Healing Shame with Self-Compassion and Connection (Part 2 of 2)
Recently, I’ve been wrestling with a business decision. I was unclear about what to do and decided to ask some trusted colleagues about their thoughts. So yesterday, I hopped on a phone call and talked for a few minutes about my quandary. I wasn’t ready for what happened next.
Because of the nature of the decision and my history with similar decisions, I felt very vulnerable. And to my colleagues, it seemed clear that my fears and “not enough-ness” was showing up in my waffling.
And suddenly, there is was. A big, fat helping of shame with a side of inadequacy.
It was like a sucker punch. I admire my colleagues and looked up to them, and suddenly I felt so small. I felt so foolish. So silly. So exposed.
Shame is so familiar to me, as I mentioned in part 1 about shame. Shame is so familiar for me that I was angry with myself. “How many years have I worked on this in my own therapy?” I said to myself. “And I’m a therapist, I should be better at this shit by now!”
Then I became aware of how angry I was at myself and how I was speaking to myself. I was being so critical, even self-loathing. I was reminded of a book I’d just heard about and started to read about self-compassion.
Healing Shame with Self-Compassion
What is self-compassion? As Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer (2018) write, “Self-compassion involves treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a hard time. . . . Self-compassion is a practice in which we learn to be a good friend to ourselves when we need it most—to become an inner ally rather than an inner enemy” (p. 9).
Self-compassion can be healing for our shame. You know, that “yuck” that shows up in thoughts and feelings like these:
- I’m defective
- I’m not good enough
- I’m a fraud
- I’m stupid
- I’m unwanted
- I’m defective
- I’m worthless
- I’m weak
- I’m a failure
- I’m unlovable
- I’m unimportant
These aren’t just thoughts or feelings. They reflect what we believe about ourselves in our shame. Neff and Germer suggest some ways of working with these negative core beliefs:
- Mindfulness: What is it like for you to feel that belief? Instead of clinging to the belief, try observing what it’s like to hold on to it by being mindful: “It’s painful to have the thought that I’m stupid,” or “It’s really hard to feel that I’m not good enough.” In my view, this allows us to put some distance between ourselves and our feelings, so that we can observe them with some curiosity instead of feeling them so intensely.
- Consider how your beliefs are a part of the human experience. After all, you’re not the only one who feels as you do, and it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone in this feeling. “I’m not alone in feeling inadequate,” or “There are plenty of other therapists who feel like this” (I could have used this one the other day!).
- Kindness: Try speaking to yourself as you would to a friend who was feeling this way. Think about how you might be understanding or empathetic with yourself. “It is so hard when you feel this way. I can see how overwhelming it is for you. I can appreciate how difficult this feeling is.”
Self-compassion is useful as a practice when we’re living our daily lives and unable to connect with a caring other who may be able to have the understanding and empathy for us that we may not always be able to have for ourselves.
Shame and the Healing Power of Connection
Shame cannot survive connection. That’s because shame thrives in isolation and in hiding. The more we share those parts of ourselves, even bit by bit, that are uncomfortable, unbearable, or painful, the more we bring shame into the light.
Connection is more than “one-way” attentiveness toward the person who’s struggling with painful feelings. Connection is all about “mutual empathic understanding” (DeYoung, 2015, p. 115) between two people such that there’s two-way emotional engagement.
The more you feel that the other person gets you and is affected by you, the more we sense that she is “with” you, and the more you feel connected to that person. And, if only for a moment, the shame feels a little lighter.
When this happens, you know it, don’t you? You can feel it. As a therapist, I long to provide this sort of connection with clients, even as I continue my own journey of healing.
After all, we’re not alone it, are we?
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