Shame is insidious and persuasive. And it loves to exaggerate. It loves to lie.
It can convince us that a poor decision makes us a terrible person. It can convince us that whatever we’re struggling with is too awful and too humiliating–and that we’re absolutely the only ones who feel this way. It can convince us to keep secrets, and to keep our true selves from others, because we’ve concluded that clearly we’re worthless and wrong.
For author Dana Bowman, who suffered a relapse several years after getting sober, “shame was the star of the show.”
“I think shame does a great job at hiding itself–at least initially–as other things. My shame was showing up in over-busyness and stress and control issues and anger. I was feeling shame because I was not hooked into my recovery program and my ‘insides weren’t matching my outsides,'” said Bowman, author of the powerful books Bottled: A Mom’s Guide to Early Recovery and How to Be Perfect Like Me, which chronicles her relapse.
Does your shame show up as something else, too?
“Shame is deep-seated stuff,” Bowman said. “And when it finally started to really bubble up and manifest itself, the drinking began again because I didn’t know (or didn’t want to know) how to deal with it.”
Has your shame fueled certain actions and behaviors, too?
Shame can feel permanent. It can feel like another limb. It can feel like another organ that’s now residing next to your heart.
Thankfully, it’s not.
I asked Bowman what she wanted someone who’s drowning in shame to know. She said, “Shame is an emotion, and we are allowed to feel it. No emotion is ‘bad’ or ‘evil,’ per se. But in my opinion? Shame is often linked to very negative thoughts that can mutate from it–they can fester and grow. So I guess it’s OK to feel it, but then, don’t really give shame the floor for too long, you know?”
Writing about her relapse has helped Bowman to face, make sense of and diminish her shame. “It helped me see where I messed up, but also it helped me work out the feelings and give myself grace and time to heal. My writing was often to help others, so I was kind with my words, and kind with myself. And you know what? That kindness helped me, too.”
In fact, kindness is an antidote to shame. Kindness can include being gentle with ourselves and remembering that we’re not alone in our struggles, or inherently unworthy. It may include understanding why we’re hurting. It may include listening to what our souls have to say. It may include exploring and studying our shame.
For instance, “Imagine you’re studying an object you’ve never seen before to figure out what it does. Just like that, create a bit of space between you and your experience of feeling shame,” writes psychologist Gail Brenner, Ph.D, in this excellent piece.
How does shame appear for you? What does it say to you? How does it live in your body? When did your shame start? When does it feel more intense and less intense? Write about your responses, or share them with someone you trust.
Of course, this can be hard. Try to ease into it. You can even set a timer for 5 minutes, or 3 minutes, and write down what your shame tells you, or how it feels, or why you don’t want to write about it. Write down what feels true.
And if this feels too difficult, know that’s also OK. Again, you can’t go wrong when you treat yourself with compassion. And being compassionate may include honoring where you are right now, and working through it with a therapist and joining a support group of individuals who are there, too.
Bowman encouraged us not to fear our shame so much. “It’s just a feeling, after all. It can’t carry all that much power. Acknowledge it, learn from it, and get to work.”