Transforming Shame to Strength

In my study of how human beings work, nothing has been more interesting than shame.

The good news is that you don’t feel shame because there is something wrong with you. You feel shame because human beings are hardwired to feel it as a social survival mechanism.

Shame is a profound evolutionary advantage. Human beings are alive on the planet today because we are profoundly social. Shame keeps the social group together so that the human race can survive. It keeps the individual with the group so that they can survive.

No wonder shame feels so terrible. It’s like an electric fence, keeping you in the social boundaries so that you don’t get ostracized and left in the forest as lion food.

However, evolution also tends to play toward the group’s advantage rather than the individual’s. It cares much more about group cohesion than losing one individual. Therefore, shame can be a fickle friend. Don’t assume it’s on your side.

In addition, like all of our biological protective hardwiring, shame operates on a ‘better safe than sorry’ basis. It’s like the thought, “If something moves in the bushes, it’s safer to gear up for a bear rather than to assume it’s a rabbit, until experience proves otherwise.”

Shame says, “It’s safer to assume there’s something wrong with me until experience proves otherwise.” It’s not personal. It’s evolutionary. It’s part of why you’re here on the planet.

Shame can activate our biological freeze response that is regulated by our dorsal vagal nerve. The biological message is to lay low and wait for the threat to pass.

Although we can thank shame for helping the human race survive through eons of evolutionary tests, when our freeze response takes over for a prolonged period of time it can result in feelings of isolation, hopelessness, helplessness, depression, overwhelm, and desperation.

This is not a healthy place to be either physically or emotionally.

With all these factors involved, the feeling of shame is best met with a mix of gratitude, analysis and compassion rather than the knee-jerk compliance or defiance that it would have us do.

What to do about it? The trick is to treat the emotion of shame in such a way that it keeps you in the connection (Ventral Vagal) part of your nervous system instead of going into a freeze response.

When I catch myself feeling shame I find the most effective way forward goes something like this:

  • Gratitude. “Thank you. I wouldn’t be on the planet without this emotion.”
  • Acknowledgement. “Ouch. And this is painful.”
  • Connection. “I’m not alone. Feeling this bad is part of being human.”
  • Curiosity. I wonder how this feeling might be trying to protect me?
  • Movement. Doing some kind of movement can counteract our freeze response. It can include walking, running, stretching, yoga, etc.

When we treat shame as the biological protective phenomena that it is, we can then loosen it’s hold and become more free to live in our strengths.

This reminds me of a master/student story from Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening. The student is complaining about his life. (This is what student’s do in these stories). The master gives the student a cup of salt water and has him drink it. Of course, the student complains that it is bitter. The master then has the student pour the same amount of salt in a nearby lake and instructs the student to drink from the lake. The student notes that the water now tastes fresh. The moral of the story is to become a bigger vessel (like the lake) for the pain (the salt) that life delivers us. Life’s pain will always be there but we can transcend it by dealing with it in a way that enriches our capacities to connect with ourselves and each other.

Okay, But What if My Suggestion Doesn’t Work?

If you find that shaming thoughts persist no matter what you try then I wholeheartedly recommend hypnosis as a solution. Shaming thoughts often drive “too much” types of behaviors like overeating, over-drinking and addictions like smoking. Shaming thoughts can also be the root cause of chronic anxiety and depression. Hypnosis works incredibly well to find the root cause of such thoughts and remove them. It can feel like magic because the process is remarkably pain-free and quick.

For example, the other day I had a client who was suffering from compulsive eating. After a short interview we discovered the thought, “I make people want to kill me,” was reinforcing the compulsion. We then discovered in hypnosis that these thoughts started when she was 2 years old. Once the origin of the negative thought pattern was discovered, I quickly let the 2 year old within her know that it was time to set her free from such thoughts and did a process called Informed Child Technique to help her know those thoughts were no longer necessary.

It’s important to note Informed Child Technique is about self-discovery, not something that the hypnotist “does to” the client. Within minutes my client was smiling and radiating peace. When the appointment was over I asked her how difficult the process was on a scale of 1 (the easiest) to 10 (the hardest). She replied, “maybe a 2 or a 3.”

The solution to being set free from negative, self-defeating thought patterns seems like it must involve facing a mammoth inner dragon of some kind. This is an illusion that keeps us stuck. The illusion is supported by difficult and painful psychological processes that are supposed to set client free only after years of hard work. With hypnosis clients feel increased freedom right away and even complex engagements are rarely longer than 10 sessions. Mostly, it’s 5-8 sessions, and many times it’s faster for simpler issues.

All too often negative thought patterns are created by a child who has a very limited capacity to make sense of the world. Then, as adults, we keep these thought patterns going, because they’ve become subconscious. We become so identified with these negative thought patterns that they seem like part of us. The origins become obscured and the keys to freedom seem lost.

Hypnosis is amazing at solving these kinds of problems because it helps get clients into a highly focused and relaxed state where the subconscious mind can be accessed. In this relaxed, focused state the clients have the added bonus of a hypnotist who can help guide them to the solution. Before I learned hypnosis, I never dreamed that it could be this easy. On the clients’ side, it’s about as simple as turning the key and opening the door, and then walking through the door to a new life that is unfettered by thoughts that were never true in the first place.

I’ve found that understanding the origins of our thought patterns is incredibly important. It helps make our lives make sense, and it helps us have compassion for ourselves when when our biology would rather have us go into a shame response. Without understanding, it’s tough to have compassion, and without compassion for ourselves it’s impossible to become free.

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