Shame. We all have it at one point or another. We feel shame about big mistakes we had tons of control over and also for aspects about us over which we had none.
As a quitting evangelist, I spend a lot of time helping people quit their limiting mindsets and stories that are holding them back. Oftentimes those stories involve feeling they have to live up to society’s expectations of them, or that they have to please everyone all the time.
But another big culprit that tends to sit ever further beneath the surface is the shame monster, and it gets to hide out there because our conscious minds don’t even want to go to that place when trying to tease out what mental blocks may be keeping us from playing full-out.
Shame researcher and author Brené Brown makes the distinction between guilt and shame in the following way: guilt is feeling you MADE a mistake, whereas shame is feeling you ARE a mistake. And feeling as though you are a mistake can sure have a lot of downstream consequences.
Just like on those days you plan to diet, but start off with a giant cinnamon roll and think “well, I’ve already made one mistake, the rest of the day I may as well not try,” feeling as though you are a mistake, or inherently flawed or bad, can prevent you from trying to improve and grow.
And it can certainly prevent you from putting yourself out there, lest someone figure out you’re imperfect in some shameful way (and you realize that depending on our upbringing, we can feel shameful about darn near anything.)
Now shame wasn’t a concept I was overly familiar with at the time I attended a coaching seminar and volunteered for a live coaching session. The facilitator had worked his magic into me half-admitting to an “I’m not enough” limiting belief. But as a fairly left-brained person, I was always able to logic my way out of that one pretty easily, so I wasn’t sure that was actually my nemesis.
Luckily for me, a woman in the audience was watching my live coaching and heard me say something that tipped her off to the fact that maybe it wasn’t that I didn’t feel I was enough, it was a matter of shame. She bravely approached me afterward and humbly offered her thoughts. She said, “I heard you say, ‘I’m just a country-bumpkin from the middle of nowhere, who am I to go hobnob with successful entrepreneurs,’ — is there any chance you feel some shame around your upbringing?”
This hit me like a ton of bricks. DID. I. EVER. Yes, having been raised in a family where my dad did such lovely unrefined things as pick his teeth with an electronic pencil while at the table in front of my friends all while living on the actual wrong side of the physical train tracks that divided my town into the haves and have-nots, this shame ran deep.
I finally got out of my small town and went to medical school, where seemingly everyone was from a richer family with physician parents. They’d all traveled the world. I’d never made it further than Canada, where I’d had lunch one day and then returned to the US. To make matters worse, my anatomy lab partner relished in pointing out how little I knew of the outside world as she’d regale me with stories of hanging out with the Prince of Monaco (is that a thing? it was some royalty from Monaco…again, too small town to have known the difference).
A lot of my decision to go into medicine was to save me from this shameful upbringing, as I knew it came with financial opportunities beyond what I was raised with, and the ability to work outside of the Midwest. But the lesson I learned the hard way was as follows:
You can’t run from shame. You can’t educate yourself out of it. You can’t earn your way around it. You have to face the monster head-on, or it will haunt you forever.
Fast forward to residency. By this time I own my third house and am rolling in a brand new BMW…none of which I could really afford, as I was definitely borrowing money from my grandmother at one point, but all of which I needed to keep the shame at bay. With these trappings, who could ever think I was poor?
After I finished residency and fellowship I was a full-fledged doctor, ready to make the big bucks and finally put this poor business behind me. There was just one problem: I didn’t like practicing medicine, and I knew that doing it for 40 hours a week (or more, as is required of most doctors) would kill me.
So while my med school friends went on to their well-paying (albeit often miserable-sounding jobs), I went to work for a job where I work 10 hours a week, and make just enough to pay med school loans and not have a roommate (which in Southern California is a true feat and probably a terrible financial decision on my part, but I digress…)
What did that lead to? Yep, you guessed it, more shame about being the poorest of the occupation that was supposed to have the highest earning capacity. Add to it me having later gotten a law degree (which should also lead to the big bucks but that I wasn’t using to get any bucks) and I continued to feel even more shameful of my meager earnings (again, only by doctors’ standards, and anyone else trying to pay off med school loans while living in said roommate-less San Diego condo.)
Returning now to the woman standing in front of me suggesting I had a shame problem. I was so grateful she had shared her insight with me. She was spot-on: I was ashamed of being from a small town, with an uncultured upbringing, and a sense of relative poverty I couldn’t shake no matter how much I made.
And I know I’m not alone. People (including me) hide much more personal things, like addictions, or affairs, or “bad” thoughts, or prejudices, or medical conditions, or sexual assault, or abuse. But at the root of all that shame is a feeling that we are bad, or unworthy, people.
So how do we start to heal our shame and rewrite our stories? As Brené Brown pointed out, a huge first step is realizing you are not alone. Many “good” and “successful” people have the exact same stories that you do (had to throw in quotes because those are such relative terms.) She pointed out in her TED talk that the phrase “me too” is hugely powerful to those struggling with shame (and this was years before the #metoo movement, but you can see why it was so applicable to destigmatizing assault survivors.)
Another key to quitting shame is the ever-repeated, but still ever-elusive self-love. When you feel shame, you are telling yourself you are a bad person, unworthy of love. How do you fight that statement? By showing that you *are* worthy of love by being loved, and getting that love from the hardest place to get it: yourself.
And a third step is to realize that what others may think of you has no bearing on you whatsoever. If your shameful secret is found out and you are judged, realize that is a reflection of the person judging you, not a reflection of you. Once you don’t take their judgments personally it will help remind yourself that you are not worthy of scorn, you are worthy of love.