Have you ever felt embarrassed, let down, less than, foolish, or ashamed? Have you ever felt like a fraud in your life, work, or relationships? Have you ever made a mistake and had enormous difficulty letting yourself off the hook–you know, forgiving yourself for not being perfect in some way?
I’ve found these to be practically universal experiences in people I’ve worked with over the years–and they’re not entirely bad. In fact, not feeling these shame emotions at all is often a sign of pathological narcissism, or even sociopathy–both particularly nasty forms of personality disorders. Our capacities for critical self-observation come from being social and human.
- Being social means we have standards that we learn from modeling and approval/disapproval from our parents and others growing up. When we observe ourselves violating standards, our nervous systems go into shame reactions.
- Being human means we can use our super-powered brains to imagine ourselves way more unacceptable or unattractive that we really are when we feel bad (most of the time when we feel publicly humiliated, other people don’t seem to care all that much and quickly move on even if they are put off).
- Most big shame/guilt/”This is the worst ever mistake!” reactions are actually attempts to avoid actually facing what’s really going on. Psychologically, amplified self-criticisms are often indirect expressions of anger at the pain (“It’s not fair that I feel so bad!”), and/or stubborn unwillingness to accept that we screwed up (if I make a little mistake into a colossal, catastrophic mistake, I can recruit people into telling me I did nothing wrong, and eventually dismiss the whole thing).
What to do?
I often suggest to someone who suffers from self-hatred, “Let yourself feel the shame/regret/guilt/anger/hurt, and really look closely at the ugly story you’re telling yourself.” If someone can keep reaching deeper, looking for insight and guidance rather than rationales for further self-flagellation, at some point they start to feel beautiful!
That’s right! Mostly, if we go deep enough into who we really are, we eventually experience ourselves as beautiful–which isn’t surprising, since we’re all embodied souls mostly doing our best to live good lives. [click to continue…]