Do you have this nagging feeling that you are doing something wrong? Or did something wrong? That people around you will be upset? That it is too good to be true? That the other shoe will drop any second now?
I had these feelings pretty consistently for most of my life. And they still come up from time to time and if I am not conscious to them, they run rampant and then they will run me. I won’t allow that. While I am still stuck in these places sometimes, the freedom I experience from not feeling guilt and shame the whole day is incredible.
What is shame and guilt?
I have been struggling just to define what shame and guilt are for me. They seemed to be the same thing and they brought up similar sensations in my body – tightness in my chest and upper back, sinking feeling in my stomach, heavy weight in my chin and pelvis. And with it came the body posture – eyes to the ground, shoulders slumped and rolled forward, chest drawn in. The thoughts that often enough occupied my brain were: I don’t deserve this. I can’t have this. I fucked it up. I broke it. It’s my fault. I am always messing everything up. I am a bad person. I am a shitty human being. Yep, talk about negative self-talk.
The best description for the difference between guilt and shame came from Dr. Robert Dee McDonald. I don’t remember his words verbatim but the gist of it was this:
- Guilt happens when you break your own rules and go out of integrity with yourself or the person you would like to be in the world. These rules include your internal programming that you have received between birth and now.
- Shame happens when you break other’s rules and thus fall out of integrity with yourself or the person you would like to be in the world. These rules include societal and cultural expectations as well as the programming around these expectations.
I was running on shame for so long without knowing really what was happening. It was just constantly there. See the definition above, it makes sense why that was.
Yes, that is as far as I took my shame, all the way to where it became toxic.To the point where I believed that I was bad, defective and unlovable. Sounds rough – and it was. I internalized it and then tried to hide it from everybody. At the same time I tried finding ways to receive approval from outside sources to make me feel better. I was trying to get over the feeling of being bad by hiding it and finding ways for people to tell me that I am good.
While getting all the approval externally and all the disapproval internally already sounds like a recipe for disaster, the truth is even worse. For one, all my self-worth was attached to outside sources. In my own mind I had no worth other than the one people gave me. But by trying to hide the shame, I became less trustworthy and more and more manipulative. Because I needed to get people to see me as this person that is awesome so they would affirm me. And because I was so attached to outside approval, the moment I received disapproval it kicked me in a full on shame spiral that either led to me curling up, feeling self-pity and hiding from the world or it led to outbreaks of rage.
But the worst part is, that I was completely unaware that I was doing this. Because I hid my shame from myself. And, of course, I had everything under control. There were no issues. Nothing to see here. Just tell me I am awesome and move on please.
Talking about moving on. Because of the paradigm I was unconsciously running on, I could not connect with people on a real level. They needed to see me as flawless to reaffirm me, so the moment I received that affirmation, I needed to get the hell out of there. Because the moment they actually see me, they know I am not amazing and they will stop validating me. That’s why I had over my lifetime a ton of relationships that never went deep. Because I was dependent on people’s opinion about me, I could not be myself.
And my self-worth? I can tell you that it used to be somewhere between “nothing at all” and “no worth mentioning”. Because if it wasn’t given to me from the outside, I did not have any worth. The huge problem with that was that even if it was given to me, I could not really receive it. My own toxic shame got in the way. Because I thought I was bad, there was nothing anybody outside of me could do to change that. I was not worthy of love, of help, of having my needs met or having my own desires.
A Moment Of Clarity
Yes, that is how it started to shift for me: With a moment of clarity prompted by a relationship issue. I became aware of my tendency to hide myself and my flaws. From there it went way down before there was any up. I saw the way I manipulated to get my needs met without ever speaking them. I saw how I tried to please people by not being myself. I saw the secret contracts I was making with people (secret because only I knew about them). And I started seeing the huge amount of shame I was trying to cover up.
My inner 5-year old was abandoned, frightened and hiding in the dark. Always hiding deeper, always running away. I can’t remember who it was but someone told me then that I needed to start caring for that inner child. That I needed to go inside, find him, hug him and hold him. Yeah, right? Totally woo-woo. I did not believe in any of that and at the same time I kept trying. It helped that I am part of a community that wants to see me with all my shit and baggage and love me no matter what.
Today, I am far from done with the work I need to do. But I can tell you, I have come a long way and I am still walking the walk. I started accepting myself for who I am. I become more and more aware of my hiding and not speaking up for myself. I am on my way to become an independent and mature man. And it only took my willingness to look at myself and start doing my internal work to get there.
Yes, this article went totally of course and an article about shame and guilt became about me. Tell you what though: I am fine with it. Because the more I can show up for myself, the more I get over my shame. And the more I do that, the more I can show up for all of you in the classes, lectures and in coaching.
So here is something I want to throw out there to turn this whole article around again. I operated on a simple if / then formula: IF I can hide my flaws and become what I think others want me to be THEN I will be worthy of love and get my needs met. Do you have a formula that your life has been built around? If so, share it below. Or mail me. Or start looking at it yourself and check if it is actually serving you.