Am I Allowed to Let Go of Shame?
When we are able to view our behaviours as more complex and dynamic than just the reactions of a ‘bad person’, we give ourselves the opportunity to examine the whys and the hows and to develop resources for change. In order to make changes in our lives and in ourselves, we must first believe that we are worthy and capable of such change.
I recently experienced a shame response to an innocent comment made by a colleague of mine. She mentioned that my shirt, which I was quite proud of finding at a local Op Shop the day before, was the same one her mother recently wore to a wedding. Although I could be forgiven for feeling a little put out by the comparison to the fashion choices of a woman 30 years my senior, the reaction I had was very strong and immediate. I found myself on the verge of tears! I had dropped my head and could not meet her eyes and felt a heat rising up my neck and onto my face. As I experienced this response, I berated myself. ‘Don’t be so ridiculous! She didn’t mean anything by it. Just calm down!’ This was bigger than embarrassment. This innocent banter had cut straight through to a childhood belief that I was ‘not good enough’.
One of the blessings, and curses, of being a therapist is the endless self reflection and exploration that we engage in and I was able to talk to my colleague (who had evidently noticed that I did not find her comment amusing) about my reaction and ended up laughing at the un-therapeutic commentary I had been engaging with in my own head. Never would I expect a client experiencing such as response to ‘just calm down!’
Now that reaction, although overwhelming and unpleasant, passed quickly and I am grateful that I do not, in general day to day interactions, see myself as ‘not good enough’. However, in my work with clients I often come across people who are fighting to move forward in their lives because they are stuck in a chronic state of shame. Whether this is a result of their own or another person’s action or inaction does not matter in these cases because the logical part of the brain that may tell itself ‘it was not your fault’, or ‘I am a good person’ cannot, on its own, comfort the body or convince the mind that reacts from a belief that they are in some way defective, unworthy or unloveable.
And what if your shame is the result of actual harm that you have caused another person? Many offenders that I work with believe that, by letting go of their shame, they are minimising the harm they have caused. They hold onto this shame, convinced that they must be innately bad and the only way to truly account for, and make up for, the pain they have inflicted on others is to continue living with this crippling view of themselves. The devastating effect of this is an inability for them to engage in any real change. As the learned Dr Brene Brown states, ‘shame corrodes the very part of ourselves that believes we are capable of change’.
Feeling guilt for our behaviours, however, is a healthy and adaptive response. Guilt motivates us to change and to learn and to grow. It encourages us to take responsibility for our behaviours and to make ammends when we can because it allows us to separate ourselves from our behaviours. When we are able to view our behaviours as more complex and dynamic than just the reactions of a ‘bad person’, we give ourselves the opportunity to examine the whys and the hows and to develop resources for change.
In the same way, developing an understanding of your own strength and resilience that has enabled you to survive a past event, enables you to begin separating yourself from the harmful behaviours and actions of others, and to start believing that you are worthy and capable of change, and that you deserve to be free of shame.
Dr Brene Brown (2007) ‘I Thought It Was Just Me’.