Self-Compassion Instead of Shame
Everyone feels shame from time to time. You do something you regret. You screw up or you hurt someone. Shame can feel like a heavy coat or a dark cloud hanging over you.
In my role as a therapist, I never view a feeling as being a bad thing on its own. Even shame has a positive purpose if it helps you to assess your actions and the consequences of your actions, make amends for hurt you've caused, or figure out a more positive path forward. Unfortunately, often this is not how shame works.
Why Shame is Tricky
To see how shame can be problematic, it helps to note how it differs from a couple of related but different feelings: remorse and guilt. I think of remorse and guilt as feelings in response to actions. You yell at the grocery cashier and now you feel guilty about it. You evaluate what happened, why it occurred, and then perhaps you take action. You might apologize to the cashier, take an anger management class, or practice relaxation breathing. The guilt and remorse you feel is related to the undesirable action.
Shame seems similar but it actually has an additional aspect to it. You yell at the cashier and you feel guilt for the action and shame about yourself. You feel shame that you lost control, that you are an awful person for yelling, that you are clearly defective and unable to handle things like buy groceries. See the difference? While guilt is directed at an action, shame is directed at the self and often includes lots of self-critical thoughts.
And here's the rub about shame. The shame and self-criticism may be completely justified based on your actions but instead of leading to positive change, shame often triggers withdrawal and hiding. If you are feeling ashamed, you may wish to hide your actions rather than address them. Rather than apologizing to the cashier, shame may trigger the urge to flee the grocery and deny any wrongdoing.
Shame Often isn't Helpful
If you're hiding, keeping secrets, covering up - you aren't growing. You will continue to have anger issues with cashiers and you will keep piling on the negative views of yourself around this. Instead of unpacking what is happening, facing it honestly, and identifying ways to make positive change, when you feel shame you stay locked in place. And you continue to struggle with and feel ashamed of your problematic behaviors. And so on...shame solidifies your position and leaves little room for movement.
How Self-Compassion Can Help
I think that fostering self-compassion helps move us out of a stuck shame place and into something better. A simple definition of self-compassion is the action of focusing loving-kindness on yourself, just as you might focus loving-kindness on a loved one, a child, or a favorite pet. It is taking a step back and holding oneself from a place of love and acceptance. If your partner yelled at the cashier, you certainly would want them to take some responsibility for their actions, but you also would hold them from a place of concern and caring. What's causing them to yell? What could you do to help support them so that they handle things better? Self-compassion is taking that same concern and focusing it on yourself. And once you can focus some love and compassion on yourself, rather than more shame and self-criticism, you can begin to support change in yourself. From this self-loving and self-supporting stance, you can begin to assess what is really happening without harsh judgment, and begin to change.
How Self-Compassion Works
There are lots of ways to cultivate self-compassion. A simple method is to take a different perspective of the self. Imagine that instead of you being in the situation, it was someone you love and care about. How would you consider them in that situation? What would you say to them? How would you treat them? Now, imagine shifting the perspective back to yourself. Can you treat yourself the same way? I wrote a couple of blog posts that describe some additional techniques and explores self-compassion further: Why Self-Compassion Matters and Perfectionist? Feeling Shame? A Little Self-Compassion Helps.