I reached out to my sister, because I knew I was feeling shame. We’ve been discussing our relationship to money recently. Both of us have college degrees, both of us have small children, and both of us have strong feelings about money. My sister told me that somehow she got the message that if she graduated from college, she’d magically get a job using that degree. I countered that I believed that it would be easy for me to find the job that would be a perfect fit — and that it would be easy to rise in the ranks until I was “important” and doing world-changing work.
It feels so good to get these ideas off of our chests. Because needless to say, my sister didn’t magically get a job using that degree. And I didn’t find a job that was a perfect fit — I didn’t even find any jobs where there was room to advance. And I think it’s important to recognize that when we don’t meet expectations (expectations that we hold, or expectations we believe others hold for us), it’s easy to think that something is wrong with us.
And when we think that something is wrong with us, it’s a short trip to believing that because something is wrong with us, we don’t belong. That’s what shame is.
What is Shame?
Brene Brown, a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) and PhD researcher specializing in shame, defines shame this way in her book Daring Greatly:
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.
Shame is a feeling that is sometimes hard to identify, because we work so hard to avoid it, make it go away, or ignore it. I’m going to help you identify when you’re feeling shame with this list of behaviors. We do these things to avoid the pain of disconnection. We do these things to feel LESS pain. But these behaviors don’t necessarily give us what it is that we want… acceptance and belonging.
Five Ways We Act Out Shame
1. We try to please others by performing their expectations, and perfecting that performance.
When I was in college, I was a student supervisor to the dormitory desk receptionists. There was a lot of reasons myself and the adult supervisor got off on the wrong foot, but part of the ongoing struggle was how many of her expectations for me as an employee remained unspoken.
I tried to get on her good side by volunteering for undesirable shifts (Pleasing), I tried to be the best damn employee ever (Performing) by showing up early and doing extra work. And when neither of those things helped, I went back and tried to do it harder (Perfectionism).
I was acting out the pain of being excluded from her favorites, and the Please, Perform, and Perfect cycle was just making my alienation worse — even though my goal was to belong. I thought, “If I just get this right, I’ll be a part of the in group.”
Think about a time when you were trying your hardest to get on someone’s good side, or trying to be part of a group, and your efforts fell flat — that was a time when you were behaving your feeling of shame.
2. Your inner dialogue sounds like a devil on your shoulder.
I love the song “Fuckin’ Perfect” by Pink, it’s a great song for getting up and dancing, working through things with our bodies. However, I have to laugh at the lyric, “Change the voices in your head/ Make them like you instead.”
If only it were that easy. Sometimes it’s not even easy to hear our thoughts, let alone change them. But I suggest you try, because it’ll help you identify when you’re acting in shame.
The voice of shame in your head sounds something like this: “I am bad. I am worthless. I’m fake. I’m disgusting. I’m a failure.”
The shame thoughts above (and most internal monologue shame thoughts) describe yourself. When we feel an emotion, we often try to find the source — and with shame, we believe the reasons is us; we’re the reason we don’t belong. We turn the pain of disconnection inward and blame ourselves, our essential inner being, instead of something we’ve done, or a context we’re in.
Can you identify a subject that you beat yourself up over? That’s a subject that you’re feelings shame about.
3. We go and do something — anything — else to “take our minds off of it.”
When my children fight me tooth and nail at bedtime — because who doesn’t want to stay up until all hours? — I tell myself that I am a bad parent. (See, it’s that devil on my shoulder, whispering lies.) So I usually go raid my chocolate stash and eat until I feel better. Or I play Candy Crush until I get enough wins to feel good.
This is numbing. Numbing is about making the pain go away. But when the effects of the numbing wears off, the pain is still there.
Numbing taken to an extreme, or done with addictive substances, is addictive behavior.
Think about your favorite things to do. Are you reaching for them to forget pain? Or are you reaching for them for pleasure?
4. We stop talking to the people who love us the most, even if we trust them with everything else.
Let’s go back to money as an example. Sometimes, when I look at the budget, I realize that if I want to meet my money goals, I should not buy myself a Starbucks Latte. Sometimes, I want it anyway, and I start thinking, “I’m so irresponsible for wanting this.” And then I get grumpy, because I want it, and I am not going to have it, and I’m upset about it.
Sometimes, my Beloved will pick up on my bad mood, and ask what’s wrong. And, because I don’t want him to think of me as irresponsible, selfish, and a sabatoger of our joint finances. And I will say, “Nothing.”
Can you think of a time when you needed to express something, or ask for something, and you avoided talking about it?
5. And when we’re pressed to talk about it anyway, sometimes we explode with rage.
If my husband presses about my bad mood regarding money, I often do get around to talking about it — but if he doesn’t wait until I calm down, I am likely to get angry and shouty and blamey.
I’ll say, “I just want a damn coffee, okay? Can you stop hounding me?! I know, it’s a bad choice, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting, and I know that makes me bad with our finances.”
Or, maybe, I won’t even be enough in touch with my feeling of shame, and instead I’ll yell at my husband for something else. “Can’t you stop questioning me and start supporting me? I can’t believe you’re not…” You get the idea.
Sometimes, you can get angry at someone — not necessarily a loved one — about something that isn’t the real reason. What if the real reason was a shame trigger?
Of course, the real antidote to shame is connection.
Connection requires us to tell our stories, being radically vulnerable with our emotions and how our stories make us feel. The best people to connect with are our loved ones, our intimate partners, and our best friends. But sometimes, it’s hard to start there. First, we must connect with our emotions — which means finding out how those emotions feel in the body, and how we act when those emotions are occurring.
I’ve created a couple of journal pages that go through each of the above behaviors and asks questions to help you identify the ways you may have felt shame in the past and acted it out with your behaviors. We can’t tell our stories until we become aware of our stories. Inside the PDF is an invitation to join my free Facebook group, too! There you can practice being emotionally vulnerable in a totally supportive space. I’ve created it to create authentic emotional expression and support on the internet — and I promise that it’ll be moderated to make it a safe place to do so! I hope to see you there.
Just fill out this form, and you’ll be taken to a page for downloading the printable journal pages!