s coming up. It’s as simple as that. I may say, “Oh, hello, voice. Interesting time for you to show up. Why might you be here?”
Then I dig a little deeper, treating shame like a new neighbor that’s shown up on my doorstep. I could completely invite it in and feed it and lavish attention on it; I could banish it and pretend it never showed up and doesn’t exist; or I could question its intentions in a friendly, curious manner. By doing that, I other it a bit. I hold it up to the light. I look at it under the microscope. I wonder why it exists. And I begin to understand.
How can you do this for yourself? Maybe you know instinctively that you feel shame, but you’re not exactly sure what your shame is about. Try a couple of things, again, with simple curiosity:
- Explore your judgments, what you find worthy, and what you don’t or what you devalue. Don’t feel shame around your judgments or think that you are a bad person for having them. Again, bring in the tool of curiosity. Understanding more about what you judge and why — with gentle curiosity, not self-criticism or anger that you feel judgmental — will be the key to understanding your own shame. Because the things you judge may actually be things you are ashamed about — or, even, the things you really desire.
- Explore your reaction to this statement: Value is not an acquired quality. Value is your birthright. If you immediately think that’s bunk, it’s possible you are holding on to a fair amount of shame. And it’s important to know: being ashamed is okay. Judging other people is okay. These things are natural in a lot of ways, and may even have served or protected us at points. But if you’re reading this newsletter with any interest, that’s a really good sign your shame is no longer serving you and you’re ready to move on.
So what do you think? What do you carry shame around? Email me or submit anonymously here. I’ll answer your questions around shame in next week’s newsletter. Questions I’ve already gotten include the following:
- How can I detach from measure self-worth by academic and professional success?
- How do you truly get over shame? Won’t it always be there in the back of your mind?
- What should I do about always feeling shame for taking part I enjoy but are indulgent?
- [At work with a large workload] I end up feeling either shame that I’m not working smarter/harder or shame that I’m not cutting myself some slack. How are you supposed to do both?