Shame negatively affects our mental and physical health and disconnects us from others. It puts us at risk for anxiety, depression, and addiction, and can prevent us from being present and joyful in our lives. It causes us to be hyper-aware of our negative inner critic, promoting constant self-evaluation. Whether the shame you feel is occasional or chronic, it is possible to befriend shame and have a different relationship with it.

Learn to Recognize Shame

First, understand what triggers feelings of shame for you, and how notice shame shows up in your body. The thoughts that spur those feelings of “not enough” are different for each of us. It could be that we think we are not smart enough, unworthy, or broken. These are negative core beliefs. When we believe these cognitions about ourselves, and we experience what we perceive as evidence that it is true — “I lost my keys again; I’m not organized enough!” — that triggers shame that can easily lead to thoughts of “I’m stupid,” or “I ruin everything.”

We can also recognize that shame can be linked to our physical sensations. The next time you are aware that you are experiencing shame, notice how it feels in your body. Your chest may feel tight, you might feel nauseous, have a constricted throat, get tunnel vision, or even shut down and numb. Some of us may tend to lash out when we feel shame, while others are more prone to hide or retreat. Becoming familiar with how shame manifests for each of us can increase awareness and nurture a new relationship with ourselves.

Understand That Change is Possible

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new neural connections and pathways as a result of external experiences and internal thought processes. The brain undergoes physical and functional changes as a result of trauma, substance abuse, or disease. But the good news is, the brain can also adapt and change through mindfulness practices and new thought patterns. Pathways for new thoughts and beliefs can be created and reinforced. This means that we are not stuck with our negative core beliefs. We can further increase our brains’ capacity to rewire by practicing a combination of mindfulness and self-compassion for shame along with getting adequate sleep, exercise, etc.

Practice Self-Compassion

We can’t cure shame but we can learn to befriend and manage our shame by practicing self-compassion. Through research, we now see that self-compassion is actually an antidote to shame. The first of three aspects of self-compassion is self-kindness. Often when we think that we have made a mistake, or when a person or situation triggers shame inside us, our inner voice can be harsh and critical: “I can’t believe I did that; I’m so stupid!” Instead, try speaking to yourself the same way you would speak to a dear friend in the same situation.

The next aspect of self-compassion is common humanity. Shame is simultaneously isolating and universal. Remind yourself that you are not alone in your feelings of suffering. Suffering is a human experience, even though we all may have different experiences of how suffering arises and how different types of suffering manifest inside each of us. The third aspect of self-compassion is mindfulness. Be a curious and compassionate witness to your thoughts and feelings, observing and accepting them without allowing them to sweep you away.

“As human beings, we are bigger than any of our suffering.” – Chris Germer

Know That You Are More Than Your Thoughts

When we identify with our thoughts — “I am irresponsible” or “I am a failure” — we don’t have the perspective necessary to change these thoughts. Remember that shame is tied to who we think we are. But we can get the perspective we need through a mindfulness technique called defusing. First, sit with the thought for a moment. For example, “I am a failure.” With curiosity, notice how that feels. Now notice how your body responds when you identify with this thought. Then add, “I am having the thought that…, I am more than my thought…” to your experience. For example, “I am having the thought that I am a failure.”

Notice if you are starting to feel a little bit of distance between yourself and the thought. Next, add “I’m noticing…” to emphasize even more that you are observing the thought: “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that I am a failure.” Notice if your body feels differently now. This space you have created in your mind between your thought and yourself makes room for the self-compassion, reflection, and perspective-taking needed to move through shame. This is one of many interventions that can be used when learning to befriend your shame.

Reach Out to Community

Shame likes to lurk in the shadows and has a hard time surviving when it is exposed. One of the most powerful ways to befriend shame is to share your story in a safe, empathetic space. This could be with a trusted family member or friend, a psychotherapist, or a support group.

Since 2022, I have been honored to be working closely with Dr. Chris Germer and a brilliant team to co-develop a groundbreaking new 8-week course called Self-Compassion for Shame. Please visit my website to learn more about it and how to register.