"The most shamed of us have to renew our commitment to self-worth many times before it feels comfortable"

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Episode 26 -- July 13, 2020

Healing the Wounds of Shame: Human, not Perfect

The following is an excerpt from Letting Go of Shame by Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron. It has been edited for brevity.

It is not enough simply to understand our shame. Shame is a messenger, telling us that something is wrong in our lives that we must change. We need to pay attention to that message and then take action that will help us live a more meaningful life.

The goal is to develop dignity and healthy pride by taking away shame's power over us. We need to refuse to let shame control what we do, how we feel, and what we think. The message that challenges excessive shame will be different for each of us, but its general form is this: I respect and appreciate the shame inside me, even though it often brings me pain. I know that shame is part of me. But I also am a person who has a right to feel good about myself. I have value as a human being. I deserve to be treated with respect, honor, and dignity by people around me and by myself. I will no longer live a life centered on my shame.

Don't expect the shamed part of you to stand up and cheer when you deliver this challenge. Be prepared to spend many hours in animated discussion as your shameful self tries to convince you that you deserve to feel ashamed. The most shamed of us have to renew our commitment to self-worth many times before it feels comfortable. Remember, the goal is not to eradicate your shame, but to return that shame to its rightful place as a "citizen" rather than as "king" or "queen" of your life.

To return shame to its rightful place, Set Positive Goals Based on Humanity, Humility, Autonomy, and Competence.

The times we feel moderate shame help us discover or rediscover important truths about life. Four principles are especially significant in this process: humanity, humility, autonomy, and competence. We might feel damaged in one or more of these areas. We may have even suffered long-term wounds in all four.

Let's look at the The Principle of Humanity first.

This principle is simple and clear: Everyone belongs to the human race. There are no exceptions. There are no examinations to pass, no duties to accomplish, no possible way to be disqualified. All people are human, and no amount of shame can take that away.

Our goal is to find our way back to the human community. We need to convert the longing to be accepted and loved into positive action. We have to take the responsibility of moving toward others instead of retreating from them. We may have to remind ourselves many times that we have the inherent right to be human.

A person's sense of belonging will increase when they can move towards others who validate and appreciate their humanity. We may want to begin this process of reconciliation slowly. It is fine to start by approaching relatively safe persons or groups (such as self-help communities like Alcoholics Anonymous).

We may need to approach ourselves in the same manner--gradually and patiently. We need to quit condemning ourselves and discover that we are worth loving. We can become our own friend once we accept ourselves as fully human. We may also want to develop, or renew, a relationship with a spiritual Higher Power to reaffirm the meaning of our lives in the overall plan.

We will know that we are living by the principle of humanity when we can say to others we feel close to: "I am having some uncomfortable feelings. Could we talk about them?"

Next, let's consider The Principle of Humility.

This principle states that all human beings are equal--no person is better or worse that another. If we have difficulties in this area, we usually feel either inferior or superior to others. We are seeing life on a vertical scale where we constantly compete to be better than others, while fearing that we will fail badly. But then we feel contemptible when we are shamed, and we may try to fight that off by being contemptuous of others. This way, life is a shame contest in which everybody is damaged.

We are not saying that all people are alike of that every action has identical value. Certainly, some persons are blessed with greater physical talents, intelligence, or beauty. But these differences do not make anyone better than anyone else. We can act on this principle by declining invitations to feel inferior or superior to others, and by accepting opportunities that increase equality of spirit in our relationships.

Humility is not the same as humiliation. Humiliation occurs when someone is demeaned and attacked by another; it involves pushing someone into a subhuman state. In contrast, humility is a decision we make to accept our place as an equal to others, neither better nor worse. We can sometimes gain humility by "lowering' ourselves to the level of others. For example, if we have felt smug and superior, we might have to give this up to join the rest of the world. Or we may gain humility by raising ourselves to equality with others by accepting positive attention. The journey in either direction brings us toward full humanity, as we sacrifice being superhuman or subhuman.

Now that we've looked at The Principle of Humility, let's examine The Principle of Autonomy.

Another signal of shame problems is feeling weak and dependent. If we feel this way, we need to set goals that reflect the principle of autonomy: each of us has the right to decide how to live our lives. Operating independently means we have an identity of our own. It means we will not have to constantly be "people pleasers," afraid of being rejected or abandoned. We will have enough self-confidence to believe we can stand alone if we have to.

We do not, however, make independence sacred. We live in a cooperative world in which everyone has important ideas and contributions, so we will strive towards interdependence with others by entering mutually respectful relationships.

Autonomy is particularly hard to achieve for those of us who think of ourselves as "victims" in a cruel world. When we are truly autonomous, we will feel moderate and normal shame.

Finally, we have The Principle of Competence.

This principle tells us every person is good enough to contribute some value to the world. When we believe in our competence, we'll understand the work we need to do to develop our skills and abilities. We may then feel shame when we have taken our gifts too lightly.

But we do not have to be perfect in anything we do. Occasional failure is an inevitable part of being human. Sometimes, we can learn from failures and go on to become more competent. At other times, we can only accept disappointments, but still we can learn from them.

Shameful feelings can move us toward a commitment to competently perform whatever task is at hand. If our goal is a sense of competence, we will need to change more than our attitude. We will need to examine our behavior to see when and how we act in self-defeating ways. The message we will cultivate is something like this: I challenge myself today to develop the habit of competence. I can replace my shame with realistic pride when I work up to my capacity. But I also know when to stop. My goal is to accept being "good enough" rather than being perfect.

We begin recovering from our shame when we decide we want to live by these principles. We can ask ourselves a very simple but powerful question: how can we change our thoughts and behaviors so we can eventually feel more human, humble, autonomous, and competent?

Shame is full of mystery. No simple exercise or plan can possibly cover every part of it. But you can challenge shame effectively by making a long-term commitment to think and feel in ways that consistently move you towards self-respect.

In this time during the pandemic, when it seems like our feelings skew toward shame, let's remember these principles. You can read more in Letting Go of Shame by Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron.

About the Author:
Dr. Ronald T. Potter-Efron is a clinical psychotherapist. He has a M.S.W. from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in sociology from Purdue University. A former university professor, he specializes in the treatment of addictive disorders and anger and resentment counseling. He also is active in training professional counselors. He taught at an experimental college for eight years, and has trained in gestalt therapy techniques.

Patricia S. Potter-Efron is a family systems therapist and an individual and group therapist working mainly with families affected by chemical dependency. A graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, she now directs Professional Growth Services, a program for adult children with dysfunctional families and does group work with recovering chemically dependent women.

The Potter-Efrons are co-editors and contributors to The Treatment of Shame and Guilt in Alcoholism Counseling and Aggression, Family Violence, and Chemical Dependency, both published by Haworth Press. Ronald is also the author of Shame, Guilt, and Alcoholism: Treatment Issues in Clinical Practice, published by Haworth.

© 1989 by Ronald Potter-Efron and Patricia Potter-Efron
All rights reserved