It is a word so horrible that I don’t even like thinking about it. My breathing becomes harder, my chest starts to get red and I get knots in my stomach. I know I am not alone, as it is one of the more painful feelings we can experience; yet one many of us live with daily. That’s right, I am talking about shame. Shame is such a powerful thing as it can cause many different emotions such as guilt, anger, sadness and so on. It is a feeling that can be so terrible that many of us make choices daily to try to avoid this experience. There are few feelings that have the power to direct our lives such as shame can.
The actual definition of shame per the Merriam-Webster dictionary is a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong. The fascinating part of this definition is that it explains how this feeling is completely based on what you “know” you have done wrong. Considering we live in a very complex society and most choices in our lives don’t have a clear right and wrong, this definition tells me that shame is actually nothing more than a feeling based on our personal perception. Our perception of what is right and wrong can come from many different places including our families, experiences, society, religion, etc. Since it is built with so many different pieces, everyone has a different understanding of “wrong”. For example, while many of us can agree that killing another person is wrong, we have very different perceptions in the world on if killing an animal is wrong. It gets even greyer when we look at societies “acceptable” social standards since every one of us were raised to have a different understanding of how you “should” behave around others. Yet, we allow the fear of this single feeling to rule many of the choices in our lives.
Since there are so many different opinions of what is wrong, it is no wonder that shame can take over our lives, especially if we are taking into account what others “must be thinking”. Looking back through my life I can pinpoint hundreds of decisions I made trying to do what I thought I “should” do based on what I believed others were thinking. Many of these choices caused me to delay living my passion or being true to myself; all because I was afraid others would think it was “wrong” and my old friend shame would come out to play. In actuality, most of the choices we make don’t cause nearly the impact to others as they do to ourselves, yet we make others opinions of what is right and wrong rule. When we feel we have taken the wrong step or others judge us, then shame will begin to swim in our veins causing us to hide from our truth and listen to others. This can show up differently in each person’s life, spanning from decisions such as our career choice to how we interact in public settings. If we don’t learn to identify and get out of this cycle, then shame is allowed to run wild, threatening to choose any opinion of “wrong” it can find at that moment.
A first step in the process of breaking this cycle is to start trusting yourself more than others. Begin to believe and have
faith that what your heart and gut is telling you is the right thing, even if others opinions would classify it as wrong. To do this, you must forgive yourself for any past actions that bring up that shame. Take some time to think through these decisions and situations. Allow yourself to be understanding of the circumstances and acknowledge that you were truly doing the best you could at that moment. Fostering this kind of self-compassion and forgiving your past mistakes will allow a stronger feeling of empowerment that will allow your voice to be heard. Ultimately, there is no need to be “right” for everyone, just for yourself. Trusting yourself, forgiving yourself and loving yourself will take away the power that shame has. Begin practicing this and you will feel true freedom, the freedom to live who you truly are.