Toxic shame, by its very nature is furtive, secretive and incredibly slippery. It loves to evade detection (attention) and loves to live in the dark hidden recesses of our psyche. Like a vampire, it hates the light of day (mindful attention). The first step toward working with shame is to learn how to detect it and then how to train the flashlight of our mind on it.
Why is it so secretive? Toxic shame is the experience that we are not OK. That our thoughts, feelings and experiences are not OK. Even the experience of shame itself is not OK. Therefore, since we are conditioned to believe that our experiences have no inherent legitimacy, then it is understandable that we remove our attention from these experiences. This only serves to conserve the experience, since without mindful exposure, there is little chance for habituation or extinction to occur. And thus, like a virus, it is free to infect us in perpetuity.
To reiterate from the last post, our job is not to get rid of shame (nor any other feeling). Such an endeavor would only serve to reinforce shame and the belief that what we feel is not OK. In fact, the existence of shame is lawfully determined, just as everything else in the universe. It exerts its damage by our attempts to evade and control it. So the antidote is to face shame with mindful intent and compassion.
The first step is to recognize its myriad manifestations. Again, like a vampire it can wear many disguises. Below are some things we might think, feel or do that may indicate the presence of shame:
–Frequently feeling that you are not good enough.
–Frequently comparing yourself to others
–Frequently apologizing to others.
–Dismissing or trivializing your accomplishments.
–Frequently feeling that you should be doing more or working harder.
–Often feeling that you are not OK as you are.
–Often feeling that nobody can love you as you are.
–Difficulty making decisions.
These are just some indicators. In the book, I include the Personal Shame Inventory which I developed to help folks develop a more thorough awareness of how shame may influence their feelings and behavior.
Once shame is recognized, we must call it out by name. Never try to get rid of it or otherwise control it. Just keep watching it and naming it for as long as you can recognize its presence. And watch what happens.
A little exercise: If you are able to identify and mindfully focus on the experience of shame, I am going to ask you to consider a seemingly strange question. If you were to describe shame as a physical substance, what would it be? Does it have a color? Does it have a texture? What does it look like? In the next blog, I will describe how most people describe the experience of shame. You may find the results very interesting.
As always, please feel free to provide your thoughts, questions, and personal experiences. I would love for people to answer the above questions before I post my own observations.