Live a life without shame

What would a world without shame look like? There’s no way of knowing for sure, of course, because shame currently permeates every level of our culture. If you look at every instance of human suffering – big and small – at the root of it is not anger, not sadness, not envy, not even fear. It’s shame.

Whether we are talking about playground bullying, domestic violence, addiction, racism, or school shootings, none of these would exist without shame. Why? Because shame is rooted in our own real or perceived failings and shortcomings. 

Shame is the byproduct of a deep sense of our own unworthiness. The opposite of shame is a personal sense of value, worth, and self-love. When we feel a sense of appreciation for who we are, we aren’t compelled to abuse, neglect, or elevate ourselves above others. If we do away with shame, we do away with comparisons with others. When we do away with these comparisons, we no longer approach life from a scarcity mindset. There is room enough for everyone, and no one is better or worse than anyone else.

As I imagined a world without shame, I found myself asking some questions. And so, I pass these questions on to you:

What if we just felt hurt and sadness without shame?

Endings are hard. When someone dies or a relationship ends or a season of life is over, one of the first thing people think of is “If only I’d have spent more time with them,” or “I should have done more to help.” These should-haves don’t change anything, and cloud our minds with shame. If there were no shame, we could grieve purely.

Shame leads to regret and “should-haves” that distract us from appreciating all the good that existed within the experience.

What if we just felt guilt without shame?

Mistakes happen. We all screw up sometimes. Guilt is the voice of conscience – it tells us when we have made a choice that is hurtful to ourselves or others. On it’s own, I would argue that guilt is a good thing. If we used it as our bodies were designed – to guide us back into a healthy path – it serves an important purpose.

Unfortunately, guilt is often used by ourselves and others to abuse us. The phrase, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” should be removed from our consciousness. If you screwed up, you should remedy the situation. But shame never serves a useful purpose.

Once we allow guilt to fester and turn to shame, one of two things happens: We blame others, justify our choices, and cover up our actions. Or, we wallow in self-abuse and self-condemnation that turns to self-pity. Either way, our attention shifts away from accountability and making things right, and our useful guilt is wasted.

What if we just felt anger without shame?

Like guilt, anger also has a useful purpose. Our brains have evolved to rely on these strong emotions as signals for action. Anger is like a warning light on a car’s dashboard that alerts us to problems that need to be addressed.

Yet humans have a tendency to react to anger by either lashing out or suppressing it. Either of these reactions leads to shame, because we didn’t handle the situation the way we wish we would have. When we lash out, we say and do hurtful things we later regret. When we suppress our anger, we allow ourselves to be treated in ways we shouldn’t have allowed.

What if, instead, we learned to listen to our anger and honored it for its useful place as a warning that we are emotionally or physically in danger?

What if we just felt fear without shame?

Ah, fear. I used to think fear was the root of all dysfunction, but I’ve moved away from that as I gain a deeper understanding of shame. Fear, like guilt and anger, is there for a reason. It is our body’s natural reaction to a threat.

But shame often makes us blind to the useful function of our fear. Trauma of all types can trick our brains into a place of shame. We often punish ourselves for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or surviving while others perished. Abusers often capitalize on shame to control their victims by reinforcing the idea that the abused somehow deserves their harsh treatment.

We also often confuse courage with fearlessness. If we feel fear, we believe we are weak, when in reality, fear is a natural reaction to danger. As Nelson Mandela said, “courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

Without shame, there are several emotions that wouldn’t exist at all.

If there were no shame, there are a whole host of nasty emotions that wouldn’t exist at all, such as envy, rage, unforgiveness, resentment, bitterness, and self-righteousness.

Envy is the result of comparing ourselves and our own circumstances to others. I wish I had a house like that, or a car, or a family. If we didn’t feel shame in our own circumstances, we wouldn’t look at our own circumstances as less-than. Instead, we would see them as simply different.

The recipe for rage is equal parts anger and shame. When we suppress our rage, or feel powerless in the face of it, we feel ashamed. “I should have defended myself.” “I should have said something.” Rage occurs when this sense of powerlessness festers over time and festers into a tornado of anger. Without shame, there would be no rage.

Unforgiveness is closely related to rage. When we can’t forgive someone else, it always is rooted in our inability to forgive ourselves. When we forgive ourselves, we release the shame associated with the event. This frees us up to forgive others.

Resentment and bitterness occur when unforgiveness is allowed to ferment over many years. We resent the source of our unforgiveness when we blame others, and we become bitter and cynical. When we release our shame, we free ourselves to forgive, which naturally releases resentment and bitterness.

Self-righteousness is always rooted in insecurity, which is always rooted in shame. Like envy, we wouldn’t feel as though we had to elevate ourselves over others in order to have value.

I ran through all these different questions, and still felt as though I had missed something. It felt as though there was still a source of shame that I hadn’t yet addressed. And then it hit me… When I think about the moments of greatest joy in my life, my mind often wanders into the darker periods of those moments.

What if we just felt joy without shame?

This one feels strange, because the words joy and shame are not often paired. And yet, when I think about the birth of my sons, my mind often settles on my lack of success with breastfeeding. When I think about my wedding to my husband, I often end up wishing we’d just eloped to avoid the family drama. In all cases, these joyful occasions are clouded by shame.

I see this same theme running through the lives of my clients. Even when relaying a joyful experience – or what should have been a joyful experience – they often settle into a place of shame.

Our most joyful life experiences often revolve around our most intimate relationships – life partners, children, and family of origin. Too often we allow shame to overshadow so many of our joyful life events.

Family holidays are often fraught with shame. Often our warm memories are darkened by feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and blame.

Weddings that were joyful are shameful to remember if they ended in divorce, or even if the day didn’t turn out exactly the way we’d hoped they would.

I’ve known women who still experience shame for a teenage pregnancy, even though the resulting child is adored.

And don’t even get me started about the shame we hold around sex. Ugh! It is forced and we blame ourselves. We have too much of it, or too little. We have it too soon, with the wrong person, or enjoyed it too much with someone who broke our heart. What a mess!

What if we just let it all go?

What if we let go of all that shame, in all it’s forms and from all it’s sources, and just allowed ourselves to enjoy the moment – the baby born, the life joined, the sunrise and sunset, the laughter, the pleasure? What kind of miraculous shift would occur in your life, if you just released your shame?

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