I don’t like when I hear people say to others, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
Like many of you reading this, I heard that a lot as a kid — mostly from well meaning adults who wanted to let me know, hey, what you just didn't wasn’t nice. Don’t do it again. Except those well meaning adults probably didn’t take time to break down the wording of that phrase before it left their mouths.
You ought to be ashamed of yourself. In other words, it’s not just that what I did was bad or undesirable. If I ought to be ashamed of myself, then ultimately the message my six year old ears are hearing is: I am a bad person. I should feel shame about my very self.
If I stood on stage in an auditorium full of people and asked who had ever heard that phrase spoken to them, a sea of hands would wave back at me The fact is, most parents try to teach their children right from wrong by teaching them valuable life lessons. Sharing is good, hitting other kids is not nice, be truthful, don’t blame things on your siblings. How do they drive that point home? By the sucker punch of all guilt trips: You ought to be ashamed of yourself.
Even at a young age, we internalize these messages. The line between guilt and shame becomes blurred. (If you are confused about the difference, guilt is I did something bad. Shame is I am bad.) All of a sudden, the fact that you lied about going to a friend’s house to study when you really hung out and watched music videos makes you a bad person, instead of the lie being the bad thing. When Mom found out and gave you the dreaded “you ought to be ashamed of yourself”, it felt like a rejection of your selfhood from the one person who, as a kid, you desired approval from most of all.
We carry this internalized shame with us into our adolescence and our adult lives. Little by little, small rejections of life add up in that big bucket of shame, making the negative self talk in our heads even more prominent. You might not even remember that this all stemmed from a small rejection when you were little, but somehow it is related to the relationship issues you are having now where you feel unworthy of a healthy loving relationship and self sabotage every good one that comes your way.
Shame does a lot of weird things. It can cause some to develop addiction issues, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, low self esteem, etc. And all the while, the negative self talk grows, too.
So, what are a few small steps a person can take to reduce the lifelong build up of shame that we all carry around?
1. Build your community
Your community may be small at first. It might just be one person. But it’s important that you have a support system in place for you to lean on and who will accompany you in those dark shameful places. No one should ever feel like they have to walk those places alone. Often times, this is where a therapist comes in. But ultimately, the goal is to help you build a community of support.
2. Get comfortable with rejection
If shame is built on the basis of rejection, then it seems the most natural way to combat shame is to stare its origins in the face. It helps to build a reserve of positive self talk whenever the negative “I’m not good enough” phrases start creeping in. Practice acknowledging your negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones as often as possible — multiple times a day — until it becomes a habit. That way, the next time you are turned down for a date, a job, a promotion, or getting into your dream school, you’ll know it has nothing to do with your worth as a human being.
3. Don’t shame others!
Maybe you’ve read this whole post and thought to yourself, “Shit! I just told my kid she ought to be ashamed last night!” It’s okay! Often, we repeat the things we’ve observed our families of origin do. Chances are, if your mother was a master guilt tripper, then as an adult you probably have a few tips and tricks up your sleeve as well. Like I always remind my clients: When we know better, we do better. Decide to break the cycle of shame by recognizing when you might be inflicting it on someone else, and then stop yourself in your tracks. By showing compassion toward others, you’ll learn to show that same compassion toward yourself.
I prefer to envision shame as hurt little children inside each of us. Sometimes, all that child needs is a hug from grown up you to begin the healing process.