Shame is an essential social emotion that helps you set clear behavioral boundaries for yourself.
Your shame keeps a constant watchful eye on you, and it (usually) arises when you’re about to do something you really shouldn’t do, or when you’ve broken one of the moral or ethical agreements you’ve made. If so, you can ask yourself the following questions for shame:
Whose ethics and values have been disrespected?
What must be made right?
With the help of these questions, you and your shame can revisit the situation, figure out what went wrong, and feel your appropriate remorse. Maybe the ethics and values are yours; maybe they’re not, but you can identify your mistake or wrongdoing and make things right.
Shame gives you the chance to reset yourself and make things right
You can apologize and make amends, and you can promise to do things differently next time.
This remorse will strengthen your relationships, teach you better skills for the future, and allow your shame to recede naturally, because its job is done.
Though shame and remorse can feel uncomfortable, they’re a vital part of becoming a skillful social being
However, if your shame is based on old information, unhealthy ways of being, or toxic messages that you were shamed or bullied into accepting, then your shame might want you to behave in ways that don’t work for you any longer.
It can be very hard to get this kind of shame to calm down, and this shame can actually intensify when you try to challenge it or live in a way that feels more comfortable. When your shame is based on a toxic message, it can feel imprisoning and destabilizing, and it can be hard to get a thought, a word, or an idea in edgewise.
But this is not shame’s fault!
Shame exists to help you live up to the ethics, morals, and messages you’ve agreed to. If those messages are healthy and loving, then your shame will be a supportive friend for you. But if those messages are toxic, unkind, or controlling, then your shame may get stuck in an annoying feedback loop, or it may act like a bully. It’s not. It’s just doing exactly what you told it to do.
So, the healing work with shame is to identify the ethics, morals, contracts, and agreements you made so that you can decide if you want to continue to abide by them. You always have a choice.
A healing practice for unwanted shaming messages
As I wrote in the previous post on shame, you can use the the Burning Contracts practice for these kinds of outdated messages. This practice gives you the authority and agency you need to destroy or renegotiate any shaming message or ideas, and create new approaches that work for you.
A flowchart for shame!
In our Dynamic Emotional Integration® community, we created a shame flowchart to help people (and ourselves!) understand how to work with shaming messages (which we call contracts), because it’s as if we signed a contract that’s guiding our behavior and our beliefs.
The Burning Contracts practice can help you deal with shame that’s trapped in old messages and contracts, but this flowchart may also help you visualize the process of understanding which messages and contracts should go, and what to do about them.
Dealing with shame in the moment
When you feel shame in the moment, you can stop yourself, identify what’s wrong, and make things right (or apologize) if you can.
Everyone feels emotions in their own way, but your shame may appear as an internal pull in the gut, a flush of heat, a momentary speechlessness, or a sense of internal caution.
It’s important to listen. If your shame stops you before you say or do something shameful, you can thank it and make any needed corrections.
If you don’t know why your shame has come forward, you can ask yourself or the people around you if you’ve done something incorrect (Whose ethics and values have been disrespected?), and apologize or make amends if necessary (What must be made right?).
Working on the left side of this chart
You can use this shame flowchart to help you decide whether your shaming messages are current, realistic, and appropriate.
If yes, you’ll move to the left side of the chart and keep that contract or message, ask the healing questions for shame, make your amends, and carry on.
Dealing with repetitive or abusive shaming messages
On the other hand, when your shame is out of date, unrealistic, or inappropriate, it can feel awful, because it’s trying to hold you to an idea or a behavior that isn’t in your best interests any longer (if it ever was). This inappropriate shaming message or contract can make your shame feel like a monster.
When an emotion is this far out of balance, it can help to step back and look at it, and this flowchart can help. Shame is doing its job, yes, but it’s acting on behalf of outdated, inappropriate, or even toxic messages that are based on social control or ideas you’ve outgrown — it’s not focused on your present-day needs, wishes, hopes, or true purpose.
In this situation, shame is separate from its true nature, and from yours.
Working on the right side of this flowchart
When you’ve identified that your shaming messages and contracts are not working for you any longer, the Burning Contracts practice is a great place to start.
But if you need support, we have some further practices that this flowchart mentions: Renegotiating Practices and the Shame Shrine. You can learn these healing practices from a licensed Dynamic Emotional Integration® professional (see the international registry here).
Our DEI colleague Anchen Texter also offers a 4-week online course at Empathy Academy called Befriending Shame, and she teaches all of these practices in that course.
The purpose of shame is to restore your integrity
The Gifts of Shame
Integrity ~ Atonement ~ Conscience ~ Self-respect ~ The capacity to amend your behavior
Shame arises when your boundaries have been broken from the inside — by something you’ve done wrong, or have been convinced is wrong. Shame holds you to your word and to your integrity. That’s shame’s purpose.
But when the shaming messages and contracts you’ve uploaded are themselves destabilizing your integrity, there are ways to reclaim the true heart of shame and restore your current, realistic and appropriate morals and ethics.
The practices on the right side of this flowchart: Burning Contracts, Renegotiating Contract, and the Shame Shrine, can help you.
Shame is a vital and irreplaceable emotion
Your shame can help you mature into a conscious and well-regulated person.
We all need help figuring out our behaviors in the social world — and shame is the precise emotion that offers this help.
Remember that emotions and empathy are your first language. Yes, your emotions can speak to you in a way that feels like trouble, but they each have a very specific function and a vital set of gifts and skills for you.
Welcome and befriend them all; your emotions are an essential part of your intelligence, your empathic skills, your relationships skills, and your behavior.
All emotions are necessary, and there’s no such thing as a negative emotion.