Catherine Comiskey, LCSW
Part 2: Managing Shame
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
This is part two of a two-part series. In the first post, I discussed what shame is and why it’s a problem. This post will explore ways to manage the inevitable experiences of shame.
As discussed in the last post, shame becomes problematic because of the ways we learn to respond to it. Isolating, anger, and numbing behaviors are just a few of the common ways people learn to cope with shame. Though these responses may alleviate the immediate feelings of shame, they will likely just exacerbate feelings of shame down the road. In this post we’ll learn some different shame management techniques. To do so, we’ll utilize the following scenario:
James gave a presentation at work and it was a flop. His boss was unimpressed with the material James presented. Also, James was so anxious he stumbled over his words several times and even froze mid-way through his presentation and had to excuse himself to recollect his thoughts before returning, only to further humiliate himself. To add to his feelings of defeat and shame, he even told himself that he saw his colleagues looking embarrassed for him. When the presentation ended, James thought to himself, “I’m an idiot. Of course I was going to bomb that. I’m such a pathetic failure. I don’t know why I even try.” James shut himself off in his office the remainder of the day. When he returned home that evening he got into an argument with his partner over a minor misunderstanding and called out sick the following day to avoid seeing his boss and colleagues.
In this scenario, James responds to his shame by withdrawing and then offloading his shame onto his partner. Let’s take a look at other steps James can take to manage his shame in ways that serve him better.
Identify you are in shame
It seems straight forward, but many of us are not consciously aware that we are in shame. There are several signs to look out for that will indicate you’re experiencing shame. For instance, James’ negative self-talk is a big clue. When we start criticizing ourselves and using descriptors like, “failure,” “pathetic,” “worthless,” “disgusting,” “loser,” etc., we know we are in shame. Additionally, James needs to be attuned to his physiological symptoms of shame such as heart-sink, flushed face, and tight shoulders. Once James knows he is in shame he can use this self-awareness to respond to his shame from a place of integrity and thoughtfulness, rather than using his typical reflex response of isolating and anger.
Next James can call-upon a variety of self-soothing techniques. After all, shame is an extremely painful and overwhelming feeling and like other painful feelings (e.g., grief, disappointment, anxiety) the ability to self-soothe is essential. The goal of this step is not to make the shame disappear, but to make it more manageable.
Distress tolerance skills are utilized to help individuals tolerate intense emotions without having to completely avoid or detach from the experience at hand. Distraction is a key distress tolerance skill that many of us intuitively call upon. Going for a walk, exercising, reading, gardening, cooking, listening to music, and yoga are all examples of distraction techniques. The goal of distraction is to not completely avoid the emotional pain, but rather to release some of the emotional intensity so you are able to thoughtfully respond to and process your emotional experience later.
Following his presentation, James chose to go for a walk during his lunch break. The simple act of movement not only helped to serve as a release for James, but additionally he mindfully engaged with his five senses. Of course this did not erase the shame that still lingered for James, but it did not exacerbate his shame in the same way as if he chose to sit in his office and ruminate about his perceived failings.
Self-compassion is another self-soothing technique to call upon when experiencing shame. Put simply, self-compassion is self-kindness. Self-kindness is a foreign concept to many people and takes practice. One way to begin embodying self-kindness is to ask yourself how you would speak to a close friend or loved one when they are in moments of shame.
If James’ friend gave a sub-par presentation, James may say to his friend, “I know how upset you are. We all have those moments where we don’t feel like we put our best foot forward. There will be other opportunities in the future.” James would likely feel soothed and even motivated to do better if his self-talk sounded like this, rather than calling himself a “pathetic failure.”
When the feelings of shame feel less overwhelming and consuming, it can be helpful to take time to self-reflect. This can be done in a journal or by just thinking it through. Below are some questions to help prompt some self-reflection of your shame experience:
Is there evidence that challenges my shame related thought?
James considers the evidence that challenges his thought of being a “pathetic failure.” He reflects on the promotion he received last year, the positive reviews he received in his job performance, and recalls the other domains of his life he has been successful in.
Where did this message come from?
James considers how he grew up in a family culture of high expectations. For instance, James recalls a memory of getting a B in a class that was challenging for him, and his parents expressed such profound disappointment in him that he was left feeling like a failure. Furthermore, James also realizes that this self-admonishing attitude was also modeled to him by his parents who would be extremely self-critical of themselves.
Brené Brown states that shame festers in secrecy, silence and judgement. Shame likes us to believe that we are alone and do not belong. Thus, one of the best ways to disempower shame is to acknowledge it and speak it out loud with a trusted person, whether a friend, family member or therapist. This, of course, takes courage and vulnerability. It can be deeply healing to share our shame experiences with someone we trust and who meets us with acceptance and empathy.
James returns home and lets his partner into his shame experience. He shares how disappointed he is by his performance and even acknowledges his desire to not go to work the next day. When James is met with empathy from his partner, he begins to feel less alone in his pain.
Managing your shame experiences can be difficult and challenging, however with practice and guidance from a professional you can learn to cope in ways that are more self-serving and empowering.