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Considering Changing your Relationship with Shame

One of the basic tenets of Shadow Work® is that we have no "bad parts." All of us is good. Every part of us is trying to love and be loved, even if our current way of doing so is pretty messed up.

In Shadow Work® we teach that "laziness" is just part of our ability to relax and enjoy the moment. "Cowardice" is just part of our healthy management of risk. "Clinginess" is just a misinterpretation of our beautiful desire to be connected to others.

That idea is worth repeating. All of us is good. All of us. All of me, all of you. That is a very challenging concept. But I don't think you would be reading this article if you weren't up for that challenge.


But what about shame? How can being ashamed of ourselves be a good thing? How can feeling like we are worthless, incompetent, unlovable, or broken be positive? How can allowing others to criticize or belittle us be anything other than an aberration that must be abolished?

All of us have felt shame, been shamed by others. All of us have taken on messages that we were somehow unwanted, undesirable or deficient. I have been diminished by those feelings throughout my life. I have lost years of productivity. I have missed thousands of opportunities for joy. I have undermined countless relationships with false beliefs that I was somehow not good enough, that the other person was somehow not good enough.

It makes sense to reject shame, to villainize it. Shame is a cancer of the soul, a disease to be cured, an ignorance to be re-educated, an unwelcome house guest, an intolerable attack on our persons. Right?

I don't believe so.


On some level, if shame is the enemy, and I feel shame, then I must be the enemy. If shame is bad, and I, despite my best efforts, shame myself and others, then I must be bad.

I don't believe I am a bad person. Yet I feel shame. I choose to shame others. How do I reconcile that?

First, I think it is important to draw a distinction between healthy shame and toxic shame.

Toxic shame is taking on the belief that we are bad, at our core. It is an attack on our character. "I crashed my car, I'm an idiot." "She didn't pass her test, she's a failure." "He ate the last piece of pizza, he's a selfish bastard."

Healthy shame is the belief that we did something bad. It is a critique of our behavior. "I crashed my car, I let myself get distracted." "She didn't pass her test, she wasn't prepared." "He ate the last piece of pizza, he was discourteous."

I would take that a step further and say that healthy shame is noticing a moment when we are not living in alignment with our values.


Under that definition, it is possible to see shame as a gift. Shame is a wake-up call. Shame is an email message from our higher self that says, "You are not behaving like the person you want to be right now. Please consider doing something different."

Shame is not only informative, it inspires action. If we harness shame’s energy it can become fuel for change. Shame energy in our bodies can drive our efforts to behave differently next time.

For example, suppose I am walking down the street and I see someone ahead of me asking strangers for money. Sometimes I will avoid eye contact, I will pretend they don't exist and try to slide by without any kind of interaction. When I do that, I feel shame. My heart constricts and I feel a churning in my gut. I want to be a person who acknowledges the humanity and inherent value in all people. I want to engage with others and let them know that I see them and that they matter. I believe that is of far greater value than whatever change is in my pocket.

However, I am also the judgmental, fearful guy who avoids confrontation, who doesn't want to say "no," who clings to every dollar he has, who harshly judges, "That freeloader is just too lazy or cowardly to go make her or his own money."

The moment I see that panhandler I get to make a choice. Do I look them in the eye? Do I interact with them as a human being, even if it is only for a few seconds? Whether I give them money, or a few words of encouragement, do I choose to see them? Or… Do I let my more-protected, less-generous self dictate my actions? If I make a choice that I don't respect, my shame will send me a reminder that I am acting like a person I don't want to be. And that is a gift.


In the same way, if presented with some finesse, inviting others to feel healthy shame can be a gift. Is it a kindness to tell someone they have some spinach stuck between their teeth? Is it a gift to tell someone that what they are doing is making you uncomfortable? Is it a profoundly loving act to tell someone that their excessive drinking is having an unacceptable, negative effect on their family? All of those are shaming messages. They are tough love. And it takes a fierce and courageous kind of love to tell someone something that will hurt them in the moment and but ultimately serve them. (Warning: Like all love, tough love is best when delivered with careful timing and delivery. If you choose to challenge someone in this way, I suggest asking for permission first. Then let go of your desire to have them react in any particular way. Lay your gift at their feet and walk away; doing your best to release any attachment to whether now is the time they choose to pick it up.)

We can choose to see shame as a gift to ourselves in the same way that constructive criticism can be a gift to others. It is a form of self-parenting. It's not the kind of self-parenting that says, "I will always love you, no matter what." It is the kind of self-parenting that says, "Don't sell yourself short. You're better than that."

Next time you feel shame, I invite you to pause. Let it in. Feel it. Give yourself time to discover what important information your body is trying to give you. Sometimes the shame is just junk mail sent by your parent's vision for your life, by society's unrealistic expectations, or by someone who is trying to make you feel bad so they can sell you something. If the message isn't from your soul, you can just delete it. That is toxic shame. Give yourself permission to chuck it in the SPAM folder.


