The Shame Game.

So how many of us here have ever played the shame game? No, it’s not something fun or playful, but rather a game at which most of us are well versed at playing. You know how it goes. You do something bad or you fail at something or someone makes you feel bad about something with a little comment or questionable look, and then you automatically begin to believe that what you did was not just bad but also makes you a bad person. 
Let me explain further what I mean.

Most of us feel one of two feelings when we do something wrong. Usually the first feeling we feel is guilt, and this is usually because our conscience recognizes that we have done something wrong. If we are good people, this guilt will usually convict us to make the bad situation right in some way, either by rectifying it or apologizing. However, there are a lot of us, who tend to feel another feeling that comes along after we’ve done something wrong and that is shame. Shame is when we recognize we have done something wrong, and even if after we have rectified the situation, we still feel as if we are terrible people for ever doing it in the first place. Sometimes we will tell ourselves we are failures or that we’re no good, or how could we be so stupid to do this? Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, also defines shame as “the intensely painful feelin that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” Shaming is a very unhealthy practice of self-hate and the complete opposite of giving ourselves compassion and self-love. So how could we possibly feel worthy of love and belonging when we are practicing such an act of self-hate towards ourselves. 

Why do we feel so much shame? I’m not sure where it originates from, but somewhere in our brains, after we recognize we’ve done something wrong or that someone makes us feel bad, we turn that guilt into shame. We tell ourselves that because we did something bad or because someone said something bad about us, it must mean that we are a bad person. It sounds silly when you state it as simply as that, but so many of us do this every single day. Someone will comment on how we could’ve done a better job on a project, and we take it personal, believing that our work was never any good in the first place and we are unworthy of the task. Or sometimes we make a mistake and hurt someone’s feelings. Instead of recognizing that we are human and sometimes make mistakes, we automatically assume that we are just terrible and undeserving of their friendship now because we have hurt them.

What if someone hurt us? What if they said something about us that completely hurt our feelings? Brene Brown also explains that most of the time our response to hurt can be shown through a few different responses. We can either one, retaliate by trying to hurt back because our own egos are bruised and their comment is making us feel some type of negative belief about ourselves that we are trying to defend isn’t true. Two, we can give in to their comment and shame ourselves into believing that we are the things that they have said. Or three, we can own our hurt, stand our ground and recognize that this belief is not true about us, but rather simply a belief, and we can build resilience against shame by showing ourselves compassion and self-love.

Our third option is our best bet. Our third option is what love would do. The other options only produce more fear and more shame, which we do not want any more of. However, when we instead allow ourselves to be vulnerable and own that pain, we open up the door to compassion, which is the key towards building that resilience and building up our arsenal of self-love. When we admit that we are hurt, either to ourselves or even to the other person, we are admitting that we are human. That something has bruised our egos. 

However, if we respond by defending ourselves to prove that we are not unworthy, we often will end up hurting ourselves even more.  When our egos feel bruised, it opens up the door to feeling like we are inadequate in some way and therefore, even possibly unworthy as human beings. We’ll say something we didn’t mean or do something even worse out of our own anxiety to prove something, and wind up in the end believing exactly the belief that we were trying to defend in the first place – that we are unworthy or unlovable or not good enough.

So how can we instead respond to our hurt with compassion? 

1. First we must not be so quick to defend. I’m not saying to accept what the other person has said or to accept what you did was ok, but I am saying don’t be so quick to retaliate or be so hard on yourself for making a mistake. Instead, take a few moments to breathe. Recognize the reason why you feel hurt. Recognize what made you do the action that you did. Do you feel hurt because what they said is making you feel unworthy? Or unlovable? Did you do what you did because you weren’t prepared? Or perhaps you took on a task too big to handle at this time? Either way, recognize where these feelings are cultivating from. 

2. Second, try to accept the feelings you have. Accept the fact that you are hurt. That you feel unworthy. That you feel like a failure. That you did something bad. Accept that you are human and that it is ok to feel this way sometimes

3. Third, show yourself compassion for how you are feeling. Tell yourself it’s ok that you feel this way. It’s ok that you made a mistake. Fourth, take action. Find out what you can do to rectify the situation. Find out how you can reaffirm yourself that you are not the things that have been said about you. Do not continue to shame yourself.

Today I had a shaming experiencing happen to me at work. Someone made me feel bad about my work ethic. I immediately reacted with my ego, feeling as if they had no right to comment on how I complete my work. At first I became defensive, trying to protect my own ego, exclaiming  “how dare they!” over and over again in my mind. I felt hurt because I knew I was a hard worker and that I am very smart when it comes to organizing my time and duties. The familiar pattern then followed and I began to turn inward, shaming myself for the comment I had been told. “Am I really a bad worker?” “Does this mean I am a bad person?” “Am I unworthy now?” I kept going between anger and sadness. Eventually, after an hour of going back and forth, I stopped myself. I owned up to my hurt. And I told myself I was not any of those things. I remembered that everyone has their opinions and just because one person made me feel this way did not mean it was true. I began to calm down, and feel like myself again. Sure, it hurts when anyone bruises your self-esteem, but you must remember who you are at your core.

Once we can begin to take these action steps, rather than automatically jumping to the conclusion of shame, we can begin to build the kind of shame resilience that Brene speaks of. Having this kind of tool in our arsenal will help us to become better at showing ourselves kindness and love, and finding that sense of acceptance within ourselves. And then once we can begin to accept ourselves, then it will open the door to finding connection and belonging with others. Shame is something that will never go away completely, but we can build up our armor against allowing it to affect us so deeply and ruin our identities. 

The Self Love Challenge:

Stop playing the shame game. Practice taking the action steps towards building shame resilience.


Christina Ciro