“How could I have said that?!” With a hot blush, clenched stomach, wish to disappear, or inner scolding, we all come to recognize our responses to feeling shame. Unlike guilt, which is a negative judgment about an action and is open to amends, shame is a negative judgment about the self and feels permanent.
Shame is learned
As infants and small children, we expressed ourselves freely, without worrying about what others thought. As we received harsh responses from others, we learned to filter our behavior to be more acceptable in their eyes.
If we received abuse, we also absorbed the deeper shame of being victimized. Sadly, the shame that belongs to the abuser is often carried by the survivor, who tries ever more desperately to deserve the respectful treatment which is already everyone’s birthright.
Trying to be good
To help us guess what would win the approval of the people around us, we internalized their judging voices to form a governing committee. The committee could be drawn from parents, teachers, community leaders, religious leaders, siblings, school chums, co-workers, TV personalities, and random encounters, like the guy who sneered as you walked by 3 years ago.
Many life choices, from tiny details (“What shall I wear today?”) to major turning points (“How shall I make a living?”) are influenced by what They think. It may feel like They are huge, amorphous, and outside you, but in reality They are your internal committee, available to you for observation and gradual change.
1. Who is on your committee?
The first step is to narrow down “They” to specific voices. Whose opinion, specifically, are you worried about?
Choose a recent small decision – what to wear today, or what to eat for breakfast, for example – and notice what guided your final choice. Aside from the practicality of what is available, and the ease of habit, are there also guiding “shoulds”? Imagine making a radically unusual choice – your favorite party dress to go for a walk, or candy for breakfast. When you imagine reactions to your choices, who is reacting? Who says it’s not allowed? Does anyone cheer you on? Make a list.
Now that you have a clearer idea of the committee membership, you can proceed with hiring and firing decisions.
2. Hire supporters
Ideally, your internal committee encourages and supports you in listening to your heart and making choices that work best for you. You may already have some supportive committee members, or this may be your first supportive hire.
Take some time to reflect on people who have played a supportive role in your life. Whether they are in your past or present, whether you know them personally or not, whether they are fictional or real, write down their names. If you can’t think of someone who always fills that role, think of supportive encounters you’ve had. If you still can’t think of anything, imagine the supportive response you want to hear. “If it would bring you joy, I think it’s a great idea to wear your party dress on a walk.”
Make the support visible
Now hire a supportive person (even if imaginary) for your internal committee. Think of quotes that make you smile, and put them up where you’ll see them often. Add a picture if you have one. Imagine asking them for feedback on your decisions, and bask in the warmth and encouragement you receive.
Seek external support
Now that you’ve brought attention to receiving internal support, seek it out in your daily life as well. Write down any compliments or positive feedback you receive. Just as you would choose a supporter when disclosing pain, notice how your body responds to people in your life, and spend more time with the ones who make you feel most comfortable.
3. Fire harsh critics
The harsh voices on your committee are speaking from the past, not the present. If they can’t bring themselves up to date and begin supporting you, they need to be removed from their positions of power.
Choose a voice that seems least relevant to your life now. The person may have had power over you long ago, like a second grade teacher, or made one cruel remark that had a lasting effect, or is enforcing standards that you no longer agree with. Fire that voice!
Change the story
To make your decision stick, first write the story of why their opinion matters, and then write a new story so their opinion doesn’t matter at all. Since this is all happening in the privacy of your own mind, you get to choose which story to believe.
For example, first story: “That guy sneered at me because I look terrible.” Second story: “That guy sneered at me because he was thinking about a bad TV show.”
Firing a critical voice can bring instant relief. If you still hear their negative messages, remind them that they’re fired. It can also help to ask your supportive hires for corresponding positive messages.
Avoid external shaming
Are you receiving judgment or cruelty in your daily life? Notice any incidents that occur, and take action to minimize contact with the people who behave harshly. Counteract their messages by listening to your supportive hires, and by reading your list of recent compliments.
Keep working on the hard cases
Some negative voices may be harder to remove. The former boss you’ve been trying to please for 20 years, or the mother who taught you to diet because your body looks like hers, will probably not respond to a single decision to fire them.
Keep hiring and listening to supportive voices. Keep re-writing those stories about the harsh voices until you deeply realize that their voices aren’t relevant today. Even your mother was thinking of herself and not you when she criticized you.
4. The places you’ll go!
Imagine living your life with a fully supportive, encouraging, and approving internal committee. The possibilities are limitless! If you’re hearing grumpy voices telling you that this can’t apply to you, thank them for their input, remind them that times have changed, and turn your attention to the supportive voices instead. What will you try first, with their enthusiastic support?
Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck is funny, honest, and full of tools to heal and grow. Her section about changing your “Everybody” inspired this article.