The Emotion of Shame

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I am continuing with my theme of emotions, which are causing you harm, because I want you to understand that you are more than how you feel, and that you can (with help) heal the damaged places in your heart and mind. So let’s continue…

Today I want to talk with you about shame, which is closely related to but different from guilt.

Probably the best definition I have heard of shame is that it’s a failure to meet your own standard of behavior, whereas guilt is a failure to meet others’ standards of behavior. This is the difference we’re going to look at today.

I have found in working with people, that the brokenness of shame is what keeps many from living out loud or living to their full potential. What’s interesting is that many people have buried shameful incidences from their past, assuming that they will not be a problem in the future, but, unfortunately, they do tend to raise an ugly head unless you have created a way to beat that monster back down again.

For many, guilt is a gut-wrenching emotion (and I may talk about that emotion at a later date) and, no doubt, guilt is the heartbreak for many people, but I’ve also come to believe that shame is the one emotion that plays the most havoc in your life if you’re not careful…because it is always in the back of your mind. It may rarely creep up and hit you on the head, but just the remembrance of a time when you failed you is really hard to accept and hard to deal with if you don’t put a plan in place.

Why? Because if we really believe the concept that shame is not living up to our standard of accepted behavior, it is a real disappointment in our own lives. Others may never know what happened back then, but you do, and when you least expect it, your mind will bring forward the long lost memory and feelings of when you really messed up, then you begin to replay the incident in your head all over again, and then down you go…

Friends, we’ve all done things were sorry for, and some are feeling shame for actions that were done to them—whether it was an argument that ended a friendship, or a breakup that broke up badly (that’s a tough one because I really don’t know when breaking up is ever easy), a marriage that was a hot mess from the moment you both said I do or being physically harmed by someone who should have been your protector and not your abuser. Shame can also be associated with family who do not accept who you are or what you believe, or when you were younger (in those not so great looking years) and you didn’t get asked to the prom or you were never chosen for sides in basketball. The list, my friend, is endless of incidents that burned a hole in your soul, and the scar is there and it is deep for many because you haven’t healed the broken place.

And what is interesting to me is that for some, no amount of forgiveness from the one you hurt or anyone else will ever be enough, because the pain is not on them anymore, but on you… because you failed to meet your own standard of behavior and you know it, and now you’re deeply disappointed in you.

Let me break right here and say that, if you are suffering the shame of having been abused in your life and they have never been brought to justice or held accountable, the statute of limitations on their crime may still be able to be enforced; and, if so, you have every right to seek action. Should you choose not to seek legal action, please consider getting help. Even if it is an old wound, it can be healed with proper steps…so you can free yourself from the past. There is no shame in seeking help.

If your issue of shame is not one of a physical violation, then let’s break it down to a really simple thought. If you carry such a deep hurt, at least you know what caused it, and since you know what caused it, now is the time to heal the hurt. Enough of you carrying around your hidden pain; drop the baggage in the dumpster, and get on with your life.

If it was a breakup and now these many years later you’re able to at least communicate without anger, now you know that life moved on for both of you. If you were never chosen for sides in sports when you were a kid, now you know it really doesn’t matter because you’ve grown into who you are and what skills you do have. If it was an issue with family, only time will tell, but remember that you’re responsible for you, and if you’ve done what you can or what you think you needed to do to make it right (or at least better), then settle the issue in your mind because you’re done, my friend. Now walk away down your own path.

Stop thinking that others have to accept your forgiveness for you to be forgiven. I know many, many people who were hurt in the past who now think that if they hold on to the anger it will forever hurt the person who hurt them, but you and I know the truth—the ones who hang on are the only ones who are hurt in the end; everyone else has gone on in life.

I wish I could do a public service announcement over every radio and TV station and Internet blog that simply says: “Stop thinking that others have to accept your request for forgiveness for you to be forgiven… It doesn’t work that way.

When you really think about it, friend, you need to realize that you are done, and leave the pain of the shame in the past and walk away. Stop looking back and picking up the old stones that made you stumble in the first place. That’s not shame, that’s not even guilt—it’s stupidity—and you’re too smart for that.

Years ago—I’m thinking it has been over 15 years now—I walked away from a friendship that I should have worked on instead of walking away. Walking away was easier. I was busy and wanted to go and do and be, and my friend (at the time) wanted to sit and stay and not move at all, so in my haste to move on, I left them. Since we weren’t going in the same direction I saw no need to stay around.

Now, I have asked for forgiveness and it was given, although begrudgingly (it was the best that they could do), and when on the rare occasion I see this person, those thoughts of how I acted remind me that I didn’t handle that well, and I was for a long time disappointed in me.

Me! I should have known better, but as a young person I had a failure to meet my own standard of behavior. It’s not rocket science how you treat others, but I was a different person back then—not to make an excuse—and I should have known better, but I looked out for number one and lost a friend.

For me that is a shameful moment, because I failed to meet my own standard of behavior, so now I have to really think about pursuing deep personal friendships with people, because sometimes I think about that incident and I don’t ever want to do that again to anyone. With what I do for a living, if someone wants a friend who is always here to go and do and sit with, then I’m not a great choice since I travel so much. Now the good news is that I have a great number of good friends who have their own full and joyful lives, and when we can connect we have a wonderful time, because we understand our time limitations.

I had to move on; forgive myself for my lapse in my own standard of behavior. I expect more out of me. I demand more out of me. Why? Because, for me, being kind is the most important trait I can work on and embody, and I will not allow the shame of my past to wreck my future. In fact, with practice, I have been able to leave my past and live in the light of the present, and, friends, so should you.

I read a quote that said, “When you can start seeing your scars as a sign of strength and not pain…you’re heading in the right direction.”

Friends, we’re all works in progress, and having a bad day is one thing, but letting that bad day bleed over into having a bad life is quite another. Today is the day to forgive and forget the shame of your past and walk into the light.

Deb Sofield

Deb Sofield is a Keynote Speaker, Author of the book, Speak without Fear – Rock Star Presentation Skills to get People to Hear What You Say and Encouragement For Your Life ~ Tough Love Memos to Help You Fight Your Battles and Change the World, Radio Talk Show Host in the Salem Network, Podcaster and President of her own Executive Speech Coaching Co., which trains women and men for success in speaking, crisis communications, presentation skills, media and message development in the U.S. and abroad.

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