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Changing the Shame Game

girl feeling ashamed
Written by Amy Phoenix

Warning: the nature of this article may be triggering, however, if you read it through you will potentially experience some palpable relief from a very deeply held pattern that deserves your attention.


Shame on you.

Shame on you for reading this article when you probably have more important things to do. Shame on you for mothering in a way that’s different than others. Shame on you for speaking up about what you believe. Shame on you for not doing it in a way that others can receive. shame on you for making mistakes, not meeting the expectations of others (or yourself) and, really, for just being you.

How does that feel? Did you even make it through the whole paragraph?

There are two ways we experience shame, which is loosely defined as a painful feeling resulting from the awareness that we’ve done some-thing wrong. One way is from the out-side, from comments like those above. We receive shame from others when we don’t meet societal expectations and norms.

Let’s be honest. It feels ultra rotten to be shamed. Ultra. It doesn’t really matter who is doing the shaming, someone we are close to or some-one we don’t know very well, it just feels bad. How do we respond? When we’re little, we generally shrink. some-how, in some way, we absorb the shame into our being and accept it as true. We believe that we are wrong. Alternatively, we rebel against it while simultaneously wrestling with whether or not it is true. At a very basic level of existence, we question if we are wrong. Maybe we focus on the action that was deemed wrong, but more often we focus on simply being. Are we wrong for being here, being in this environment, even being alive?

What do we do then?

We remain confused, find some space in between or begin to shame our-selves – and others. We buy into, or rather unconsciously fall into, the trap that shaming people will actually help them do differently. Maybe they’ll feel so bad or recognize their wrong so deeply that they’ll experience an awakening and never do that thing they did so bad, again.

How has this worked for you in your lifetime? Go ahead, see if you can find some instances where shame – and shame alone – has catapulted you, or someone you know, toward lasting, positive change.

Sometimes shame is part of the picture when we make changes. For example, when I struggled with anger and discipline as a young mom I certainly felt shame. I knew that there were times when my actions were wrong, harmful. However, the same shame I felt contributed to a fear of actually get-ting the help I needed. I feared that no one would understand or actually be able to help me. I felt afraid that I would be labelled, that I would not be seen for the good mom I could be and was most of the time. The shame was like a veil, a thin veil of stagnant mucous hanging over me, keeping me right where I was.

That’s because shame doesn’t really motivate; shame instigates a sense of wrongness in a person’s way of being. shame shames, and its potential to keep us where we are is so strong that we might just continue the cycle of shame with our own children because we don’t have the skills to do anything else.

Do we really want to carry on the idea that we must feel bad to do good?

It’s possible, though, that we could feel bad even considering that question. Where do we start if we want to address how we use and experience shame, not meeting expectations and learning how to move about in a world where people attempt to motivate others with shame?

Maybe we can start with how we feel and what we do with what we feel.

The reason we feel shame is because we feel like we’ve done something wrong or we are somehow wrong as a person. Let’s back up a bit though.

Why do we shame others?

We want them to change. We want them to know how their actions affect others. We want them to hurt like we do. We want them to realize exactly how wrong their actions are. Dig a little deeper. We don’t want to feel what-ever we are feeling, the feeling that arises in us in response to their wrong-doing.

When we feel that disappointment, frustration, irritation or outright rage about another person’s actions we want to do something with those feelings. We don’t want them. In some circles, this would be called displacement. We turn our anger into shame for the other. In some way, it makes sense that we would attribute our bad feelings to the person who we perceive causes them.

Wait, though, aren’t our feelings in us? I mean, when I feel anger I feel it in my body, not yours. Why do we need to spread our feelings outside of ourselves with the use of shame?

Maybe we don’t know what to do with what we feel. Possibly we’ve never been taught how to feel what we feel, own it and choose how we respond. The shame game is all we’ve known and we know it well. shame laces all types of relationships from friendships to marriages and work. The media uses shame, as do people hiding behind online identities on social networks and alluring websites. Interestingly, the adult-child relationship is probably the most notorious for the use of shame. Children are continually shamed for doing things that don’t meet societal expectations. Even the most loving parent can find herself using shame as a tool to promote better behavior. Not because it works, but because it’s an ingrained habit, and for some odd reason we think it’s necessary.

Shame is not necessary to learn, grow or even operate within a society of various expectations. We do not need to feel bad to learn how to do good. If we feel bad because we did something harmful and it promotes a desire to do different, that’s called integrity. We don’t need to instigate this feeling of badness in ourselves or others, though. If it is necessary and helpful, it can come from within as a result of our actions and as a pointer for us to make different choices.

My experiences with shame have done just that: spurred me to learn and practice new ways of being with what I feel so I don’t unload it onto my children in the form of shame.

