Shameless: How to Find Freedom from Shame

By: Rasa Puzinaite

Shame is an emotion that every human being feels in regard to their actions, from time to time. Oxford Dictionary defines shame as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” However, a lot of people are so affected by feelings of shame that they avoid doing things that have the potential to cause them that feeling. I started thinking about how shame manifests for different people.

Healthy and unhealthy shame

As with every human emotion, shame itself is neither good nor bad, when it is in balance. People look cute when they blush and stand speechless in front of their loved ones. Or when they are too shy to share their writing or any other kind of creative work but still do share it, nevertheless. One benefit of shame is that it works as a navigation system in our social lives by giving us a feeling of how to behave and be accepted by other individuals. In other words, shame gives us so called common sense.

However, when the question, “What kind of stuff are you writing?” is answered with “Ah, just some nonsense” or the writer destroys their work without ever showing it to anyone, it might be that shame just turned to the “dark side.” Unhealthy shame has its own words that we hear in our heads as thoughts. Women might hear, “You’re fat, you’re not pretty enough, you should stay in the kitchen and serve your man, you should smile and nod, and keep your thoughts to yourself, you need to marry in order to be a respected woman, etc.” For men, it might be, “A real man doesn’t ever cry nor shows any emotions, a man should always be strong, a man must have lots of cash, drive a car, and buy expensive gifts for his woman, etc.” Shame shows up when we are not self-confident, when we have a craving to be loved and belong to someone at any cost, or when we fear not being loved because we do not fulfill other people’s expectations or the plan they have for us when we grow up. I am very familiar with shame myself. However, I only realized recently that it is so deep in me that sometimes I can barely enjoy my life. Even though I have a great one!

So, where does the shame root in?

Childhood. The concept of shame starts to form around the age of five. It’s natural that, as kids, we copy and follow those people closest to us: parents, grandparents, or other guardians. However, besides being our role models, they are also human beings with their own unique life story, one which also includes shame.

The reality I grew up with was a mix of Soviet regime and Catholic Church. As I think of it, two things come to my mind. From the Catholic side, I was taught that we’re all born from sin; in other words, sex is very, very bad and disgraceful. People should have sex only in order to make babies and no enjoyment allowed unless you are a libertine.  From the Soviet side, if the device (a TV, radio, or child) doesn’t work properly, try to hit it couple of times. The hitting methodology, when applied to children, usually involved a belt, standing in a corner in front of the whole class, or even kneeling on peas and hitting a child’s hands with a ruler. These “soviet education” methods were widely used to control misbehaving children in schools and at home. The grownups were always right and a child did not have a right to an opinion. Being “good” was a very important quality, especially for girls. The “good girl” had to get the highest grades, to not walk late with boys. She got married and had children, listened to her husband, and so on. In my own family and most of the families around me, it was a norm to “expel goats,” which meant that when children disobey their parents, they are said to have a stubborn goat in them and it must be expelled through one of the above mentioned procedures.

The physical punishments were a piece of cake, when compared with the way psychological shame was programmed into our minds. There was obligatory reading at school designed to teach us what to be ashamed of, one particularly famous story was about an unmarried woman drowned herself in a river after becoming pregnant. We also heard scathing criticisms from family members, such as “Girls don’t do that,” “Girls don’t behave like that,” “Eat your supper at home or people will think we’re poor,” and even being asked, “Don’t you have your own home?” upon asking to sleepover at a friend’s house. Even in spiritual institutions, such as churches, which were supposed to inspire spiritual growth and enlightenment, everyone was beating their chests, kneeling on the floor, and shamefully repeating, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.”

It was hard to handle this kind of reality, especially when it did not resonate at all with the real me. These things happened in my family and my reaction was to feel ashamed of myself and think of myself as a terrible person. At some point, I became very silent and, up until recently, it was a torture to express my opinion in front of other people. I thought of myself as stupid. I still have a deep anger and a sense of unfairness about it all.

How does one heal?

Today, I’m very proud of myself. As hard as it was to live in shame, something inside of me was uncomfortable with the messages I’d received as a child, and I started to search for ways to be free from them. For my recovery, I tried yoga, meditation, martial arts, Qigong, art therapy, studied social work, religions and Chinese traditional painting, traveled a lot, and volunteered in different places. Along the way, I met many other people with similar experiences. However, I’ve mostly stuck with those who, despite all that shit, were able to love life and be happy. A famous researcher, whose main topic is shame, Dr. Brene Brown describes such people as “whole-hearted.” According to her, such people allow themselves to make mistakes, to be vulnerable and weak. They accept themselves, flaws and all, and it actually makes them strong and capable to succeed in the end.

Being around people who have qualities you want to gain yourself has a healing quality. However, putting expectations on other people is not the way to full recovery, as the only person who can help you is actually yourself. One of the insights that helped me a lot, when I once felt ashamed of myself doing or saying something wrong, was looking at the situation from a distance. I realized that if a beloved friend would be in this situation, my reaction would be one of compassion and I would probably say, “You did your best,” or “Shit happens. Oh well,” or “It doesn’t make you a bad person and it doesn’t define who you are.” Then I thought, “Hey, if I can tell this to my friend, why can’t I tell it to myself?! I am equally worthy of love, empathy, compassion, understanding, and attention as anybody else.” This inspired a new mantra for me: I am enough as I am and I am perfect as I am at this moment. The big breakthrough for me came with repeating these words daily, looking myself in the eyes in front of the mirror.  

Another tactic to deal with shame is by asking, “Whose story is it?” Is this really me shaming myself? Or is it the collective consciousness in which I grew up, revealing itself? Am I still a helpless child or am I capable of making my own choices and knowing my personal preferences without sticking to what I have been told to? Defining what resonates with you gives you a freedom and self-confidence to live your life in peace with yourself and do it in uniquely your way.  These are just a couple of examples and ways to heal. The most important thing is to recognize it and be very gentle and loving with yourself.

Rasa Puzinaite