Years ago, when I first began my personal growth process, I believed deep within me I was seriously ugly and deformed both physically and in my total being. It was a ‘crazy’ belief but I felt that I must have big lumps all over my face. When I saw the movie, “Elephant Man”, as an adult I could relate!
The name for that feeling is ‘shame‘. Some people call it toxic shame and it does not co-exist with self-love. I cannot emphasize how strong my early shame was. And maybe I don’t have to. Many of you who are reading this article know already how this feels. It is a feeling of embarrassment for your very essence.
Of course, I felt that way! We learn who we are through our earliest interactions with the people around us. My own history of being abused as a child had included extreme rejection and isolation. Incredible ongoing bullying. Feeling shame as extreme as I did is the natural result of ostracizing a child.
You don’t have to feel such extremes of shame and lack of self-love in order to improve how you treat yourself. You can always use more self-love. And just a note here. Self-love is not the same as narcissism. Self-love is fluid. Self-love includes a wide range of life and other people. Narcissism is rigid, egotistical and based only on feeding the self.
Let’s talk about the growth process. It involves of personal tasks, risks, and self-affirmation. Liking yourself while you grow means that you work on giving yourself the support you might need to succeed. It isn’t easy. You have to learn new ways of looking at yourself and at life. Here are the three principles of liking yourself while you grow.
1. You are not wrong, bad or shameful for how you are.
2. Mistakes are a normal part of growth.
3. You cannot know what you have not yet learned.
There is a deep truth underlying the principles of liking yourself. You are not bad or wrong to have the life problems you have. Whatever they are, they do make sense. What you experience is logical when you consider your life story, current life events, and heredity.
This makes you NORMAL. Your feelings, your troubles, and even your faults are all understandable.
Examine yourself from this point of view. Seriously think about it. What you think, feel and the current struggles you experience make total sense. They are logical, natural, and normal outgrowths of everything that has happened to you up until now.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you want to remain in this space. You might. That is for you to decide.
Nor does this mean you have to remain in this space. It means you can like yourself for the person you are.
Since you are reading this, this means you can like yourself for being a growing person. You are a person who is fighting your person history to grow and experience as much of life as possible. You have one less reason for shaming yourself.
Today, I want to share with you the process I used in order to grow out of shame. You can alter how you treat yourself over time. Probably you are mentally criticizing yourself for some difficulty you have right now. You say mean things to yourself every time you have that difficulty. You make yourself ‘wrong’ for that difficulty.
There are many techniques you can try to alter this thinking behavior. These are just the beginning.
- Positive self-talk
- Make an acknowledgment list of your positive activities
- Spend time with people who like you
- Limit time with people who criticize you
- Acknowledge the self-critical feelings you experience
- Reason with yourself
- Take contrary action
Positive Self Talk
When I listen to the things I say to myself, I’m astonished at how mean I am. I would never, ever say mean things like that to other people! This skill remains an ongoing process for me. I look around at how I treat others and decide that’s my baseline for how I will treat myself. If I would say, “Good for you!” to someone who just accomplished my most recent task, I’ll deliberately say that to myself.
Make a list of the kind things you say to others. Make another list of the kind things people say to you. Look around you at television, at other people, and even the books or magazines or books you might read. There are examples of people being kind to one another. Nurturing. Loving.
Take note of those things and develop the mental behaviors you need right now. That will be your starting place. Then deliberately do them.
Currently, I’m again participating in physical therapy. It’s difficult. I don’t like where I’m at and the limitations I face. So I deliberately catch myself and stop my thoughts before I tell myself those mean things. Instead, I say words to myself that I’d tell someone else in my shoes. I say, “You can do it.” “It’s okay.” “Just one more.” And “Good job.” Sometimes I say these out loud too.
Positive self-talk began for me with an activity my friend and mentor called ‘brownie points’. This was perfect for my inner hurt child. She suggested I give myself these ‘brownie points’ for everything I did right.
She said that I should include EVERYTHING: Getting out of bed in the AM, brushing my teeth, showering, and everything I did that day that was positive. So, I did this. It was difficult at first. It was scary. I felt like I was doing something wrong and would somehow be punished.
The phrase my friend used to accurately describe that feeling is: “Lightning will not strike you and the earth will not open and swallow you up!” I kept at this ‘brownie points’ activity.
