When it comes to shame, there are many things we can talk about. But one insight in particular is worth sharing, because it has turned out to be the most important one.
The best and safest antidote to shame is connection. But what exactly do I mean by that? And how can we reach it?
Shame mainly roots in the fact that as social beings we fear isolation and exclusion. From an evolutionary perspective, exclusion was in most instances a death sentence. And to the day, our survival largely depends on groups (apart from a few rare exceptions).
This means that shame primarily triggers fear of death in us. And if this fear is about not being able to cope alone, every form of connection mildens shame. As this signalises us: you are not alone. I see, hear, understand and like you. We are at least two. Psychological studies have found that the resilience of an excluded person grew exponentially once one single other person (!) stood by their side.
We can use this insight in two ways. If you are personally affected by toxic shame, take hold of every opportunity to create connection – with other people or even with things that give you some sense of wellbeing. Be it a group of like-minded people, a friendly nod in the street or a book that comforts and empowers you. Because remember: this book was written by another human being.
The best and safest antidote to shame is connection
Should you be so paralysed by fear that every human contact threatens to overwhelm you (e.g. when you suffer from a social phobia), try to connect in a first step with animals – or very small children. The reason why we love animals so much is because they do not judge us. Same is true for children up to two years. They still look at you without the heavy load of social expectations and ideas. Children and animals just are – with you, if you allow them to. And chances are, they will reward you with a radiant smile and bright eyes.
And remember, these encounters do not need to be long. Just sit down on a park bench and see who comes by. If you smile first, I bet you get a smile back! Take on that gift. Enjoy the moment of connection. If you can do it in small doses, you will succeed in repeating it elsewhere.
It is the judgment we fear most. People who do not judge us and just let us be are balm for our souls. They are there, somewhere. Even if sometimes it takes some effort to find them.
If on the other hand you are able to identify and tolerate shame to a degree and if you can spot it in others: reach out for them, put forth your hand (both symbolically and physically). Show the other person they are not alone. However, be prepared that they might not be able to accept your act of kindness. They might even refuse it. Maybe they can simply not believe that someone is genuinely nice to them.
Don´t take it personal! And believe me: I have lived in escalating shame spirals for a long time, and I have experienced them inside out. The moment I understood the meaning of “us” vs. “I”, the moment I started making the first step, saying something connective rather than splitting, much has improved. Which means I have found a way to interrupt that vicious shame cycle.
Those connective gestures can be manyfold. It can be a confession that you have made a mistake or have been unfair. That you genuinely care for the other – despite the conflict. That you are looking for ways to connect, not separate. You will see: it can work wonders.
- Say Yes instead of No
- turn towards them, not away
- open a door (even a tiny one) instead of closing one
- be “warm” instead of “cold”
- say “we” instead of “you”
- express or find something positive instead of criticising
- and allow yourself and others to make mistakes and be vulnerable
If the situation or relationship with the other person allows it, physical touch can also do wonders (e.g. when your child has been shamed). However, always ask permission and allow the situation to cool down a bit before approaching them. Otherwise they might feel threatened even more. Gentle and respectful touch sends signals of safety and connection and can help calm their nervous system.
Let me add that those things do not necessarily work over night where for years and years things have gone to pieces. But you will notice a change of atmosphere. Suspicious vigilance at first, but then gradually relief or even thankfulness, or even honest anger (which then is a sign of trust) because you have opened the door to that.
Be assured: if you consciously train yourself in connecting and finding your own ways of expressing this, you will discover that you or the other person can find comfort and finally (more) confidence.
Do not give up. I know how hard it is to carry the burden of toxic shame. However, it is not hopeless. The more we embrace our shame together, the more healing will occur.
Recently someone asked this truly beautiful question:
“What would happen if we held each other in our pain?”