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Four Steps to Metabolize Shame


Four Steps to Metabolize Shame

Marina Smerling

I have sworn up and down in life that I would never title a blog "X number of Steps to Whatever," because I have always wanted to honor the complexity of life, and all the human emotions of irritation, frustration, stuckness, doubt, etc. that arise in the course of our everyday lives.  

When I see other "X Steps to Blah Blah" articles, I ignore them, because I assume that the author is pretending to be super-human, will never admit to peeing in the shower, much less the challenges that come with being a human who struggles around desires for acceptance, belonging, connection, self-expression, etc.

But the truth is that I have found, over the years, a series of practices that support my clients in softening around the fierce shaming voices in their heads.  The voice of shame and blame and punishment may still exist, but it doesn't hold the same power over their moment-to-moment lives and choices.  Indeed, they're able to hear the voice, and choose life and choose freedom anyway.

And so, while honoring the full complexity of life... here are 4 simple practices that I have found to be helpful to digesting and transforming shame:

1) Notice the voice of shame. So often, the wheels of shame start turning, and the voices of "proof" that we're not good enough get rolling, and instead of noticing them for what we are, we react as though Truth has been spoken - becoming sullen, contracted, and disempowered.  Before we know it, we're acting as if those voices spell our fate, and we feel hopeless to change whatever we're convinced needs changing. 

We throw a wrench in the gears when we simply notice the script in our heads.  Our noticing may look like: "Sweet Jesus, I'm telling myself..."

I always screw up my relationships
I'll never have a boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/lover
I'm not making enough money because I'm inherently inept
I shouldn't have done X, Y, and Z
I'm not smart enough for that company to hire me
I'm not pretty enough to have the love I want in my life
I'm too much of an introvert/extrovert/any-kind-of-vert for people to like me
I'm too disorganized
So-and-so didn't call me back because they can see deep into my soul and have evaluated my worth as non-existent

You know the list.  It's long, and plays out in myriad ways.  Ironically, the voice of shame tells us we're alone, when in truth, most of us are conditioned to think the same self-effacing thoughts day after day.  When we think we're alone, we hide our shame, hide our pain around it, and that just makes it worse.  The first step in undoing the shame cycle is to notice the ubiquitous visitor who's currently behind the wheel.

"Oh hey!  Hi shame!"  you might say.  Bonus if you remember you're not the only one who experiences this.  

2) "I don't know." Try out these three simple words: "I don't know."  Your particular variation might look like, "I don't know if I'll ever get married," "I don't know why that person didn't call me back." "I don't know if that company will hire me," "I don't know if I'm okay," etc.

This is very different from jumping straight to an affirmation: "Oh, I'm so smart/beautiful/powerful, whatever."  It may be the case that you are these things, but in allowing ourselves to rest first in "I don't know," our brains soften, our bodies soften, and we fundamentally change the energy of constriction and judgment in our bodies to one of openness and relaxation.  Often times,  jumping to affirmation can just engage another form of constriction as we assert, "I'm not that.  I'm this!"  On the other hand, when we rest in "I don't know," it allows for an organic unfolding of the old stories that have kept us mired.

Try letting yourself not know, just for this moment, if you're enough, if you'll ever be successful, how to attract the love you want, etc., and notice what happens.

When you get that you no longer are under a mandate to Figure Everything Out, letting yourself not know can be a huge relief.

3) Name one quality you love. This is akin to the "need" in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) consciousness.  Let it be off the cuff, something that springs to the top of your mind, or leaps up in your heart, something you are immediately drawn to, like:


Don't take too long to think about it and diagnose yourself - there will be plenty of time for that later.  Let the first quality that arises and brings some relief to your body be the one you name to yourself, whether quietly or aloud.

And then, ask as a question: "How can I have love in my life?"  

Or better yet, "How can I be love?  How can I be peace?  How can I embody joy?" etc.  When we turn our self-doubt into an open-ended question, coupled with a willingness to be that which we seek, this is when we open ourselves to magic.  

This is where the possibilities that were seemingly unrealistic and "out of our league" become real, tangible possibilities in our lives.  We ask the question, and we let the divine / the great mystery / God / the universe answer us in ways small and profound.

4) Practice mercy. Try on mercy for yourself as a tender-hearted human who is finding her or his way in the world.  Have compassion for all the ways that, in your humanness, you haven't got it all figured out, just like the rest of all of us other humans.  Have forgiveness for your human cluelessness, for the one who is just doing her best to get by, to get her needs met, to survive in the best ways she knows how.  Have mercy.  You are so (so) not alone.  We are all trying to figure out this life thing together.  

In the end, what benefits the world isn't just one more person appearing to have their s*it together, but one more person who is willing to embody compassion, to invite it into her own life, and from there, to extend it to others.

Put it all together.  

You can go through these steps on the fly.  Person passes you on the street.  You smile.  They don't.  You think, "there's something wrong with me."  

Oh!  I'm telling myself something's wrong with me!
I don't know what's really true!
I value love!
May all human beings know love and freedom from this self-doubt.

From here, you can move deeper into a self-empathy process, noticing the needs that the shaming voice is trying to meet, as well as the needs clearly not met by shame, bringing all of it to the table in the spirit of compassion.  

These four steps create the opening in which this deeper self-inquiry becomes possible, rather than rushing in headlong.  These steps call forth the voice of gentleness inside of you, which has a much different story to tell than the one of shame about what's possible for your life.

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