Secrets and Shame

Simple Steps to Move Beyond Shame

Shame is having a cultural moment. Last year, Hazelden Publishing announced that Brené Brown sold over 1 million copies of The Gifts of Imperfection. And Brené's TED talk on the same topic has recently edged into position as the most watched of all time—not something on world peace, weight loss, or how you too can be a Kardashian. But vulnerability. Shame.

It's nothing less than a paradigm shift. Before Brené, most of us couldn't even identify the difference between guilt and shame. (Guilt is I have done something wrong. Shame is: I am wrong.) Before Brené, shame didn't have any good PR. No one had ever written the line, "I am ashamed as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore." But now that Brené put the muscle of science behind the squirrely subject of shame, I can write that line and you can speak it and we are much better off as individuals and as a culture. We know enough to name shame and to feel shame, but as for how to break its hold on us, we still have a lot of learning to do.

I deal with shame every day in my practice as a therapist. It often underlies people's grief and their depression, their anger and their frustration—and this may come as a surprise, but it also underlies their relentless push for success. We live in a "never ever give up" culture. We put people on a pedestal who give everything they have to their dreams and visions—people who bankrupt their families trying to get a startup to launch, who spend 30 years trying to get that first big break in Hollywood. We love persistence. We applaud relentlessness. This is, after all, the very heart of the American Dream. Work hard, never give up, and you can achieve anything.

But here's a dirty little secret about that bumper sticker: it's a lie. Persistence leads to failure and disappointment and shame far more often than it leads to success. I know, because I deal with the ugly aftermath of it. And if I don't help people do something about their shame and their vulnerability, their regret and their sadness, they don't move on. They remain stuck and depressed, unable to find their next happy.

The truth is that sitting passively and talking about our shame is not going to turn us into shame-busters anymore than me watching Roger Federer's serve is going to turn me into a Wimbledon champion. Don't get me wrong, I love watching Brené share her shame in brilliant talks and books, and I love watching Roger smash an ace on set point, but both of those pros would tell you that it takes practice to get to their level of achievement. In other words, it takes action.

I have found that no matter what the cause of shame, there are few simple steps that can help people move beyond their shame.

Scrutinize your goals to see how you may be using them to mask your shame.

Here is how you do it: honestly ask of each goal, project and dream, "If I achieve this goal, do I think I will finally be good enough?" Shame often shows up in our relentlessness. People stick to the pursuit of dreams long past reason because they believe that stopping will prove that they are not okay. Being a screenwriter, having a dream house, being a mother, or whatever it is we are pursuing out of shame, tells us that we will finally be worthy and bulletproof once we have achieved the goal.

The next step is to look and see what we believe about ourselves if we don't achieve our goals.

Here are the kind of thoughts that come up. "If I don't have this or become that then I will be ________________________" The blanks may be filled with horrible words like: failure, not good enough, unlovable, a loser. The truth is that the achievement of one goal, or even a series of goals, does not define us. We are more than our achievements. And achievements are not what make us lovable.

Run your goals through the following gauntlet: "If I achieve this do I believe that I will be more lovable and less vulnerable?"

Now let's say the answer is yes. I want you to really sit with that yes. On first blush that may feel okay with you, but how will it feel in the long run for you to only feel lovable if you get the promotion, the house by the lake, or a shiny new Tesla? Will that feeling of being loved and approved of through those achievements give you the soul-satisfying goodness that you imagine? My hunch is that it will not.

Grieve the hard truth that achieving goals and making ourselves immune to criticism doesn't cure us of the underlying shame.

Grieving that truth has power and can impact our desire to pursue goals solely in the name of shame-busting. Grieving it isn't easy, nor is looking at the shame that has inspired our pursuits, but the alternative is to just find another goal to mask the shame—and that does nothing to liberate you from the cycle of blindly pursuing goals.

Move towards your next happy.

Letting go of the dream, figuring out why you wanted it so very much, and really grieving it, you have moved a long way towards getting to real happiness that isn't about masking shame.

Tracey Cleantis, author of  The Next Happy, is the only expert in the world who has made the vitally important distinction that giving up on what isn't working is a fundamental key to finding real happiness. Cleantis is not just another dry expert, she is the ultimate cheerleader and friend who helps you figure out what dreams will make you happy and which need to be grieved and let go. Cleantis's deep understanding of the field is derived not only from her clinical experience as a therapist and writer but also from her own difficult personal journey to her next happy. Using personal story, clinical insights and understandable action steps, Cleantis can help any audience understand how their dreams may be holding them back from their true happiness.

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