I want to share with you my story of dealing with shame. I reckon you might have felt it before. So I hope this post can shed some light on this subject.
I grew up in a traditional Chinese family. My parents had high expectations of me, and they always feared that if I weren’t good enough, my life would suffer like theirs. From a young age, I was criticized and reprimanded harshly and made to believe that I was inadequate and unworthy. Once, my dad slapped me in the face for not getting a full score in the exam, and my mum lashed out at me in a hair salon full of people because I begged the hairdresser not to cut my hair too short. My life had to go how they had planned it for me, and it was never okay to want what I want.
As an adult, I learned to become the chameleon. On the one hand, because of the low self-esteem that I have developed from childhood, I was yearning for others’ approval and eager to please. On the other hand, because I was so disconnected from what I truly believe and value, it was actually easy for me to change my words and behaviors to follow others to win approval. On the surface, I was doing just fine.
But deep down, I knew I was miserable. My needs and wants were never fulfilled as I didn’t know what they were, and even if I did, I couldn’t actively ask or look for people to meet them because of my deep-seated low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness. There was a void inside me that grew bigger and bigger every day, even though I looked cheerful on the outside.
At first, it was the grieve of isolation and not being loved that hit me. Then anger came when I realized how I had allowed others to violate my boundaries. However, it wasn’t until one day after peeling off these first two layers of pain that I realized that behind them lies the deep-rooted shame that I was fundamentally a bad person. Implanted by my parents when I was a child, this feeling never left me but took on the form of anger, resentment, and depression.
And so the truth is that I had been trying to be someone else all these years because I was ashamed of who I am.
The discovery numbed me. It froze my body and glued my butt to the chair. It then brought streams of tears down on my face. For an hour or two, I couldn’t do anything but cry.
What is shame?
Shame is the painful feeling that one is inadequate, flawed and undeserving of love. Different from guilt, which criticizes oneself for doing something bad, shame accuses you of being bad as a person. Many who suffer from shame grew up with parents who couldn’t distinguish between “doing wrong” and “being wrong”. For example, you might have failed a test when you were a kid, but instead of reproaching you for not having studied hard enough or being careless in the exam, your parents or school teacher shamed you for being an awful student. Without the critical thinking ability before the age of eight, you were likely to internalize the criticism and regard yourself as incompetent.
Guile and shame exert drastically different impacts on those who experience them. As the shame researcher Brene Brown pointed out in her book, guilt can encourage corrective actions based on the mistakes that they’ve made, while shame does little more than paralyzes you or makes you want to crawl on the floor.
We were born with the ability to feel shame. We first felt it when our caregivers failed to meet our physical or emotional needs, intentionally and inadvertently. For example, a baby sees its mother coming, shows her a smile, and expects one in return, and if the mother is too occupied to notice the baby, it will be left thinking that it is not loved by its mommy and will feel the painful feeling of shame.
The more neglectful and abusive are the parents, the more frequent that the child in the family will feel shame. Narcissistic parents, who lack empathy for their children’s needs and wants, are prone to blame the child for having them. To avoid the painful feeling of shame and to strive for love, the child learns to suppress his (her) true self and adopts rules and guidelines from their parents to judge themselves.
People who suffered from shame as a child go on experiencing emotional disconnection even after they grow up. The criticism and reproach that they received from their parents now serve as guidelines of how they see themselves and people around them.
They often find both unacceptable, which leads to low self-esteem, self-blame, anger, resent, and depression.
Because of this, the life of those who suffer from shame is soaked in pain and isolation.
No one has to suffer from shame for all his (her) life. There are many ways to overcome it, but the first important step is to recognize it and own it (because shame is the hidden under many other negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression, you might not even notice shame before you experience the covering layers.)
Many people are afraid to admit to their shame for fear of other’s judgment. But in fact, almost everyone has felt it at some point in their life. The reason shame has so much power on us is precisely because we keep it as a secret. It’s when we bring this shadow to light that it will cease to control us. It doesn’t require any skills or techniques. All you need is the courage to acknowledge this feeling.
Next time when the discomfort of shame arises, don’t resist it. Stay present with the feeling even though it is painful and let it run through you. You’re not your shame, and when you face it head on, it will dissipate and loses it power over you.
It takes more than a few times to process the shame since it has been stacked up since your childhood. It may not be the most comfortable experience but if you are committed to living your authentic self and be happy, it is the painful stage that you have to go through.
Many times after my initial breakout of shame, I’d ask this question: why me? Why am I the one who suffers and why can’t I be “normal” and never have to walk on this painful path of awakening to my true self?
I will never get the full answer, but I think my soul has chosen this plan. It saw the potential of the change, and it wants to be of service to all. If you have also asked similar questions like this, I think the answer is the same: your soul chose this path before it came to the physical world. The vibrational change from suppressing yourself to living your true self will serve as a template to every single human being in the world. Without you and your courage, our society would not have evolved.