As anyone with an overthinking brain knows, we can be our own worst critics. No matter how others criticize or hurt us, we are often harshest on ourselves. I read a proverb once that totally stuck with me: “Your worst enemy cannot harm you more than your own, unguarded thoughts.”
Of all the harsh feels we’re capable of feeling, there’s one in particular that seems to do the most damage: shame. We all mess up—after all, we’re only human. But there’s a difference between feeling guilty over your actions and feeling ashamed of the person you are. I went through a period of destructiveness in my early twenties where I didn’t respect myself, so I let other people dictate my self-worth. This resulted in behaviors that were not my proudest, and for a long time afterwards, I carried around a ton of shame about the person I thought I had become. It wasn’t just that I realized I messed up, I thought I was a terrible person because of my actions.
When I dug deep enough into my own shame, I realized I needed a way to learn from my mistakes without letting them define me. We all mess up, we’re only human–and a healthy dose of introspection is necessary if we want to grow and learn. But on those days we don’t quite get it right—in those moments when our best self tends to elude us–we don’t need to let it defeat or define us. We don’t need to wallow in shame. There are gentler, more self-loving and productive ways to readjust our frame of mind. Instead of feeling shame, we can feel these emotions instead:
The next time you feel like you mess up or miss a goal, instead of feeling ashamed, try and respond to yourself like you would a friend: with compassion and understanding. Chances are, when a good friend comes to you with their shame, you can objectively see that it’s unproductive and that they are a good person capable of infinite possibilities! Sure, they might have messed up, but they can change their behavior in the future without letting past incidents drag them down. If you can look upon yourself like you would another person, you’ll instantly be able to step outside of your own viewpoint and see yourself as a friend who deserves your love and kindness. Being gentler on yourself also allows for you to have more empathy towards others. When I would indulge in shame spirals, I’d come to realize that I was just as harsh on everyone else as I was on myself. When I thought about it long enough, I realized I wanted to let myself off the hook just as much as I wanted to let others off the hook. Shame breeds judgment and negative feelings, while compassion for yourself can increase the compassion you feel for everyone you meet.
Instead of spiraling into doom and gloom territory because you make a mistake, try having faith in your future self. Assert that you will do better next time, and picture Future You confidently rocking it. This kind of positive affirmation can turn your whole attitude around. As cheesy as it sounds, it’s kind of like when you force your face to smile for a minute and subconsciously feel even a little bit better than before. You’re faking it ’til you make it, and sometimes that’s not a bad strategy if it helps get you out of a shame spiral. Self-esteem will be a life-long lesson for many of us, but the more we can get in the habit of having confidence in ourselves, the more automatic it will feel.
If your shame is centered around a destructive habit or negative tendency, be honest with yourself about why you’re behaving this way. It can be so hard in those moments of shame to get real about why you feel the way you do, but facing those feelings head on can oftentimes prove to be enlightening. Instead of feeling ashamed, you may come to a new understanding of your motivations, and by addressing what’s truly bothering you, you may find a healthier solution to feel better. Try journaling every morning when you first wake up for a few weeks, then looking back at what you wrote. It may surprise you, but in those candid moments before you’ve started your day, you can often observe subconscious thoughts or attitudes that become buried or hidden as the day goes on. Reflect on your feelings in whatever way is natural, and start getting to the root of the problem. Putting on your problem-solving hat will also take you out of the paralysis that shame fuels.
It’s usually scary to feel vulnerable in our difficult moments because most people like to feel in control. We don’t like to acknowledge the fragility of our lives or the fact that we’re doing the best we can and that’s about all we can do. But sometimes it helps to simply acknowledge our vulnerability and honor it. Come from a place of acceptance and openness, and you are less likely to let your shame shut you down. Take a slow yoga class or try meditating for a few minutes each day. Calming, silent activities allow us to open ourselves up to who we really are, which can feel freeing. Vulnerability and compassion tend to go hand in hand, so if you can be vulnerable with another person who’s a good listener, all the better.
We’re often taught that crying connotes weakness, but sometimes, it’s a pretty good cure for what ails us. We’ve all had those days where we feel like nothing can go right, and sometimes it’s okay to just let it all out instead of burying our emotions and feeling an overall sense of inadequacy. Don’t let your feelings bottle up: be gentle with yourself and allow yourself a good cry. It’s okay to set aside time to indulge in your sadness and get it all out. Afterwards, do something soothing for yourself that doesn’t require anyone else’s input or approval. Usually, I feel so much better after a good cry. It’s like the clouds part and I can see a situation ten times more clearly.
If you have the tendency to be hard on yourself like I do, oftentimes our feelings of frustration come when we don’t do everything correctly right away. I recently started a new job, and it’s been so hard to feel comfortable not knowing half of the information I’m presented with. It’s hard to remember, but when you start to feel ashamed about something, particularly feelings of inadequacy in the workplace or in school, try a few minutes of deep breathing to slow down your thought processes. You don’t have to have all the answers right away. Give yourself permission to sit back, relax for a minute, and slow down. You are enough just as you are in this moment!
Connecting with others is a surefire way to feel better when we feel ashamed. That’s because shame likes to hang out in isolation. It likes to tell us that we’re all alone; that we’re the only ones who have ever felt this way. When we reach out to supportive, willing people in our life and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with them, we usually walk away feeling ten times better. Why? Everyone has dealt with shame. And if you can acknowledge that, you might start to feel your shame lift a little already. Sometimes it helps to simply talk to another person about their day if you don’t feel like sharing. Hearing other people’s struggles is a good way to put our own in perspective and feel less alone.
It’s hard to feel shame about who you are and appreciation for your life at the same time. Make a list of 10 happy things that have happened over the past few weeks. They could be as simple as enjoying a home-cooked meal or a nice book, or going out with your friends. Whatever the moments are, taking stock of them and appreciating everything that’s worked to make those moments possible can make you instantly see how good your life is and your integral part in it. Maybe we can even have gratitude for our mistakes themselves, because ultimately they’re opportunities to learn and grow. Take stock of events that have shaped your character so far, and chances are, you’ll think of some times you’ve messed up, not done something right, or made the wrong choice. Those moments are often our greatest teachers, and what we learn from them can shape us into incredible, complex, lovely human beings. See this moment as your chance to grow: acknowledge it, thank it, and wish it a pleasant journey goodbye. The next moment is already on its way.