I remember being put on diets by my parents as young as 10 or 12 years old. There’s a vivid picture in my mind: I’m in my mid teens, standing in the bathroom, secretly measuring how my skirt fits specifically around my waist. I still recall that skirt so clearly - it had small white flowers against a red backdrop. Long, flowy, and brushing softly against my ankle. Why couldn’t I just enjoy how the skirt felt? Why was I preoccupied with how my body fit in it? I could feel the shame creeping in my body at the idea of the skirt not fitting. Measuring exactly how much self-deprecation and guilt I would put myself through if it was too tight. AND, the relief that washed over me when it fit loosely!
That moment for me is an early life representation of the many countless other memories (before and after that one) when I was fed this story that my body is a problem to be fixed. It’s no surprise then that my relationship with food and my body became more toxic over time. As I worked on my healing in later years, I realized how this infiltrated so many other parts of my life, and why I wasn’t connected to parts of myself till later on.
You can carry early childhood experiences that involve rejection of core parts of you for a long time. The rejection can then turn into chronic guilt and shame about who you are. The rejection from other people seeps in and you reject yourself in some shape or form.
As a result, you walk around feeling “less than”. It can be your body that’s rejected, your hair, your gender, your sexuality, your race, and so on. Of course these experiences vary so much, and I’m not implying they are the same. What they do have in common is the persistent shame and guilt about yourself. No matter the type of rejection, it’s telling you somehow you’re unwelcome, unwanted, or unworthy.
In honour of Pride month, I invite you to cultivate your inner pride about who you are. Although Pride month started as a social justice movement and a call to securing human rights, it has evolved in many ways to be about pride in who you are and owning it. Feelings of unworthiness will get in the way of that. If you’re someone who struggles with that, or you know someone who does, I invite you to set your intention this week to connect to your inherent worthiness and celebrate yourself or to support that loved one in connecting to their pride!
What’s Unworthiness Really About?
The essential core thing of unworthiness is that it is a perception of yourself as somewhat defective. This can show up in a variety of ways.
Self-defective core beliefs formed from early life experiences can sound and/or feel like this:
- “I'm unloveable”
- “I'm damaged”
- “I’m worthless”
- “I'm shameful”
- “I’m the problem”
These beliefs are like the steering wheel of a car. It directs your life. So if you’re navigating your life with a core belief that you’re somehow damaged (aka “something is wrong with me”), it leads you to live your life from a place of "I am less than". It becomes part of your identity and your mindset.
This internal process actually makes the shame and guilt about who you are; grow bigger and get more intense. It’s like that song on the radio that keeps playing over and over (yes, I’m an 80’s child, I still say radio!)
Chronic Shame and Guilt
As this song keeps playing, guilt and shame become persistent, and then keep you stuck in your life. You’re not only feeling this way, you're actually also behaving this way. You are more likely to make your life smaller and hold back. Your behaviours and decisions would flow from this space.
With chronic guilt and shame, you're more likely to:
- Not go after that dream, that promotion, or that job
- Find yourself procrastinating or delaying making decisions (even smaller ones in day to day life, aka you could describe yourself as indecisive)
- Compromise your wants, needs, desires, and preferences (by being too agreeable, too easy going or too passive)
- Put others on a pedestal (seeing others as consistently better than yourself while not seeing what you bring to the table)
- Do whatever it takes to keep the peace, even if it’s at the expense of your well-being
- Perceive feedback as criticism and get defensive
- Take things personal more often than not
In a fundamental sense, everything and everyone else comes before you in a consistent way. It can happen in obvious ways, and in small ways. This makes the belief system of not feeling worthy even stronger. And in this way, it makes the shame and guilt grow more intense. This is called reinforcement. Basically, the link between the behavior and the emotions gets stronger.
When shame and guilt are reinforced in you from a pretty young age, and throughout your life like this, they can show up whether they are called for or not. And, you might find it difficult to tell if these emotions are giving you the right information and appropriate motivation.
So, Why Do We Have Shame and Guilt in the First Place
In general, emotions give you information and motivate your behaviours. Shame and guilt, specifically, are social emotions. Their main role is to keep you (as a human) from acting in a purely self-absorbed way.
For example, you could feel guilty or ashamed about cheating on your spouse. Because cheating might go against the social rule of honesty, these emotions would motivate you to approach the situation or person (aka confess), to make amends (aka apologize for cheating and try to repair), and to make a change (aka stop cheating, do better, or restore the trust that was damaged).
Because self-interest on its own can be threatening to the interest of your group or in conflict with it, shame and guilt show up to restore this balance. Your social group can be your family, friends, colleagues, your partner(s), community, and the bigger society.
Usually, the people and groups that have the greatest effect on you are the ones you most strongly associate / connect with. They are the people that matter the most to you. The ones you have the strongest sense of belonging and bonding with. This is why rejection from important people/figures can be deeply painful, especially if it happened early on in your life.
As a child, you might’ve done everything you can to please them, gain their acceptance and their closeness, and avoid their punishment. Even if that meant lying and hiding yourself. Rejection to a child is a form of punishment (emotionally speaking).
