The Gremlins of Shame
You know those times when you read self-help books but skip through the practical exercises? Perhaps because...
It’s too confronting, or time consuming, or takes too much effort
You know the advice will come in handy someday, but there's no pressing situation to which you might apply it
It’s much easier to simply read the advice and the exercises, in the hope that gaining an intellectual understanding will somehow trigger great change.
Fast forward to August 2018 and a seemingly harmless encounter with one of my course instructors sees me sucker punched by my Gremlins, knee deep in shame.
You see, I don’t often ask questions if doing so requires me to reveal something about my personal experience - because it puts me at risk of being wrong. I'm afraid of looking stupid, because deep down, I guess, the Shame Gremlins tell me that I am.
I know you can relate. Whilst you may have a different trigger (not asking questions, perhaps, but presenting in front of a crowd or putting your work out into the world), the consequences are the same. Your Shame Gremlins rear their ugly heads, too.
On this particular occasion, having noticed I was holding back in my course, I decided I did want to put myself out there and seek some advice. So I put my question up on the forum, open to view by a hundred or so fellow students and several dozen instructors. This alone required me to overcome a fair bit of resistance. I then felt so exposed that I had to build up a fair bit of courage just to check back online for the response.
When I finally did read the instructors seemingly innocuous response, I barely had time to duck for cover before my Gremlins launched a full scale attack.
When the Gremlins attack, it's an invasion of body, mind and feelings. If you're anything like me, you feel shunted headfirst into a swirling vortex of visceral, emotional and mental murk.
Your heart races, and your head swirls. A powerful scourge of sensation rushes down your arms, torso and legs. Thoughts race so fast you can’t keep track –
See - you should have known better
You're such an idiot
You don’t know what you're doing
This is proof you don’t belong here
Now everyone knows the truth about you.
The shame becomes you. Your entire body blushes. You wish the ground would swallow you whole.
Maybe your defensive shield goes up. So you fight back with words, determined to prove them wrong. You grasp, and try to control the situation. You make a mental note never to put yourself on the line again.
Maybe, in your overwhelm, you rush to numb yourself with a few too many wines that night - or you have a Netflix binge, or throw yourself into work. Anything to numb, to distract from this hideous discomfort. You shut down.
The end result is that your shame leaks out in other ways. And your Gremlins live on to Gremlin another day.
Exposing your Gremlins to sunlight
As coaches, we ‘live it to give it’ – which means an honest commitment to doing our own work in addition to the work we advocate for our clients.
So this time, I rather nervously chose to treat my swirling shame experience as an invitation. I trusted that something in me was ready to face it.
When we’re tired of letting shame run the show, of numbing out or chasing endless distraction – we can choose an alternative.
It’s the only way to weaken your Gremlins’ grip.
As Brené says, the first step is to recognise what triggers shame in you.
I know something has set me off when I start to feel embarrassed; as if my secret, unworthy, idiot self has been revealed on centre stage in front of thousands – and I'm deeply uncomfortable to be seen this way. It feels like the defensive shield I work so hard to keep up has disintegrated. Suddenly, people can see my insides. And they ain't pretty!
I find myself resisting, pushing against what is. I do my best to prove the other person is wrong. I’m immersed in muck – a shitstorm of indecipherable, swirling thoughts, feelings and physical reactions.
In my experience, the next step is to take the time to look into it. This means accepting a level of (probably quite intense) discomfort. AKA the type of feeling many of us spend much of our lives doing anything but feel.
Carve out some time and space to sit with it. This means doing nothing else. Poke it a little bit. Write about it, perhaps. Notice the feelings, thoughts and body sensations that are present. Enquire with yourself – where or with whom has this feeling shown up before?
Try to hold it lightly. If you can, be curious about it from the perspective of an observer, rather than getting too caught up in the story. Brené talks about how you should treat yourself with kindness here – the same way you’d treat a loved one. This isn’t the time for self-judgement or further shame-making.
You might need to let this unfold over a series of days, weeks, or more. Try to let it occur as it needs to, without striving to solve anything.
And then, I suggest you give your shame a label. Get creative, calling it whatever resonates for you. My ‘swirling shitstorm of shame’ might ring a few bells, or perhaps the ‘I want to hide under a rock’ feeling. Either way, call it out when you notice it arising.
‘Oh, here goes my [insert your shame name here] again’.
You can even start to acquaint yourself with your Shame Gremlins. What do yours look like? Do they skulk, or are they lightning fast? What are their names? In what circumstances do they crop up?
Again, characterising our Gremlins helps us become the observer. That allows us to put a little distance between ourselves and the experience of shame that we're having.
Now don’t expect your shame to disappear just by looking into it once. Shame is a powerful experience, so chances are it’ll catch you off-guard again. I recommend you start to expect this – consider even befriending it. If you’re willing to sit beside your shame each time it catches you, over time you’ll notice the Gremlins’ grip starts to loosen.
Brené also talks about the importance of taking a reality check when you’re triggered.
Does this situation really make me an idiot?
Is it true that I’m unworthy?
And that shame cannot survive being spoken. The best thing you can do is share your experience with someone you trust.
Shame thrives on secrecy, silence and judgement.
But, like the Gremlins that melt in sunlight, it cannot survive empathy.
For me, writing is a powerful way to attend to shame. Every single time I publish something, it results in a conversation with at least one person who sees themselves in my experience, and vice-versa. We realise we're not the only ones.
And in this case, it does a bloody good job of showing my Gremlins who’s really boss.