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Bringing Light to Shame

There are least three essential elements that dissolve shame.  Shame begins to dissolve when exposed to the light of your consciousness and the presence of caring others.  This means naming it out loud.  The more specifically you name it, the more it loses its power.  Shame further loses its hold on you when you connect with the need or value you hold regarding the situation in which shame was triggered.  Lastly, shame has trouble even coming up when you consistently tend to a connection with your own goodness and grounded sense of who you are and what you contribute to life.

Naming shame means naming the felt sense of it as well as the images and words that feed it.  Describing the felt sense of something means you are attempting to capture bodily sensations and emotions in a simple way.  Here are some examples of how I have heard the felt sense of shame described:

  • "It feels like a turtle suddenly pulling her head into her shell."

  • "It's like a tidal wave that I can't stop."

  • "It's like all the switches are flipped and everything is shutting down."

  • "I start to freeze and my throat won't let any words through."

  • "There's a weight pulling me down to the bottom of the ocean."

  • "It's like having a cold.  I can feel this dis-ease in the background."

Just naming it in a simple way like this can create immediate relief.  As soon as you name it, you are not just having the experience, you are also reflecting on the experience.  This makes you bigger than the shame, and therefore able to access more of your compassion, wisdom, and skills.

The next impulse you have might be to start arguing with shame, telling it how it shouldn't be there and how you really are a good person and everyone makes mistakes.  This is actually a movement against yourself and will not dissolve shame, but rather simply create another layer of inner conflict.

Simply focus on being with shame.  Name out loud the images that shame is offering up.  For example, "Shame keeps showing me the image of the other person's face when I said that thing I regret saying."  Name out loud any words that shame is using.  Shame words often take the form of "shoulds" and identity attacks like "I am a failure", "Something is really wrong with me," "I'm not fit to…", etc.

Next, ask yourself what you really care about regarding the situation in which shame came up.  Often the needs / values at stake in a situation that triggers shame are one of the following:  being a good person, contributing to others, belonging, acceptance, to be seen for your good intentions, respect, safety, and to be loved/liked.  Say the value out loud to a caring other who can just offer a head nod or a gentle "of course" (not someone who will try to talk you out of shame).  Even if shame or other parts of you are pushing you not to own the need/value underneath, say it aloud anyway.  Sometimes getting yourself to say this part out loud can feel like moving through molasses, but it's worth it.  Allowing this need/value to exist in you by naming it and seeing another respond positively to it, further breaks the spell of shame.

Lastly, devote time and attention to naming and claiming who you are.  This is helpful to do on your own in meditation, journaling, or creative expression.  It's even more helpful to claim it out loud in front of those close to you.  A deep sense of your own goodness takes root when you see it reflected in the eyes of those around you and you allow yourself to trust and receive that reflection of your own goodness.  You are wired for this social bond and reflection.  Use it as a doorway to transformation.

Taking in someone else seeing the light in you means standing still and quiet as someone offers you an appreciation and allowing yourself to feel pleased and joyful.  It means stating who you are without adding a "but" on the end.  For example, naming and claiming who you are aloud might sound something like this, "I am someone who loves easily", "I am someone who is devoted to equity for all", "I know I am a good person", "I have an ability to see the light in others", "I am made of love", etc.  It's important here that this really is naming and claiming and not just dreamy words.  It might take some experimenting to find the words that you can say authentically and from a place of groundedness.  Take the time to find these words and challenge yourself to speak them aloud as often as possible.


This week look for opportunities to bring light to shame.  Don't wait for big tidal waves of shame.  Look for the rivulets of shame; a should, a turning away, a ducking, a tightening, an impulse to withdraw, a decision to hold back your aliveness; then speak them out loud in the presence of someone who cares for you.


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8 Responses

  1. Jun 25, 2015

    This piece on naming shame was so helpful in ways I can hardly describe just now. Knowing that all those years I was feeling rivulets to tidal waves of shame that could have been addressed differently makes me sad but determined to be more on my own side, and hopefully alert to how it's affecting my loved ones and how to help.
    Thank you!

  2. Jun 25, 2015

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for taking the time to write and let me. I am so glad to contribute around this very difficult thing. I appreciate the dedication you are bringing to this work :)

  3. Jun 25, 2015

    This makes sense for shame you feel because you violated your own values or made a mistake, but what about shame you feel because of systematic discrimination or social judgment? How do you counter-act shame from being oppressed, or being powerless in the face of dehumanizing systems?

  4. Jun 25, 2015

    I love this LaShelle. I love how naming the shame allows you to stand back from it, shame is such a biggy, even to lift ones eyes up and see it takes such courage, as its so energy sapping and immobilising.

  5. Jun 26, 2015

    Now that's a tougher question...I think all that I said in the gem still applies, and there is perhaps a naming with empathy that has to happen regularly around how we don't actually function as little islands. We function in systems and so if the system is unhealthy then it's pretty tough to get enough resources to the individual in that system so that she or he can maintain a resourced state.

    I wonder if someone like Nelson Mandela might have written about this and have much more wisdom than I can offer.

  6. Jun 26, 2015

    Thanks Kate, yeah, it's a biggy, and your bigger ;)

  7. Jun 26, 2015

    Could you offer a helpful comment or insight that I could use for my 94 yr. old mom (who used shaming quite a bit on us kids growing up) I live with her, and now that she's much more feeble, drops things, spills things, etc. she seems to be shaming herself when she says, as she often does, "I should be shot" or "I should be sent off to Siberia", or "a nursing home".

  8. Sep 06, 2015

    Chris, I bet you could start to meet her by making some empathetic guesses about what she's feeling in those moments.

    This is the perfect gem for me at the moment, as a friend left me because I failed to live up to both our standards for social justice and equality, and unfortunately she was so understandably weary she had no energy to stay connected while I have worked not to shut down and to change instead. I don't know if I've done it perfectly or even well because old shame bleeds into new shame and it's been a fight not to go straight into suicidal shame. I feel sad about my failures, but still committed to grieving my behavior and encouraging myself to do better. Thanks for this gem!

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