Andrew tossed and turned, he couldn’t sleep. He felt like he had given it his best shot but lost the contract. It plagued him and kept playing on his mind. What had he done wrong? Was he really too bold, even arrogant? How could he have handled it differently? To make things worse, the lead for this pitch had come through is business partner, who was now bearing the brunt of the fall out. Despite his partner’s assurance that it was OK, Andrew couldn’t seem to let it go. Regardless of how he rationalised it, questions kept seeping into his consciousness, haunting him with guilt… no, maybe not guilt… maybe a pervading sense of shame.
The difference between guilt and shame
Guilt is the emotion we experience when we recognise that we have done something bad. Shame is the belief that we are bad. Guilt says, ‘I am sorry, I made a mistake’, shame says, ‘I am sorry, I am a mistake’. People in the grip of shame believe their failures are a result of who they are, not what they do. Shame drives two big ongoing conversations in our head: “you’re never good enough” and, if you can talk it out of that one, “who do you think you are?” (Brown 2012) These were the conversations that were keeping Andrew up at night.
On the surface, shame feels like there is nothing that can be done to fix it, it must simply be endured, covered up or denied. Despite the fact that it feels this way, Andrew is not just a helpless soul being tossed around in the stormy ocean of shame. At a subconscious level he is choosing shame over other options because it keeps him safe and meets his needs in a number of different ways. Let me explain.
The feeling of shame comes from the belief that we are flawed, inadequate, unimportant or not good enough. Andrew probably absorbed this false belief early on in life when he experienced rejection. By believing he caused others to reject him, he feels he can do something about it. If it is his fault then maybe he can fix it by changing himself, by doing things “right.” He doesn’t want to accept that others have free will to feel and behave however they want – that makes him feel helpless and out of control.
Notice the locus of control here – who is in charge? Andrew choosing to feel rejected or others making him feel rejected; Andrew feeling strong within himself or looking outward to others providing him with support and positive encouragement all the time. By relying on the positive responses and affirmations of others to feel OK about himself he has placed his sense of significance and self-worth in their hands, which leaves him in a very vulnerable place.
Based on his thoughts and behaviour Andrew would probably say that he doesn’t really love himself. In fact, he may actually claim to hate himself. However, deep down there is a part of himself that truly loves him and is committed to protecting him. On this occasion, Andrew has found himself in a painful situation that is outside the realm of his control to change. Desperate to keep him safe, his subconscious figures that a pre-emptive strike is his only available option. If he hurts himself first with the very same thing he anticipates the other person may do to him, he can prevent that person from hurting him. Having already hurt himself, there is nothing that they could do to him that could possibly compare. Shame is a very clever and powerful weapon to deploy for self-protective pre-emptive strikes.
If Andrew wanted to remove the need for shame in his protective arsenal, here are some steps he could take:
Own his own significance and self-worth
Rather than working hard to try to control how others feel about him, or leaving it to others to make him feel significant, loved and worthwhile, Andrew needs to take responsibility for his own significance and self-worth. Ultimately, he knows that he loves himself; otherwise he would not protect himself from pain, so now it is time to own that fact.
Accept that feelings and behaviour of others have nothing to do with him
Recognising that other people have free will (they get to choose to be open or closed, loving or unloving) and that he is not the cause of their feelings and behaviour, releases him from the need to control how they feel about you. When he no longer takes others behaviour personally he will be free to let go of his false beliefs about himself that cause the feeling of shame.
Self-compassion is comprised of self-kindness (being gentle and understanding, rather than harsh and critical), recognising our common humanity (everyone makes mistakes and suffers just like us) and mindfulness (holding our experience in balanced awareness rather than ignoring our or exaggerating it). When Andrew chooses to be consumed with feelings of shame and inadequacy because of what he’s done, he is actually being self-absorbed. Self-compassion would provide him the safety he needs to focus his attention and concern on those he may have hurt (including himself), take responsibility, receive forgiveness and move on.
Find other ways to be safe
The part of Andrew that is choosing the shame response is doing so out of love to protect him and keep him safe. Like you and me, Andrew was born with a very strong sense of self. He fully believed that he was enough. As he grew and bad stuff happened to him, he chose to let his belief in himself go because it wasn’t safe. Holding that belief was causing him too much emotional volatility.
It is important to note here that his belief wasn’t taken from him – he chose to let it go to keep himself safe. This means that the moment it becomes safe again, Andrew can choose take it back. He has not lost his sense of self, he has just put it aside.
Now that he has grown and can see things from a new perspective, Andrew realises that the pre-emptive strikes of shame are hurting him far more than the thing he is trying to protect himself from. It is time to acknowledge his subconscious for being so clever in protecting him and explore what it is he really needs protecting from. It is finally time to reclaim his high sense of self and promote his subconscious protector to his dreams department, where it can devote its full attention to keeping him safe from anything that seeks to prevent him from achieving his full potential.
Shame is intricately tied to the need for safety, control and significance. When Andrew allows himself to find more resourceful ways of meeting these needs and chooses compassion toward himself and others, he will find his shame disappearing.
Brown, B. 2012. Listening to Shame – TED Talk. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame. [Accessed 01 November 14].
Neff, K, 2011. Self-compassion: stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins.