10 Things You Can Do to Overcome Shame
Brené Brown had this to say about shame:
“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, shame is a pervasive feeling that grows and thrives as years go by. It slows healing, prevents self-acceptance, and can lead a person to turn to anger, violence, or addiction in attempts to combat the sexual abuse trauma or cover it up.
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You don’t have to live with shame over what happened to you when you were a child. You can overcome your negative feelings and live the life you truly deserve. Here are just 10 ways that might help you overcome shame:
1. Try Expressive Writing
Many studies point to the power of writing in overcoming trauma. If you’re trying to overcome shame attached to your trauma, expressive writing can benefit you. In her book Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise DeSalvo breaks down the work of James D. Pennebaker, a leading researcher on trauma and therapeutic writing. She explains, “Through writing, we revisit our past and review and revise it. What we thought happened, what we believed happened to us, shifts and changes as we discover deeper and more complex truths. It isn’t that we use our writing to deny what we’ve experienced. Rather, we use it to shift our perspective.”
2. Create Positive Affirmations
Frequent check-ins with yourself can help overcome shame. Every time you have a negative thought, pause, take a breath, and combat it with a positive affirmation. Many who experience toxic shame in their lives also experience cognitive distortions. These are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that feed into negative feelings like depression and anxiety. The best way to change those chronic negative thoughts is through changing your thinking habits. Create a list of 5 or 10 positive affirmations that you can use when you notice a harmful or damaging thought coming into your mind. If you catch yourself thinking, “I’m so stupid,” you can counteract it with, “I’m doing my best.” It may feel silly at first, but it really can work over time.
3. Increase Sexual Knowledge
For many survivors, shame can be traced back to the trauma of your first sexual experiences. Increasing knowledge of sexual health and of your own sexual likes and dislikes can help you work through the shame and see where it’s rooted. You’ll be able to find the places that you may still need some help as well. A book like The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz or Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski may be beneficial.
It can be overwhelming to be alone with your thoughts, especially when those thoughts are largely negative and shame-inducing. Meditation teaches you to observe your thoughts without judgment. You’re not trying to fight them, combat them, or turn them off; you’re simply noticing them and moving on. With practice, this can help you when shame-inducing thoughts come to mind even when you’re NOT meditating. There are a lot of apps, classes, and online tutorials about meditation. A good place to start is with the apps Headspace or Calm.
Forgiveness can be a tricky thing to discuss with someone who has suffered the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. It can bring up a lot of emotions, often anger and fear: anger that forgiving will somehow mean that what happened to you was okay, fear that if you forgive your perpetrator then they will never know how much harm they caused. But forgiveness is for YOU. It allows you to let go of any shame attached to what happened to you. It allows you to free up your thoughts and energy and see the possibility of peace for yourself.
6. Educate Yourself
Some shame may develop because of misinformation. You may believe that you were somehow responsible for what happened to you or you were told that it was your fault. Some survivors feel shame because their bodies reacted to the abuse with arousal or felt pleasure. Others feel shame because their fight/flight/freeze reaction didn’t allow them to fight back against their perpetrator. No matter why you feel shame or where it originates, educating yourself can help alleviate it. You may realize that you’re not alone in the way you reacted and that it was your body and brain’s way of taking care of you. There’s no reason to feel shame for protecting yourself the best way you could.
7. Have Compassion and Self-Compassion
Many people have a difficult time with self-compassion. If you have feelings of overwhelming shame, you may have a difficult time loving yourself. One way to become more comfortable with self-compassion is by practicing being compassionate toward others. As you take opportunities to give service, sympathy, and support to your friends, family, and coworkers, you can begin to develop generous feelings for yourself. The next time a shameful thought comes into your mind, imagine what you would say to a close friend if they said that about themselves. By looking at it that way, you may find ways to be kinder to yourself, as well as all the benefits of being kinder to everyone around you.
8. Practice Awareness
One of the 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope at The Younique Foundation is Awareness. Simply put, Awareness is being physically and emotionally present in the moment. When you are living in the NOW, shame that is haunting you from your past has no place. If you find yourself being pulled into the past, you can use a grounding technique to bring yourself back to the present moment in order to deal with the feelings you’re having.
9. Cultivate Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is being aware (and in control) of your emotions, especially when dealing with others. Emotional intelligence allows you to be a more empathetic and sympathetic person. It may be harder for you to feel empathy for another if you’re hiding from your own emotions. With greater self-awareness you’ll be able to recognize your shame for what it is and not give in to the negativity of it.
10. Work Through Anger
Anger and shame can be closely tied. When someone is struggling with feelings of shame, they may lash out at others in anger. This is a way to hide, but it isn’t a healthy way to cope with shame. The next time you feel angry, take a few moments to stop and look at the root of it. What’s the emotion behind the anger? Is it fear? Self-doubt? Vulnerability? Determine if you’re using anger as a way to protect yourself and, if so, find a healthier way to deal with those strong emotions.
If your shame is leading you to harm yourself or others, reach out to a trained professional today. You CAN create a new way of thinking and a new way of living, one that doesn’t include toxic shame. Start today. Right this minute. Don’t let shame steal one more moment of your life.