I always saw myself as confident. Yet my confidence was hiding a deeper truth about me. The real truth was buried under titles, roles, wealth, trappings of success, and my Impression Management competency. I could instantly create any number of highly-sophisticated ways to perpetually jockey for position in the minds of those I most wanted to impress. The way I dressed, the selective information I revealed to others, and the people I affiliated with were among the many strategies I used to try to meet some deeper need.
Imagine you’re at a cocktail party in a large, elegant home. You meet someone whose reputation for success and influence precedes him. He’s enveloped in an aura of success as he introduces you to his beautiful wife. What’s the first thought that goes through your mind? It’s probably some form of judgment. You make a comparison between you and him and you either go one up (“I bet he’s not happy.”) or one down (“He must have paid a fortune for that sport coat. I can’t believe I wore a sweater, what was I thinking?”). Whatever the thought is, it reflects an immediate impulse to assess, compare or judge either yourself or another. Shame is the emotional catalyst for these impulsive thoughts.
Being Human is Tough
“How do I get my mind out of ‘office mode’?” asked my client. Then he started to see how shame fueled his work ethic and ambition. “I always thought I was fearless and ready for battle. Now I see that my drive and confidence compensate for my shame.” The more we talked, the more clear he was that shame was the emotion he experienced when he felt judged and vulnerable. Either proactively or reactively his confidence was a protective measure. He began to notice the unique physical sensation or “energy” of shame in his body. It was an emotional cocktail of fear, sadness and anger served up by the belief of not being enough. Not being good enough, big enough, valued, valuable, or loved enough. Shame was not related to what he did but to who he was at his core.
If being human is hard work it’s not because of the inevitable pain we will experience. It’s because we haven’t decided we’re enough. Either as a result of a predestined neurological map or because of a wound (often by an authority figure), most people are haunted by a stubborn belief about their adequacy that blocks or limits their ability to love themselves. One way or another, shame keeps us stuck or playing a small game.
Shame blocks our ability for self-love. As leaders, lovers and parents, we can’t give what we don’t have. Shame is the main ingredient of a recipe for unhappiness. Without self-acceptance we’ll never experience the deep relationships which are vital to a life filled with well-being and fulfillment. When we hide our shame from others we rob others of our presence and authenticity.
One hundred Years of Therapy and This is the Best We Can Do?
You’d think humans would have shame figured out by now. Yet, we receive little useful training in how to be human. We are taught to perform for approval and acceptance and we respond to our not-being-enough by getting more of whatever we can put our hands on. More of what we don’t need. More stuff, more success, more attention, more activity. When that doesn’t work we become addicts and check out. We get high on working, shopping, consuming, hording, drinking, and taking meds. One hundred years of psychotherapy, Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil and this is what we’ve evolved to? Humans getting high?
There is a way out. I don’t know if you and I will ever get rid of our shame, but we can lift it. We can make it an ally that reminds us that we are all human. We can use it as a gateway to our big heart and infinite spirit. Maybe shame is a gift. When we do the inner work to transform our shame into love we’re able to play a much bigger game. No longer does success dominate or even control our life. We live more expansively. We get serious about investing in our relationships. We take better care of ourselves and are naturally drawn to empathically serving others.
Change takes work. The personality is a stubborn structure. Yet incremental moves can be monumental moves. Today, take one small move on this path toward self-acceptance.
Shame Detection: If you name shame, you tame shame. When do you feel most shameful? What are your favorite coping or defense mechanisms? Are you a perfectionist, a control freak, a workaholic? How developed are your impression management skills? Whether they’re of the inflated variety (See me!) or deflated variety (Not me!), everyone has strategies to cope with shame. What are your top two? Name them, write them, speak them.
Get Naked: The antidote for shame is vulnerability. This means taking manageable risks to disclose to others what you are shameful of. Find and use safe places like your YPO-WPO forum or other small group, your coach or therapist, your confidant, or just yourself via journaling. What exactly is it you don’t think you’re enough of? As you bring your shame out of your personal shadow and hold it up to the light you diminish its power and you tap into the gift: the energy and brilliance that’s been trapped inside.
Bless You: We all have an internal blessing circuit that can lift our shame. Try this visualization to activate it. Picture your favorite great grandparent sitting across from you. Receive the blessing of their soft countenance and gaze. Experience this heartfelt connection as you describe one thing you are shameful about. Drink in the silent affirmation of your being, your essence. Take in any words that elder has for you.
Give yourself the gift of radical self-acceptance this holiday season. This is a gift that keeps on giving.