Why We Experience Shame and How to Overcome It

Why We Experience Shame and How to Overcome It

To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. – Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever wondered why we experience shame? Do you ever take the time to notice your thoughts? The thoughts that dominate our minds genuinely do inform how we experience life. These are some common thoughts many people have:

  • I wish I had their house
  • I wish I had his (her) body
  • I wish I had her (his) romantic partner
  • I wish I were as attractive as him (her)
  • I wish I were as successful as her (him)

With these thoughts, we wish away any possibility we have for freedom and peace. Implicit in each of these thoughts is the idea that what we have, what we do and who we are is not enough. We have all heard the phrase, “The grass is greener on the other side.” The truth is that our own grass can be very green if we cultivate it and see its beauty. If we change our own thoughts, the grass we thought was dull and brown can become vibrant and verdant.

Why We Experience Shame and How to Overcome It

It is also essential to evaluate the origin of our negative self-thoughts. Did something happen to you early in your life that informed a deeply rooted belief that you are not enough?  

For me, my own struggle with inadequacy began when I was a child. My dad battled alcoholism, and because of this, I never felt comfortable inviting friends over to my home to spend the night, because I was afraid my dad might go into a rage or embarrass me in some way. My dad’s shortcomings left me feeling like both my family and I did not measure up.

📌Your childhood may not have been perfect, but it’s over.

Even though my dad’s struggles led me to develop some insecurity, I’m aware that my dad’s life helped to inform my view of myself in both positive and negative ways. Despite his own demons with addiction, when he wasn’t drunk, he was very kind to me and regularly told my brothers and me that he was proud of us. In my youth, I also experienced my dad’s pride when I ran into friends of his, who often would tell me he had been bragging about me.

I am grateful I have always been celebrated and accepted by my parents. As a child they never had unrealistic expectations of me, and I know I’m fortunate to have had this type of love. I did not have to earn their love by playing a particular sport, doing a specific job, dating a particular person or fulfilling their dreams for me. They wanted me to chart my own path. I feel like my parents have done an excellent job, permitting us to be exactly who we are.

Now as an adult, I still need this type of love, and I am grateful to have friends who accept and love me unconditionally. In the journey of healing our shame, we must seek out friends and family who love us, warts and all. Who in your life celebrates you in such a way that you feel like you are enough in their presence?

As a counselor, I have met with many clients who have shared that either one or both of their parents had such high expectations of them that they felt like they were never good enough.

The root of their own shame was parental expectations that they should be perfect. Being raised by a parent with high expectations is just one of many causes of shame. These are just a few childhood origins of people’s struggle with self-worth:

  • Struggling with an illness like autism or attention deficit disorder that left you feeling different
  • Comparing yourself to a sibling, who from your vantage point appeared to be more popular, attractive or successful than you are
  • Experiencing physical, sexual or emotional abuse that left visible and invisible wounds that made you feel like you were not worthy
  • Dealing with high parental expectations that wrongly permitted you to believe your attempts to succeed in sports, arts, and school were all a failure
  • Witnessing a parent who struggled to see their beauty and berated you and themselves on issues of weight and/or eating choices.
  •  Making choices at an early age regarding sex, drugs or alcohol that you regretted and that left you with toxic levels of shame.

The list above is not an exhaustive list, but it is a reminder that there are many causes of shame; the feeling we are not enough. The good news is that we can change the way we see ourselves if we know the roots of our shame, surround ourselves with friends who accept us as we are and replace our negative self-thoughts with positive ones.

Consider joining me in the following meditation:

Please start with your hands at heart center in prayer.

Say the words, I am, as you take a deep breath in and reach your hands over your head and allow your palms to touch.  On your exhale, utter the words, enough, and bring your hands back to heart center in prayer.

Ask yourself the question, “What happened in my childhood that left me feeling like I am not enough?”  Take time to process this question.

Once again speak the words, I am, as you take a deep breath in and reach your hands over your head and allow your palms to touch. On your exhale, utter the words, enough, and bring your hands back to heart center in prayer.

Ponder the question, “Who in my life accepts and celebrates me just as they find me?” Offer a prayer of gratitude for this person and set the intention to keep surrounding yourself with people like this.

Once again speak the words, I am, as you take a deep breath in and reach your hands over your head and allow your palms to touch. On your exhale, utter the words, enough, and bring your hands back to heart center in prayer.

Contemplate the question, “What is one negative message you regularly tell yourself and how can you replace this destructive thought with a positive one?”For example, if you regularly tell yourself you are ugly, try saying to yourself aloud, “I am beautiful.”

To close this meditation, say, “I am enough” to yourself one last time.

📌…Let me show you what I see. I see galaxies in your eyes and fire in your hair. I see journeys in your palms and adventure waiting in your smile. I see what you cannot: you are absolutely, maddeningly, irrevocably perfect. – Ariana Reines

Remember that changing your thoughts will not happen overnight.  Thoreau reminded us that we must constantly repeat to ourselves “the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

When we give up the notion of “the grass being greener on the other side,” and start nurturing the grass we already have through affirmative self-talk, our own grass can become luxuriant and lively.

So I encourage you to change your thought patterns, stay connected to accepting friends and investigate the deep-seated roots of your shame, and I believe you will be on your way to living life more abundantly.

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