Here are three ways we can move away from, relinquish and replace shame while we encourage responsibility for one’s actions.

Instead of shaming our children, we can model personal responsibility and accountability while we share the gifts of personal choice and empowerment.

See shame for what it is: a pointer to check in and be with what we feel. Sure, shame may point to a deviation from an expectation, so that may be worth addressing. Learning to be with what we feel can help us attend to the expectation aspect more clearly. Whether we are feeling shame because of something we have done, or we are in the throes of shaming someone else, we are feeling something. What are we feeling? We need to stop and really notice what’s going on inside of ourselves.

We can start right now. stop for a few moments and bring all of your attention into this moment. Notice how it feels to breathe. Really bring your attention into your body, feeling the rise and fall of your chest. As you notice your breath and body, also notice the space in your body. You can start in your fingertips, noticing the life energy that is present in your hands. Do this throughout your whole body as you focus on the simple rhythm of your breath. Notice any tension present and just allow it to be here.

Now bring to mind a situation where you felt shame, or anger. Locate the space in your body where you feel the feeling. With the same simple noticing you are bringing to your breath and body, bring gentle attention to the sensation. Welcome it in your body. Notice what happens. sometimes we feel more intensely when we do this. Other times it sort of washes through like a wave. If it feels like too much, focus deeply on breathing. When you’re ready, ask the sensation what it needs. Often, we receive a simple response that we can understand. Maybe we need love, to be heard, or some help.

When we acknowledge the simple space that is the basis of our being we create the space to meet shame and other emotions on the inside. As we do this we can gradually transition to learning how to feel what we feel more responsibly, so we don’t throw shame on ourselves or others. We can share this ability with our children by example, stopping in the moment to notice how we feel and–out loud–actually describing our inner process of feeling what we feel while deciding how to respond without shame on ourselves, them or others.

For example, we might feel very angry if we are cut off while driving, some-one made a snide comment about our parenting choices, or our child does something we loathe. Instead of berating that person, ourselves, or our child for behaving a certain way, we can speak out loud about how we feel and what we would like to have happen in very simple terms. “I feel angry that someone drove so quickly in front of me. I really appreciate it when I have plenty of space between me and other drivers. I feel angry that someone made a comment about my parenting choices. I would like to have the freedom to parent the way that feels right to me. I feel angry that you told me you hate me. I want us to share loving words with each other.” We can name our feelings and the behavior without adding our own judgments or evaluations of the person. We can learn to be with what we feel as we communicate clearly about how we are feeling. We turn the tendency to shame into an opportunity to be responsible for what we do with how we feel.

Own the ability to choose. This is huge! We choose how we respond to shame and whether or not we continue to perpetuate the use of shame to motivate. Simply consider that we are always choosing our response to life. We may feel choice-less, but as soon as we begin saying to ourselves, “I choose how I think about and respond to shame,” and start looking for evidence of the many choices we have, we will begin to realize that we re-ally can choose our relationship with shame. We can relinquish shame if we choose to do so.

Our kids, on the other hand, may not have a choice if we are using shame to teach them. They’re going to absorb the shame to some degree. Even if we are transitioning from shame, they will undoubtedly experience it simply because of the world we live in. We can still choose how we talk about and respond to shame. We can be honest about shame, what it is, what it points to and what we can do instead. We can share with our children how we choose to replace shame with honoring the ability to choose.

When we feel inclined to shame another parent or child for doing something we do not agree with, we can step back a bit and choose to be curious about their choices. We can ask our child why they think a child may make that choice. What might that child be thinking or feeling? We can do this with ourselves when we feel judgmental of another parent. As we allow some space for reflection we may find a way to be supportive of that child or parent instead of condemning. In my experience, encouragement and support go much farther in helping a person be their best than any amount of condemnation.

Be accountable. Human beings seem to have an inner checks and balances system. We want to be accountable and we want others to be account-able. When you feel like you want someone to be accountable, start with yourself. Be accountable for how you are handling the experience of wanting another person to be accountable. Be responsible for what you do with how you feel and how you communicate with that person about accountability.

Model the behavior you want to see in another – be it your child, partner or another parent. When you slip up, admit your mistakes and communicate what you will do differently in the future. Mentally rehearse doing it different next time. If you’re short on communication skills that aren’t shaming, learn some. Consider Nonviolent Communication or Collaborative Problem Solving to relinquish shame and share gifts of compassion and personal responsibility with yourself and those you love.

Shame is an age old practice that many of us are finding has little value. As we realize that shame doesn’t have a place in our relationships we are stretched to move beyond shame, trusting that we can pioneer a path that is worthy of the lives we are entrusted. Pioneer the path, our children are waiting.

About the author

Amy Phoenix