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Just as our past can dictate our futures, so too, can shame. Shame controls our lives in such a way, that we don’t even know it’s happening—it’s the silent killer of dreams, of moving forward. Shame is the heart disease of living to our fullest potential.
Shame, as defined by Brene Brown in her life-changing book, Daring Greatly, is: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (Daring Greatly pg. 69).
In a matter of weeks, I made monumental change in my life just by learning about shame and vulnerability, and putting this knowledge to use. In this change, I found recovery from a decades-long stint with bulimia, and the chronic self-doubt that has plagued my life.
While overcoming bulimia happened with a combination of many things, there were five specific things I did to not only understand my eating disorder, and the self-doubt that has directed the course of my life, but also take actions to overcome them.
A lot of self-help information out there is topical. Suggestions range from eating less sugar, to learning how to say ‘no’, or trying new things. While these are all incremental changes that can cause a lot of good in your life, most of the self-help guidance I stumble upon is a Band-Aid solution.
None of this advice gets to the core of the issue of why you can’t seem to move forward in various aspects of you life, or why you feel out of control. None of this addresses the shame that has unknowingly seeped into our lives, and is silently playing conductor.
This advice is cheap. While some of those suggestions are really great ways to live your life, unless you’re working on the root problem, waking up at 5am to meditate probably won’t make you feel courageous enough to start that business.
So before you go looking for cheap advice, know that REAL change won’t occur until you put in the work on the real issue (and I can tell you, the issue is NOT that you sleep too late).
It’s going to be hard. It’s going to get uncomfortable. It’s going to make you cringe at times. But great things don’t happen without great effort. So sharpen your pencils, you have homework to do.
How To Take Control of Your Life from Shame
1) Write Out Your Shame Stories
You can’t win the fight unless you know the enemy. Shame works by replaying negative stories, or mantras, in our heads. Those stories tell us we can’t do, or be, or have, or say (or whatever) what we want, because we’re NOT worthy for various reasons.
- Shame is that story that says you’re NOT thin or attractive enough to be with a guy that treats you well.
- Shame is that story that says you DON’T KNOW ENOUGH, aren’t smart or charming enough, to start a successful blog, and your readers will see right through you.
- Shame is that story that says there’s NO WAY your savvy enough to travel the world and make a career out of it.
- Shame is that sentence you replay to yourself when you want to be vulnerable and take risks, but that HALTS action and keeps us from achieving our goals.
So sit down with a paper and pen, and list the specific shame stories that you have created in your life. What stories do you tell yourself that keep you from accomplishing, or being the person you want to be?
I felt unworthy of the love I was receiving in my relationship (now marriage) for months. I didn’t feel like I was fit enough, outgoing enough, or exciting enough, and eventually, my partner would figure it out and leave me. This, on top of other things, continued my problem with bulimia, and made me put up walls towards my partner.
Be specific with your stories if you want to take control of your life. What is the actual thought that goes through your head during moments of self-doubt?
2) How Have Your Shame Stories Impacted Your Life?
Now that you have your list of shame stories in front of you, think about how these stories have impacted your choices.
How has that story of not being thin enough, or attractive enough, kept you from experiencing relationships and love? Do you shy away from people you feel unworthy of being around?
Do you turn into an asshole when you’re not feeling confident? How has the story that you don’t have anything valuable to say or offer, kept you from launching that blog? How has it kept you from living the life you dream of?
How have all of these stories made you act? Do you numb yourself with alcohol, drugs or (in my case) bulimia, because you feel shitty about yourself? Or because you’re scared to be the REAL YOU — to be vulnerable?
Once we know our stories, we can easily see how they directly change the course of our decisions, our actions, and ultimately our lives. We can take a step out of these stories and observe them from an unattached place – and then put a stop to it.
Understanding can help you finally take control of your life.
3) Accept Your Human-ness
We now understand our shame stories, and how they affect our lives. Now we have to work on accepting ourselves for all of those imperfections.
