When individuals begin to see me for therapy, it is very often because they have gotten fed up with some part of themselves that they feel needs changing, fixing, or altogether eradicating. They’ll introduce this part of themselves to me as their “stupid anxiety” or “annoying depression” or “ridiculous obsession with eating,” etcetera. They judge themselves mercilessly for whatever their perceived problem or issue is, and often report that they’ve felt judged by others for it, too. Maybe a parent remarked that they really need to “get over” themselves already, or somebody told them to “suck it up.” So, they land in my office, totally prepared to magically become different people and to get rid of whatever pesky part brought them there in the first place. They are ashamed, and they don’t like feeling that way. Nobody does.
Personally, I’ve tried to think of a time in my life in which shame has motivated me to be or do better, and I’ve come up with nothing. Conversely, I can think of plenty of times throughout my life in which I was shamed by others to be or do better. When I was a child, a neighbor’s dad yelled at me to pay better attention, grabbed a stick that I was holding, and broke it over his knee for emphasis. As an adult, an acquaintance mocked me for becoming anxious in a social situation. In college, a Spanish professor used dismissive language to remark on my ineptitude for learning languages.
Were these experiences intended to motivate me to make personal changes, they failed miserably to do so. I didn’t develop better attention skills, I just stopped going over to that neighbor-with-an-anger-management-problem’s house to play. I didn’t stop being anxious; I made a choice not pursue a friendship with that person. I didn’t sharpen my Spanish skills; I dropped Spanish and pursued a minor that spoke more to my natural abilities.
I have a million more memories like these, because everyone does. Our culture is very intent on making us feel bad about all the things that we don’t yet know or don’t do well, with some misguided idea that we are somehow going to do them better once we feel that way. Here’s the truth: Shame doesn’t create change, it creates fear. And, ask most world religions, step programs, the social sciences, or any life coach worth their salt: Fear is not a good motivator. Self-work must start from a place of love, acceptance, compassion, and gentleness in order to be effective. Fear-based change, if it happens at all, does not last. Eventually, we revert back to whatever we were doing before, or a part of us that’s been shamed into a corner re-emerges. As a culture, we need to rethink our use of shame, because it is not a helpful or useful tool. It simply doesn’t work.
When clients are coming from a shame-based lens, I encourage them to instead approach the parts of them that they find disagreeable from a place of kindness and neutrality. If any judgments about those parts exist, we ask them to step aside to allow us to work with those parts compassionately, so the parts are better able to hear us, and don’t feel bullied into changing (because bullies don’t motivate change, either). We hear what those parts want and need from the client, and we let the client nurture the parts based on that information. We don’t let the parts run the show, but we let them know that they are welcome and valuable, and not something to be ashamed of. In our cultural climate, I think this is a radical way to approach change. But the results are lasting, and the process is respectful.
Approaching change from a lens a self-compassion can significantly alter the way we think about our self-work. Shame, coming from ourselves or those we care about, should be viewed as something to gently challenge and re-examine – not a jumping-off point.