Shame and Change

I’ve been making a personal study of shame over the last few months, digging into what it is, what it does, where it comes from, how to respond to it.

For many of us, shame is one of the most punishing feelings. In fact, it is so punishing that we have all sorts of elaborate mechanisms of contorting ourselves around shame and converting the shame into something else, all in an effort to avoid actually experiencing it. We’re so ashamed of our shame that many of us can’t even admit to ourselves that we feel shame!


This is important for all sorts of reasons, but we might not need more than this one, argued by Donald Nathanson in his tome Shame and Pride:

“People cannot be truly open to self-scrutiny until their archives of shame have been examined and understood.”

In other words, befriending our shame - or at least lifting the hood on it - is essential for being really honest with ourselves. And without rigorously and honestly knowing ourselves, our values and our desires, we’re a long way from creating a fulfilling life.

Shame is a bundle of feelings, beliefs, disturbances and physiological responses, so it’s easy to see how we could wither from the task of understanding it.

At its core, feeling shame is believing that there is something wrong or unlovable about ourselves. This can be set off by something someone said or did to us, or even just by feeling separate and distanced from others. Oftentimes caregivers, parents and teachers use shame as a technique for bringing up children. Sometimes, to quote Nathanson again, “children will adopt a sense of themselves as being personally defective in order to explain away parental failure.”

When we get a jolt of shame, a range of physiological reactions may hit. We can lose muscle tone in our face and neck, unconsciously hide our face or turn away our gaze, redden in the cheeks.

Beyond the bodily responses, shame diminishes any prior joy or interest we were experiencing when the shame hit. We may be enjoying a meal with friends, when someone innocently makes a comment that triggers our sense of inadequacy. In that moment, our enjoyment of our friend and the meal is impeded, and we’re often unaware that it’s because our shame was triggered.

Shame severs relational bridges, as we turn away from others and from ourselves.

Some of us are chronically withdrawn out of shame, others make it a habit of attacking themselves, still others find ways to shift the focus of their attention by attacking others. Narcissism, for instance, is borne out of chronic shame. (That’s a topic for another post.)

In a nutshell, shame is a doozy! And it comes up all the time.

It comes up when for me when I work with my coach, and it comes up for clients occasionally when we dive into what they want for themselves and their lives.

Because of the prevalence of shame, as a coach - or as anyone who seeks to engage deeply with other humans - it’s important to be aware of shame, understand it, and do what we can to create a counter-shaming environment.

One of the principal ways I do this as a Co-Active coach is by holding dear the cornerstone that

“People are naturally creative, resourceful and whole.”

In this model, we focus on the creativity, the resourcefulness and the wholeness of our clients. Our clients feel this from us. They feel that we are holding them in what Carl Rogers called unconditional positive regard.

Rather than trying to fix our clients (they’re not broken), we bring our attention to our clients’ strengths, capacities, resourcefulness, and our clients bring their attention to this as well. From a resourceful place, answers, solutions and possibilities emerge. So does the strength to see possibilities through to realities.

By knowing that their coach appreciates them just as they are, our clients feel more connected and feel more courage to dig deep, explore and share what’s true for them. As our clients rigorously commit to discovering and claiming their truth, we as coaches are empowered to help our clients claim what they really want in life.

As Carl Rogers famously said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” And, accepting others just as they are encourages them to do the same.

So, next time you find yourself in a room with someone who challenges your idea of the wholeness of people (maybe when you’re with relatives this Thanksgiving?) try this:

Say to yourself: “I hold (fill in the blank) as creative, resourceful and whole. (Fill in the blank) is creative, resourceful and whole.”

Notice: How does this change your feelings towards him or her?

How does this change how you feel in your own body?

What happens to your behavior towards him or her? Does it change?

What is the flavor of your experience, now?

Let me know in the comments.

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