Praising myself truly helped my own self-esteem. I guess it is such a part of me, I still do it. Noticing everything I do that is good and positive for me. Facing something, writing this article, journaling this morning, completing my paperwork (yuck), even noticing that I am doing these things with my chronic illnesses and fatigue.
Experiment with this activity. It will be slow and awkward at first. See how it works. Make it fit your personal style. Normal experience is that this is a living process.
Positive self-talk is something I probably will need to work on all the rest of my life.
Spend time with people who like you and limit your time with people who criticize you
We develop our self-image through our interactions with others. Some people have written about adults abused as children with the ideas that you cannot get over this. But I know that to be untrue. Anyone, no matter their background, can change their feelings about themselves by being around people who are loving and nurturing to them.
Years ago, when I first entered private practice, I held a meeting for a group of professionals in my office. Every Friday evening, we met to discuss our mutual concerns and help each other with our work.
Every Saturday morning I woke up in shame. “I sounded stupid,” I’d think. Or “I talked too much.” And other such shaming thoughts. Then I’d call my friend, Sarah, and asked her for a reality check. Her voice on the telephone would smile at me as she’d say something like, “I was there, and I didn’t see anything like that.”
Then I’d feel relief and the shame would disappear until the following Saturday morning. Each week I did this, maybe for a year. By the end of the year, I had a much greater sense of who I really am. And the shame feeling regarding my work is gone.
At the same time, all you need is one person to criticize you to bring up feelings of shame. There are some people who just feel like saying mean things to other people. They have their own inner reasons, and the critical statements they make to you don’t have to be true.
It is difficult enough to grow into the life you want. No one needs people who make us feel bad about ourselves. We already examine and criticize our behavior enough. We are trying to undo that tendency.
So, I try to spend my time with people who like me. Then, when I do make a mistake or do something I seriously wish I hadn’t, I can deal with it. I don’t have to also shame myself for it.
Acknowledge the self-critical feelings you experience
It doesn’t work to fight against negativity. It doesn’t work to bury or avoid them either. In fact, our normal responses usually make these feelings stronger.
Rather than shadow boxing with your feelings, name them but don’t claim them. I often feel like a failure because my physical therapy exercises are difficult and hurt way more than I think they should. I recognize the familiar feelings, but I don’t bring them into my being.
It’s natural that I’d feel this way. It’s natural that you’d feel that way. Feeling bad about yourself doesn’t mean that your feelings are the T R U T H. Instead, it’s actually a sign of growth. Every time you start to do something new, you’ll feel some of the old feelings from your history.
So, instead, it’s kind of like, “Hello, old friend. Now good-bye. You’ve overstayed your welcome.”
Reason with yourself
I do talk to myself. I point out my successes. I look at my failures. And I examine where I’m stuck. I cannot do this if I’m busy beating up on myself. So I must talk to me like a friend would. It’s okay to fail. Failing does not make me a failure. It’s okay to be stuck.
Being stuck doesn’t mean I will stay stuck. And then I examine where I’m stuck looking objectively rather than critically. I wonder what will happen if I try this or that. And I reason out what’s keeping me stuck and what to do about it.
Then I go back to positive self-talk and convince myself it’s okay to try and try again. Sometimes I use my reminder of my favorite children’s story: The Little Engine That Could.
Take contrary action
Contrary action is action that is the opposite of what you might normally do. So if you would withdraw in a crowd, you might decide on a task of talking to one person in the next group of people you encounter. You might decide to deliberately choose to attend something where you know a group of people will gather.
This is an example of the kind of risks I meant earlier. To change how we feel about ourselves, we do have to change our actions.
You go back and use all the other tools I mentioned above in order to help yourself take the action. Much like the physical therapy I am doing. It hurts and exhausts me. I don’t like it. It’s contrary to how I feel. But I know it will eventually help me so I will take the action. I do the exercises while using self-talk as encouragement.
This next statement is so important; you cannot hear it too much. Growth takes time, lots of time. No matter how motivated you are, you cannot grow emotionally as fast as you can think.
Experiment with one of the activities. Try one at a time. See how it works. Choose the activities that fit with your personal style. Normal experience is that this is a living process.
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©2016-18 by Laura Coleman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.