Easier said than done, I know. But we see the human in others. We see flaws and imperfections in the people we love, and we don’t generally reject those people. We often love them more because of it.
Those flaws and imperfections are what make other people loveable and relatable.
We need to see the same imperfections in ourselves, and accept them just like we do in others. We must understand that the very things we’re ashamed of in ourselves are the very things we admire in others.
And frankly, people often DON’T pay attention enough to notice or judge you for the things you’re paranoid about. It’s like that pimple you have on your face that you think everyone is staring at—but they honestly don’t notice until you point it out.
Now you’re rolling your eyes, because you’ve heard it all before.
But look at it like this: you know that girl that’s always outgoing and has an energy that draws people in? Compare that girl to the one that’s frustrated, closed off, and rude. Or the one that just tries too hard and is off-putting.
The one that has an energy that you want to be around with is one that’s comfortable with herself and her flaws. She accepts them and doesn’t feel shameful about them. She isn’t spending her time dwelling on them either.
The other two are prime examples of how I tend to act when I’m feeling unworthy or shameful for being who I am. It’s off-putting and pushes people away. You don’t want to feel like this if you’re aiming to take control of your life.
4) Stop the Shame Spiral
Now that we have consciously observed our shame stories, and how they affect our actions, we can STOP a shame spiral before it gets out of hand (most the time).
A shame spiral is what I call that sucker-punch moment of fear and self-doubt, which spirals out of control. It drives us to numb ourselves or become completely immobile in our lives.
It’s basically every moment you’ve unknowingly experienced, thus far, with shame. A shame spiral keeps us from taking actions, makes us hide ourselves, or makes us numb the feelings of vulnerability and shame away.
Now that you’ve consciously acknowledged your shame stories, you can take yourself out of the shame spiral before it gets out of hand. You can take a breath, step outside, take a pause, and get some mental clarity about what’s happening when you’re repeating these shame stories to yourself.
Now this isn’t fail-proof. There will be times you get very wrapped up in your shame. In those moments, I recommend opening up to a person you trust above all others. Confide in them everything that has happened and everything you’re feeling.
Speak your shame to someone you trust. It’s the surest way of stopping a shame spiral AND take control of your life.
5) Feel Your Emotions
Vulnerability is the next step in the equation. And it can get pretty uncomfortable, pretty quick. Vulnerability is the act of leaning into the challenges we face every day, and taking them on head first and openly.
It’s best defined by Brown when she states:
“Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is the measure of our fear and disconnection”. – (Daring Greatly, pg. 2)
There’s a popular notion in our culture that being emotional, and being emotionally vulnerable, is weakness. I don’t think this is news to anyone. But if I’m being frank, it’s bullsh*t.
Being vulnerable and allowing yourself to engage with your emotions, instead of numbing them, is the key if you want to take control of your life.
Everyday, we are faced with a continuous stream of bad news, mistakes, and challenges, which can quickly become overwhelming. I certainly don’t recommend engaging with every unimportant thread of bad news. But if we can’t lean into the discomfort of being bummed out about the important things, I don’t think we’ll have the courage to overcome them.
Taking the time to feel our emotions and vulnerability in a shitty situation or challenge (like a pitch to a big client), allows us to understand where we’re coming from, and better understand ourselves.
We’re not emotionless, antisocial beings (unless, of course, you’re a sociopath, and in that case I don’t think any of this is going to help). So it’s time we stop pretending to be.
The first step here is when something difficult happens, feel it. What are you experiencing emotionally, and why? Is it valid, or are you just feeling shame?
Either way, you can experience it, understand it. Then make decisions around it from a place of clarity, instead of acting irrationally or with shame, as the driving force.
These are five things I did to change my life, and live more authentically. They might not work for you, or they might be your saving grace—it’s all relative. But I promise, if you’re working to address these issues, you’re one step closer to your dreams, and take control of your life.
*Huge shout out to Brene Brown and her book ‘Daring Greatly’—this book literally changed my life, and I highly recommend it.