Making Peace with the Six Shadows of Shame
If there was one word that makes people feel incredibly uncomfortable, that word would be “Shame.” Well, the word “endoscopy” may be a close second, but Shame is definitely a challenging topic. Brene Brown, a Shame and Vulnerability Researcher, told Scott Barry Kaufman at Heleoworld, “You cannot believe how many people would tell me, “You can’t study [shame], it’s a horrible topic. You’ll never get published.” http://sumo.ly/CJOV
Shame is a universal emotion that clouds everything else. It is a feeling and cognitive construct that conveys a sense that we are bad, unworthy, despicable, trash. When we feel shame, we want to hide. Shame keeps us small. Shame transforms us. It entices us to behave in a way that is contrary to our values and then urges us to cover up our behaviors too.
Shame can feel insurmountable at times. It can be overwhelming and dark. Carl Jung said, “Shame is soul-eating emotion.”
People commonly ask, “What do we do with shame? How do we get rid of it?”
Truthfully, we don’t get rid of shame. It can be stronger sometimes and weaker sometimes, but it doesn’t go away. We can develop resiliency to shame. We don’t have to let it hijack our lives. There is something we can do about it. I have learned an effective strategy for managing shame - we personify it. We turn shame into a living, breathing character with whom we can have a discussion. We personify shame.
For many of us, the loudest and most annoying is The Judge – This shadow of shame demands perfection. This shadow constantly reminds you: you are not enough. It points out the imperfections, the mistakes you make, the things you did not do, the things you should have done. In fact, the Judge’s favorite word is “should”. “You should be skinnier. You should be richer. You shouldn’t have done that. You should try harder. Chances are if you are shoulding on yourself, your judge is out.
The second shadow of shame is The Politician. This shadow demands that you look your best so that people will like you. The Politician needs you to be someone important. The Politician urges you to earn votes or points to prove you are worthy of love and belonging. This shadow urges you to put on a mask of perfection. The difference between the judge and the politician is that the Judge tells you you are not enough while the politician tells you that you need to be seen as perfect so that people will like you. The politician invites you to wear a mask. The Politician encourages you to do nice things for other people so that they will like you. The Politician may even urge you to put down others if it means that you will get the acceptance of a different group of people.
The Impotent One tells you that you are powerless. The impotent One is a defeatist. The Impotent One tells you that there is nothing you can do to improve your situation and that you need to accept it. The Impotent One tells you that people are cruel, and you just need to accept it. The Impotent One tells you that you are never going to be out of debt and so you just need to stop working hard. The Impotent One tells you that your boss is never going to be happy with you, so you might as well quit trying.
You can best recognize the Impotent One when you hear words like never, always, constantly, and other words of extremism. The Impotent One sees things in black and white.
The fourth Shadow of Shame is The Martyr. The Martyr tells you that you are worth less than everyone else. The Martyr tells you it would be in your best interest to lie down and let everyone walk all over you—just be a doormat. The Martyr tells you your needs are not as important as other people’s needs. According to The Martyr, your only worth will come when you make sure someone else’s needs have been met—especially at your expense. The Martyr whispers that you are going to be a burden to others if you ask for help. The Martyr tells you not to be an imposition or a bother. “Handle things on your own and don’t have boundaries” is the Martyr’s mantra.
The Rebel convinces you that you are the only person that matters. It tempts you to engage in harmful, unhealthy, or even addictive behaviors in the hopes that we will feel better. This Shadow says, ‘You aren’t worthy of love and belonging, but who gives a damn. Do what you want to do. Have fun. Get loaded. Hire a prostitute. Go speeding at 100 mph. Eat that entire chocolate cake. Runaway. Live life. Have fun! Who cares about the consequences? Who cares about who gets hurt in the process? As long as you have fun, then it is worth it! If the Rebel showed up today, then it convinced you to aggressively attack the paper with little concern about who else may get hurt. The rebel does not care about the needs of others.
The last of the Shadows is The Royal. This shadow conveys a message different from the other five shadows. It tells you that you are better than everyone else. It conveys a sense of entitlement. This Shadow tells you that you deserve to be treated better, that you are entitled to respect, that you deserve the parking space near the front of the store. The Royal entices us to be prideful. To elevate ourselves above others.
In chapter four of the workbook, Finding Peace, you can read much a more comprehensive exploration of the shadows.
The reason why I have personified these aspects of shame is to help you have an easier time dealing with them when they show up. Perhaps the most important part of personifying the shadows of shame is so that you can separate yourself from the shame. The shadows are not you. You are a being of light. You have infinite worth. By creating Shame Personas you have the power to step away from their darkness.
I have found that just calling them out when they show up helps me step back into my power. When I say, “Hey Judge, I see you and I don’t believe you!” immediately my judge pulls away. Shadows do not light the light. They thrive in the darkness. So when you call them out, you are essentially shining a light on them. What happens to a shadow when the light beams down upon it? It dissipates.
When I introduce the Shadows of Shame, inevitably the person asks, “How do I get rid of them?” As I stated before, we don’t really get rid of shame, we just develop resilience to it. We don’t really get rid of the shadows; we develop a healthier relationship with them.
One of my favorite TED talks is by Eleanor Longden, a colleague who also has schizophrenia.
Her amazing strengths-based perspective on the voices she hears in her head definitely apply to the Shadows of Shame. She said, “[The] voices were a meaningful response to traumatic life events, particularly childhood events, and as such were not my enemies but a source of insight into solvable emotional problems.”
I would concur that the Shadows of Shame have been a way of coping with the pain of rejection, abandonment, betrayal, neglect, and the other attachment wounds. They just don't really help us find peace any longer. Initially, we may be tempted to send them away. And to be honest, sometimes that is the best that we can do in order to survive the onslaught of negative messages they pour down upon us.
But there is another way. When we become curious, when we develop greater awareness, when we realize we have been believing their lies and that the lies are not actually true, we can explore what it is that the shadows are trying to actually tell us - that they are just trying to keep us from hurting. They don’t want us to suffer.
Now the way they go about trying to decrease our pain is totally ineffective. Every time we agree with and follow through on the messages of the Shadows of Shame, misery will follow. But when we recognize the voice of the Judge or the Rebel, we can stop and say, “Woah, there buddy, I see you. Why are you out today? Why did you show up?”
And because we have personified them, the shadow can answer, “Well, I was upset that you were just rejected and I was trying to help.”
“Well, thank you buddy,” we might say. “Thank you for helping me recognize that one of my wounds was bumped. I am going to find a healthy way of dealing with that. Thank you for bringing that to my attention.” Whenever I have had that conversation, I feel empowered. I feel hopeful. I have the opportunity to practice self-compassion and I go get my need met in a healthy way.
The interesting thing is that when I act in that manner instead of agreeing with the shadows, the shadows become quieter. They no longer have a job to do and so they recede into the shadows until the next time I am feeling pain.