We all feel the hot rush of shame from time to time. But when these thoughts keep recurring they lead to anxiety and prevent us from living our best lives.
Most of us are familiar with feelings of shame: that flush of discomfort that makes us want to hide away and never face the world again. But when these thoughts keep recurring, or when our fear of making a fool of ourselves causes us to avoid situations, then shame can lead to anxiety, which that can inhibit our engagement with the world.
In order to overcome our feelings of shame, we first need to understand what causes them. They can often come from outdated beliefs about how we ‘should’ behave. When we let go of these limiting beliefs we can accept ourselves as good enough just the way we are. Self-acceptance isn’t easy, but it is essential to living a happy and fulfilling life.
Shame and anxiety
Shame can lead to anxiety if we dwell on past experiences where we felt we said or did something wrong. Often we feel shame because we place high expectations on our own behavior. We try to achieve perfection in everything we do. This then leads to feelings of anxiety because we constantly fear making a mistake that will cause us to feel shame in the future. This fear can become paralyzing. It can make the simplest social interactions difficult and everyday life an obstacle course where our perceived flaws may let us down at any moment.
The roots of shame
The roots of shame can be very deep. The word shame means ‘to cover up’. The bible uses it to describe how humans felt when they first realized that there was something about themselves that needed covering. Ideas such as original sin, the belief that there is something inherently bad about us, compound issues of shame. Subjects such as sexuality, sensuality, and physicality can cause feelings of shame. This may be because religions emphasized the purity of spirit and the shameful aspects of the body. Many cultures use shaming as a form of social control to persuade people to conform to certain socially approved standards. This happens in families too.
In early childhood, when we do not meet the expectations of important figures around us, we can be made to feel ashamed of our words, action, feelings and bodies. We may have been told we are too loud, too quiet, too emotional, too reserved or too much or too little of anything. These labels stick and make us feel that there is something inherently wrong with us.
During our teenage years, if we cannot compete with our peers in looks, intelligence, sporting ability, clothes and possessions we may be excluded. When our desperate need to belong is thwarted, we may blame ourselves. This leads to deep feelings of self-loathing. And as adults, we may feel shame at needing the help of others or not being as successful in the world as we expected to be. Through these experiences growing up and reaching adulthood, we somehow learn that the way we are is not good enough.
Cultural differences can exacerbate our sense of unbelonging. When we feel that our own thoughts and feelings don’t match with those of our family and culture it can have a damaging affect on our psyche. This makes self-acceptance all but impossible. Feelings of never being good enough can lead to depression or addiction as we blame ourselves for our failures. Alternatively, they may lead to anger, when we strike out in defense against those that have highlighted our perceived flaws. Feeling inadequate can also cause social anxiety, overwork, and perfectionism as we desperately try to fit in and make ourselves acceptable.
The importance of belonging
Belonging is a human need that goes back to our ancestors. In our ancient past, exclusion from the tribe would have meant almost certain death. We needed our tribal family to survive. Today, our survival is not so closely tied to a social or family group. But in truth, we still cannot thrive alone. So we begin to feel we cannot win. Our true selves don’t fit with the society we live. So in order to be accepted, we feel we must change, work harder, become better and conceal any aspects of ourselves that might be perceived as wrong.
The alternative to striving so hard to be perfect is to accept ourselves the way we are. Self-acceptance can help us because when we truly believe that we are basically good, decent human beings despite our inadequacies, we can let go of the fear that we will do or say something of which we are ashamed. Through self-acceptance, we discover that, although we have different feelings, desires and needs from those of others, we are valuable, acceptable and whole just as we are.
How self-acceptance can heal
Learning to accept ourselves can be hard in a society where hard work, striving and self-improvement are valued so highly. Our culture plays on our fear of not being good enough to sell us ‘cures’ for our pain. We feel ashamed of our wrinkles, lack of sexual prowess, excess weight, earning power, body odor, social skills, and possessions. Unfortunately, the self-help movement can be one of the biggest culprits in this. It often sells us books, courses, workshops and other tools of ‘self-improvement’ while rarely teaching that we are good enough as we are.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to learn new things, better our skills and improve our emotional and physical well-being. However, this needs to come from a place of accepting ourselves fully as we are. A child does not learn to walk by being ashamed of crawling. A child learns to walk out of curiosity, determination and a desire to develop. Neither is there anything wrong with buying things we want as long as our choices are not fuelled by feelings of inadequacy. To buy a beautiful shirt or a stylish vase for the sheer pleasure of using and enjoying them is completely different from buying products because at a deep level we feel inadequate without them.
Moving towards self-acceptance
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix way to gain this sense of self-acceptance for many. This process is hard work and can at times be painful and frustrating. But just knowing that you have a choice, that it isn’t your duty to feel guilty for every minor misdemeanor, slip up or social hiccup, helps the burden feel a little lighter. It is also helpful to avoid people who deliberately try to shame you in any way.
To help move toward self-acceptance, when feelings of shame arise, try to relax and breath through them. Resist the temptation to follow the emotion down a rabbit warren of self-analysis, condemnation, and judgment. And when you find that you have, return your focus to the breath and try to relax once more. Keep relaxing through your sense of shame until it becomes second nature to react this way. Eventually, you will begin to accept that you are good enough as you are.
It can also be helpful to examine where this sense of shame came from. We pick up many beliefs as children and in our adult lives. Examine these beliefs carefully and decide for yourself whether you still consider them to be true.
Imagine the relief, the weight lifted from our shoulders, if we could truly believe we were good enough. We can feel valuable, despite the limited funds in our bank account, our inability to cook a risotto and the body hair growing in places we would really rather it didn’t.
This wild, wonderful life is a gift to us and it is ours to spend as we will. We can choose not to spend our precious time, energy and attention on becoming what society deems acceptable. And we can choose to reject messages that play on our fears of not being good enough. Our values, ideas, and feelings are as valid as anyone else’s. It is possible to release the sense that there is anything about us that is not acceptable. Of course, we must do all this while being aware that others also have that right. In choosing to accept ourselves just as we are it is essential that we honor others in the same way.