How to Work With Shame

Most of the experiences of what we call “shame” in our everyday life are coming up on the basis of certain labels and thought processes––the way we habitually think about things. And these labels and thought processes, in turn, are based on certain values we cling to.

The feeling of shame only comes up in response to some cultural value that we hold.

It seems that the feeling of shame is more indirect than, say, anger. Anger seems to come up very directly and clearly. If somebody hits you, it doesn’t matter what culture you’re from, you’re probably going to feel anger.

So it is our cultural values that mainly determine what we feel ashamed about. What we see as shameful in one culture isn’t shameful at all according to the values of another culture or religion. And these values are developed on the basis of conceptual labeling––the thoughts we apply to our experience.

We often get really hung up on our fear of these values and labels. And at the same time, our cultural or religious environment reinforces that fear. It’s easy to feel that we should feel ashamed about something if most everyone around us seems to agree with that view.

Stepping Back from Shame: An Exercise

You can look at any situation in which you feel shame, and work with it a little bit.

1. Take a little space. Just step back and allow some space between this sense of shame and your sense of yourself. Give yourself a little space just to be who you are.

2. Ask yourself, “In this situation in which I feel ashamed, am I being true to myself?”

3. If the answer is, “No, I’m not really being true to myself here,” then maybe this feeling of shame is worth a closer look. Maybe it is pointing to something in yourself that you actually want to change.

4. On the other hand, if you answered, “Yes, I’m being true to myself, but I still feel ashamed about this,” then look at the thoughts that come up along with this shame. What are they? You might want to write them down, so you can get a  good look at them.

5. Looking down the list of “shaming” thoughts, ask yourself: “If I erase the cultural or religious labels from these thoughts, Is there any basis left for my feeling of shame?”

6. Now step back and look at the situation with a bit more perspective. You can kindly ask yourself: “OK, what is really true here? Is there anything essentially shameful about this thing I feel ashamed about? Or is it only being labeled that way by others, including myself?”

If we can work with our labeling mind in this way, the weight of this shame can become a little bit lighter.