If your parents/caregivers rejected your sexuality or gender, your skin colour, your body, or other important parts of who you are; it can lead you to internalize this rejection into shame and guilt about yourself. You can even turn your negative experience to self-blame and self-harm. In other words, you not only see yourself as defective, you treat yourself that way, and punish yourself.
Even when the external influences are gone (e.g. no longer living with that toxic person or in those damaging circumstances), those emotions have now been strengthened inside of you. You can find yourself saying “why do I keep doing that to myself?”. This is how shame and guilt can continue to be persistent, and keep you stuck in harmful patterns.
To Act or Not to Act
It’s important to be able to pay attention to whether these emotions are called for or not when they show up. Or if their intensity matches the situation.
For example, you’re having dinner with your family, and your spouse makes a comment about the food you made. Even if they weren’t being critical, you could perceive it that way if you’re carrying pre-existing guilt and shame about yourself. You then take it personal, get defensive, and storm off. This may be a situation when guilt and shame show up among other emotions. And they prevent you from engaging with your spouse. So you don’t ask them what they meant, and you don’t get clarification. The communication is shut down.
To determine if these emotions are called for in a situation like this, ask yourself:
- Does my emotion (aka my shame or guilt) match the facts of the situation? (Hint: facts are observable, indisputable, and not based on interpretations or judgments)
- Does the intensity of my emotions match the facts of the situation? (Hint: intensity is subjective and can be rated out of 10 or 100 points or as a percentage - e.g. 70% out of 100%)
- Do these emotions serve me well? (my self-respect AND my relationship/ my goal or objective)?
- Are they useful right now?
When you act on emotions that are uncalled for they grow bigger and more intense. When you act on emotions that fit the situation, their intensity goes down. This is why it’s important to be able to identify if an emotion is called for or not. These are behavioural principles that can help you re-shape these emotions over time.
In the example above, other factors aside, there’s a good chance the shame and guilt aren’t called for. But you might find yourself feeling that way anyways, even if you don’t believe that in your mind. This is because they have been so drilled down over time.
You may even act on them in other ways. You could:
- Feel irritated
- Start to feel uncomfortable all of a sudden within yourself or in your body
- Feel squirmy, anxious, or on edge
- Have an urge to hide, or look away
- Get quiet or hold back more
- Feel an internal sense of pressure to “be a certain way”
Take a moment to take care of yourself in these moments, take a breath, and consider doing opposite what these emotions are telling you to do.
Emotions that Don’t Fit? Act Opposite them!
There’s this myth we have about doing what we feel. For emotions that don’t fit, you want to go against what they’re telling you. This is called Opposite to Emotion Action (created by Marsha Linehan). It is a skill designed to help you reduce the intensity of emotions when they’re uncalled for. And over time, these emotions lose their power and become less intense. In other words, it helps you find your balance with your emotions.
Here are some suggestions you can choose from: (Take a screenshot of these to keep them handy this week as you practice)
Keep in mind your context and what feels safe for you. Safety is relative from one context to another, and one person to another. Check out my previous blog posts if your not sure what I mean by willingness and non-judgement in the cue cards.
The Intention in Practice
In the example above, if you were to act opposite the shame and guilt you could do one or more of these suggestions:
- Take a deep breath and connect to your body
- Make eye contact
- Ask for clarification or what they meant
- Contribute to the conversation / exchange
- Resist the urge to leave
- Participate willingly/openly
It’s important to remember this is one of many skills and suggestions you can apply. And that this strategy is focused on changing unwanted emotions that don’t fit for you.
What’s the Point of Doing all of This?
When you act opposite shame and guilt that are uncalled for, the strength between these powerful emotions and the behaviours you don’t want gets weaker. As a result, your internal confidence and self-trust grows over time. You nourish your inner pride!
New behaviours start to show up and you feel less guilty and ashamed about yourself. You are more likely to:
- Say YES more often to yourself
- Give yourself permission to say no and to turn down requests
- Hold yourself accountable without blaming yourself
- Feel less defensive and be more open
- Hold others accountable to you when they cross a limit or boundary, or simply do something you don't like
- Express your likes, dislikes, and preferences more readily
In other words, you’ll build your ability to ask for what you want while prioritizing the relationships that are important to you. When you’re able to have clarity like this, then you can manage your capacity, and not over extend yourself.
As you begin to regain your balance, you move up in your own priority list. Your internal sense of value as a person increases. You start to feel “good enough”. And you show up that way in your relationship with yourself and others. You build your self-worth from the inside out.
Take a moment this week and reflect on a story you’ve been told about yourself as a child, especially when shame and guilt show up for you. Ask yourself, does the evidence match the story? Use the tips provided above and start with something that doesn’t hold a high intensity for you, especially if you’re new to this. Pace yourself. You’d be surprised what you’ll reveal to yourself when you take that pause.
Start today! Feed your self-worth so you can celebrate your pride!!
I’d love to hear what your experience was like with practicing your intention this week. Connect with me below.