Letting our shame in is easier said than done. Shame can be overwhelming. We want to run away and hide or distract ourselves anyway you can. My favorite response is to attack others, to make them wrong. Talk about a highly effective way to distract myself from what I don't want to see and feel. And if I'm not attacking others, I often turn on myself. I latch onto the shame and beat myself up with it for a good long while, which is also a highly effective way to avoid being present to the moment and making the hard choices I need to make in life.

We shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly for these responses. We all have good reasons for avoiding shame. We have all been deeply wounded in life. We have all taken in many soul-crushing messages from ourselves and others, especially when we were very young and had no defenses from other people's less-than-ideal selves. Toxic shame hurts and the hurt lingers for years. And the part of us that protects us does not want that to happen again. Our risk managers go into hyper drive anytime we get close to anything that even remotely resembles toxic shame. It is easy to miss the gift of my healthy shame because it resembles its evil twin so closely.


I invite you to remember that not all shame is toxic. The way we tell the difference between healthy and toxic shame is by identifying the message it is giving us and discovering the source of that message. For example, I recently felt shame when I failed to meet my self-imposed deadline for getting this article written. The message I got from my shame was, “You are weak, and lazy and quit whenever something gets hard.” (I don’t know about you, but my shame doesn’t pull any punches.)

I looked at those messages and tried to see where they came from. The, “You quit whenever something gets hard,” message is definitely toxic shame. My mother said that to me all the time when I was growing up. That was her stuff. She had unrealistic expectations of my age-appropriate capacity overcome discouragement. She meant well, but didn’t realize that I needed encouragement to keep going when I got frustrated. That “quitter” shame is not mine. It was given to me by someone else and I don’t have to keep it.

The, “you are weak,” message is also toxic shame. It comes from unrealistic societal exceptions. I missed my deadline because I was grieving. I am in the process of losing a relationship that is very important to me. I was mourning that loss, but society tells me that men don’t cry. Society tells me that I should shut off my feelings and focus on work. Our culture does not encourage people to take the time to truly feel our feelings when they are there. That “weakling” message is not mine. I don’t agree with it. I can toss that aside.

The third part of the message, the, “You are lazy,” that’s a different story. Before I missed my deadline because I was grieving, I was way behind on my deadline because I spent a bunch of my work time watching Nextflix and playing games online. Writing is hard work. Believing that I have something to say, saying it well, and putting it out in the world is challenging. And I truly want to be a person who faces those kinds of challenges. But on this particular occasion, I choose to take the easier path and disappear into a string mildly amusing sit-coms. That’s not who I want to be. That behavior does not support my mission in life, and I am only truly happy when I am living my mission. Therefore, the, “You’re lazy,” shame is healthy shame. The language the message is course, but I can rewrite it to say something that feels very true to me: “The rewards of hard work far outweigh the pleasures of superficial immediate gratification.” That reminder is a gift. Next time I am tempted to fall into my avoidance behaviors, it will help me remember how good it feels to give my gifts and how wretched it feels when I hide from my work in the world.


Next time you feel that familiar churning in your gut, consider running toward it rather than away from it. Open that email from your higher self. Sit with it. Ask yourself what you are calling upon yourself to do differently.

Sometimes the reason for our shame will remain a mystery, but if we discover why we are feeling shame, then we can choose how to respond from a place of knowledge, balance and empowerment. We then have the option to change our course of action to be more in alignment with our highest selves. We can make amends for behavior we are not proud of. We can own our contribution to a painful dynamic. We can choose to de-escalate a conflict or begin to repair a damaged relationship. We can acknowledge the unintended consequences of our actions and become more aware of our impact on the world. Or, we could simply notice what happened without obligating ourselves to do anything about it.

Next time someone else shames us, we have the option to pause, read the email, feel the feelings in your bodies. We can remember that they shamed us because they saw us do something (accurate or not) that does not ultimately serve us. No matter how clumsy or misguided, they are trying to love us.

If the other person is off the mark, fine; we can appreciate the effort and ignore the advice. But if their words sting because they are true, then we have received a rare gift. Someone loved us enough to point out how we are not living in integrity with ourselves.

If we view our shame as nothing more than information and energy, if we view it as an invitation to make a conscious choice and the energy to follow through with that choice, then we can engage with ourselves and others from a place of power, compassion, and grace rather than a place of defensiveness or self-doubt. If we stop fighting or running from our shame we can use its energy to do the hard work of changing our habits of perception. We can take one step closer to believing that all of us is good? All of us. Even our shame. Especially our shame.


Shame is the part of us that expects great things from us. It is the part of us that loves us enough to tell us what we don't want to hear in the moment because it will ultimately lead us to where we want to be.

This is an invitation to change our relationship with shame. We can see it as another tool in our toolbox. See it as another friend who's got our back. See it as us fiercely loving ourselves.

Giles Carwyn is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Asheville, North Carolina. Read more about Giles.

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