Turning Down the Volume on Shame (Part Three)

Because shame is such a pervasive emotion before and during recovery, I’m dedicating another post to this universally-challenging experience.

Here are some examples of shame messages you might remember from childhood:

  • Am I wearing the right clothes?
  • How come they live in a bigger house?
  • My parents drive old cars. Wouldn’t I look cooler in a new one?
  • Why do I go to public school instead of private school?
  • Wouldn’t I be more attractive if I had blonde hair instead of brown hair?

Because shame starts early, it takes lots of disentangling and perseverance to undo the older, more ingrained messages instilled by them? Not entirely, but you can learn to respond to the shame messages differently. They don’t have to haunt you forever.

Whenever you fall into a “shoulda, woulda, coulda” mentality, it’s likely due to shame. Each one takes you away from the present and into a fantasy of how events might have turned out differently in the past. Language is powerful, so I encourage you to listen to how you use your words and reflect on whether they serve you or not, whether they are self-attacking or not. Checking in with yourself and monitoring your use of shame-based words is an act of self-compassion. By limiting language that takes you into the past or future, you’ll be practicing mindfulness, focusing on the present in nonjudgmental terms.

Another dangerous tentacle of shame is judgment. Of course, judgment is a part of life. Every moment of every day we’re judging ourselves, others, and the world as a whole. This serves a purpose. It helps you decide how close to get to someone, for example. There’s nothing wrong with judgment until it distances you from all others or becomes a primary way of relating to the world and your role in it.

Become more aware of your judgmental tendencies, and you’ll begin to see how they lead you to avoid intimacy. For instance, this morning I approached a homeless person while walking my dog down the street. I had choices—I could look away as I passed right by, silently judging him. Or I could say hello and acknowledge him as a part of my community. I could also silently send him a prayer of hope. Nowadays I lean into less judgmental choices, but all of these possibilities crossed my mind. In other words, it’s not the judgment inside of you that counts—it’s how you act in response to those judgments.

At any given moment, I choose to believe others are doing the best they can. Learning to fully accept yourself and the people you encounter this way will bring you peace. Don’t get me wrong: there isn’t a perfect recovery from perfectionism—because we’re all imperfect. This very dilemma reminds us that imperfection is human nature. That’s not only okay; it’s a part of the deal.

Practicing imperfection sounds ironic, but on the contrary, it offers a more authentic human experience. How does this circle back to shame? If you remain judgmental and don’t tackle your shame, it will only grow. Your compulsion will continue to have fuel. On the flip side, transparency, sharing, and acceptance help you build shame resiliency.

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