Growing up in a traditional Asian home, I was taught to be polite, quiet, shy, humble, and deferential. Conformity to expectations is often emphasized, and emotional outbursts are discouraged. Failure to meet the family’s expectations could mean bringing shame and loss of face to both children and parents. As education to the Asian family is of paramount importance, children who do not do well in school would first feel ashamed before anything else. The notion of shame began early in our developmental years.
Social stigma, and saving face, as such, often prevent Asians from seeking mental health care. Maintaining honor at all costs means having to appear self-righteous, cold, or lacking empathy towards self or others. Many, as a result, suffered in silence.
As I traveled around the world, I soon realized that shame is not a uniquely Asian thing. Shame is a universal experience and is among the most toxic of human emotions. Researcher and author Dr. Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Everyone experiences shame at some time, but we don’t have to be ruled by toxic or overwhelming shame.
Here are five suggestions on how to beat shame at its game :
1. BRING SHAME TO LIGHT
According to Dr. Brown, “The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives.” Don’t let shame control you; talk to someone about it. Shame that is hidden tends to fester and grow in the dark, like mold. However, shame, like darkness, dissipates quickly when exposed to light. When we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear. Shame is like a wound that is never revealed and, therefore, never heals. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” ― Dr. Brené Brown
2. DIFFERENTIATE SHAME FROM GUILT
I have found many who confused the two to be the same thing. While guilt attacks the action, shame attacks the actor. Guilt is often linked to correction, while shame is often condemnatory in nature. Shame may result from the awareness of guilt, but it is not the same thing as guilt. It’s a painful feeling about how we appear to others and ourselves after a failure. In other words, shame leads to isolation, and that can impede growth. However, the capacity to feel guilty could be seen as emotional progress because we are ready to take responsibility and correct our mistakes, just as how Mr. Nelson Mendala puts it aptly, “I never lose; I only learn.”
3. BE QUICK TO ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR MISTAKES
The quicker we are in taking responsibility and acknowledging our mistakes and failings, the better. Swallowing our pride and merely say, “I made an error in judgment,” is much better than arguing and blaming others. Contrary to what most believed, admitting to our mistakes does not make us look weak; it can make us look stronger. Learn from it and move on. Ironically, self-admission to errors immediately removes anyone from weaponizing our failings against us.
4. CHALLENGE SHAME-BASED THOUGHTS
Many of our feelings are merely reactions to specific events that we perceive as pleasant or unpleasant. There’s a saying: “Don’t believe everything you think.” Instead of viewing our thoughts as absolute truths, see them as mental events to observe and evaluate. Be willing to challenge shame-based beliefs and replace them with more accurate ideas. Reject thoughts such as “I am stupid” or “I am a loser.” Instead, say, “I may have failed, but I’m not going to let this episode destroy my future.”
5. TELL YOURSELF IT IS OKAY TO BE IMPERFECT
We are all perfectly imperfect. With this acceptance of our “imperfections” and the “imperfections” of others comes a level of understanding where we can accept one another as who we really are. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, but just for a moment, permit yourself to simply be you. Start becoming comfortable in your own skin. Listen to the gentle whispers of God and your inner voice. Stop trying to make everyone else happy at your expense. People will like us better when we drop the façade. Our imperfect moments can be our most defining ones.
Don’t fame your shame. Flame it.
“There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1
Fred Tokè aka Dr. Tokèmon