I’m Hiding, Please See Me: Unmasking Shame
Now in week #3 of my August 2020 Sabbatical-Sort Of, I’m still meeting with clients, and last week one very hard-working client sent me the article I’m Hiding, Please See Me: Unmasking Shame by Dr. Nikki Rollo. It’s excellent.
I’ve written and taught passionately for more than a decade about the power of shame to derail our resilience and the power of healing shame to recover our resilience. [See The Power of Mindful Empathy to Heal Toxic Shame] And beginning in September 2020 will offer clinical consultation to mental health professionals who want to become more skillful in safely, efficiently, effectively re-wiring their clients’ patterns of shame.
With Dr. Rollo’s permission, I’ve excerpted key parts of her article here: a brief exploration of the landscape of shame (familiar to every person on the planet even if not spoken in words) and 5 brief but wise and effective suggestions for healing shame. Some of the best recent writing on healing shame that I’ve seen. May it be truly helpful on your own journey.
I’m Hiding, Please See Me: Unmasking Shame [excerpted]
By Nikki Rollo, PhD, LMFT
At the core of our humanity is an inexorable search for connection. It is what brings meaning to our lives. In this pursuit, we are asking questions about our identity and looking for answers that will help us define who we are in the world. We are searching for a place of belonging and a community we can call home. We are looking for safe emotional spaces where the whole of who we are can be expressed, witnessed, and validated.
As we search for connection, we inevitably will encounter our shame. The Jungian tradition that says we all have a shadow and in it are the darker and rejected parts of ourselves that we struggle to accept and integrate. These may be things that are incompatible with our outward presentation, such as anger, rage, hatred, or jealousy. These are the parts of ourselves about which, somewhere along the way in our development, we received messages stating they were unacceptable, not good enough, or defective. Shame and self-criticism live and even thrive in the shadow.
Shame is hard to reach, and when we do touch it, our instinct is to quickly move to cover ourselves up. We want to hide, get far away, or pretend it isn’t there. How much can I tolerate to face what I need to face in order to move toward healing and wholeness?
Shame is a conviction at the very core that one is defective and worthless. It is a deeply rooted emotion that one is bad, is wrong, and can’t do anything right. Shame is accompanied by self-loathing and feelings of deep inadequacy. It must be distinguished from guilt, which is the feeling that one has transgressed a boundary, hurt someone, or done something wrong. Guilt is typically followed by remorse and an attempt to make amends. It can actually be a beneficial feeling to motivate us when we have not lived up to our values and commitments or if we have wronged or hurt someone. Shame is not about doing anything wrong or bad, but more about a deep embarrassment and humiliation connected to feeling inadequate at the core of oneself. It is an overwhelming sensation that one is small, insignificant, and fundamentally flawed or defective.
Shame-inducing experiences can happen to us as children and as adults. If one experiences frequent shaming or something happens that breaks our spirit, we may come to believe it is our fault, that we deserved it, and that we are not worth taking up space and existing in this world. It is something that becomes woven into our identity. When we are in the landscape of shame, we are living with both the fear of being seen and then the opposing fear of vanishing and being insignificant and meaningless to others.
A Healing Path
We don’t like to talk about shame. It is hard. It is uncomfortable. More than anything, it is painful. As a result, we shy away from vulnerability and openness about our shame states, leaving us ashamed of being ashamed, denying our experiences, and remaining silent, isolated, and disconnected.
While we would prefer to prevent shame-inducing experiences, it is a reality of life that people, young and old, all throughout the life span, are confronted with emotional, physical, financial, spiritual, or social adversities with potential for activating shame. The question then becomes how we best support those who have been affected by significantly stressful life situations and help them develop resiliency in the face of adversity.
Brené Brown’s shame resilience theory places resiliency and shame on opposite ends of a continuum. On one end are the concerns of being deep in shame, such as feeling trapped, isolated, or powerless. On the other side are the elements of resilience such as connection, experiencing empathy from another, having power, and feeling freedom. The elements of shame resilience are: recognizing and accepting personal vulnerability, having critical awareness about sociocultural expectations, forming mutually empathic relationships, and having the language to speak about shame.
Healing requires becoming acquainted with ourselves anew.
1. Connecting to ourselves with mindfulness and self-compassion.
Nurturing our capacity to relate to ourselves with a sense of kindness and care. (Paul Gilbert, compassion-focused therapy. Kristin Neff, self-compassion )
Cultivating self-compassion and responsibility. (Michael Berrett)
- What was I thinking?
- What was I feeling?
- What did I need at that time?
- What did I do to strive to meet my need?
- What was I trying to accomplish/hoping for?
- What was the true intent of my heart?
2. Challenging the impulse to keep secrets
Shame and secrets go hand in hand. They fester in the shadowy spaces of our inner landscape, becoming toxic if we do not talk about them. (Brene Brown) Deconstructing shame is an essential aspect of the recovery process. We need to tell our stories from a place of compassion and authenticity and have our experiences legitimized, witnessed, and validated. Through this exploration, we can learn more about our values and our sense of inner truth, and make movements toward wholeness—which must include the light and beauty as well as the dark and imperfect.
3. Exploring identity and expression of the authentic self
A shame-based identity becomes the filter through which the world is viewed. We naturally compare ourselves to others. Feelings of not being enough or being insignificant affect relationships, love, work, and spirituality. Moving past shame is about understanding and accepting who we are and worrying less about who we are not.
It is of great worth to spend time retrieving the rejected, lost, or split off parts of ourselves and to welcome them back home. This integration allows a more authentic and whole expression of identity separate from shame. This work is closely tied to the journey of becoming a more self-compassionate person.
4 Committing to establishing connections and finding belonging
If shame is about rejection, feeling different or not worthy of connection, then healing must include maximizing connections and a sense of belonging. Shame makes us feel separate from others. Restoration of what was broken matters deeply in the healing process. In considering shame as the breaking of the interpersonal bridge, relationships are an essential aspect of the healing.
Resilient people reach out for help even when it is hard. In connectedness, there is mutual empathy. We delve more deeply into the lives of one another, seeking to understand, listen, share, and have our light and dark aspects seen through the eyes of love. From this place of connectedness, shame can be brought out from the shadow into the light. Again, the practice of compassion and self-compassion can help us nurture relationships that have depth and authenticity.
5. Cultivating a sense of meaning and purpose
The moving writings of Viktor Frankl remind us that in the face of great adversity and unimaginable suffering, finding or maintaining a sense of meaning is what makes the difference between giving up and finding a life worth living. We need connection and belonging to challenge the isolation of shame. We need purpose and places to express our authentic selves, access our compassion for self and others, and give back to the world.
We can find these moments and opportunities all around us, in our everyday life. Finding meaning and purpose is about making the world a better place by showing up with our wholeness, with a willingness to be vulnerable, connect, and listen carefully to our inner voice and the voices of others.
There is light and hope for healing from shame. We can learn emotional resilience and develop an inner sense of security and trust in others and ourselves. We can develop well-being and increase our joy and sense of safety in the world at any point in our lives
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
– Walt Whitman, from “Song of the Open Road”:
Dr. Nikki Rollo is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California and New York and has worked in various aspects of mental health and eating disorder treatment for fifteen years. http://www.nikkirollo.com/