Shame, Blame, and Self-Acceptance

A couple weeks ago someone requested that I explore shame. And, while I’m finally writing a post with shame in the title, I wasn’t shamed into writing it. I accepted that author, thinker, life-enthusiast Mark Manson got to it (and nailed it) before I did.

shame and self acceptance
I screwed up. And that’s okay. I’ll do better next time.
Puritanical Shame

In “If Self-Discipline Feels Difficult, Then You’re Doing it Wrong,” Manson lays out the whole conundrum of human behavior. We are instinctively wired to crave pleasure and avoid pain. For the sake of preventing societal chaos, western religious teachings shame individuals into thinking their cravings are sinful and pain is moral based on the principle that once we are saddled with a sufficient amount of shame about all the things that give us pleasure, we’ll be so self-loathing and terrified of our own desires that we’ll just fall in line and do what we’re told.   

Drawbacks of Shame

While shame works to create societal order, it has its drawbacks for the individual. Manson continues:

Disciplining people through shame works for a while, but in the long-run, it backfires. As an example, let’s use perhaps the most common source of shame on the planet: sex.

The brain likes sex. That’s because 

  1. sex feels awesome 
  2. we’re biologically evolved to crave it…

Now, if you grew up like most people—and especially if you’re a woman—there’s a good chance that you were taught that sex was this evil, lecherous thing that corrupted you and makes you a horrible, icky person. You were punished for wanting it, and therefore, have a lot of conflicted feelings around sex: it sounds amazing but is also scary; it feels right but also somehow so, so wrong. As a result, you still want sex, but you also drag around a lot of guilt and anxiety and doubt about yourself.

This mixture of feelings generates an unpleasant tension within a person. And as time goes on, that tension grows. Because the desire for sex never goes away. And as the desire continues, the shame grows.

Responding to Shame

When the emotional tension becomes unbearable, Manson writes, we must resolve it in one of three ways.

  1. Overindulgence works for a while. Then shame and guilt come back with a vengeance.
  2. Numbing it: alcohol, drugs, binge-watching TV, emotional eating, etc.
  3. Self-denial: running ultra-marathons or working 100-hour work weeks. That’s why the most uncompromising people are often the most compromised. 
I’m a Horrible Person

Manson analyzes how the voice in our heads takes the raw material of shame and refines it into self-judgment. 

Thoughts are constantly streaming through our heads and without even realizing it, we’re tacking on ‘because I’m a horrible person’ to the end of a lot of them…

• ‘Other people are good at this, but I’m not, because I’m a horrible person…’

• ‘Everyone probably thinks I’m an idiot, because I’m a horrible person…’ 

Here’s the thing: there’s a sick sort of comfort that comes from these self-judgments. That’s because they relieve us of the responsibility for our own actions. If I decide that I can’t give up ice cream because I’m a horrible person—that ‘horrible person-ness’ precludes my ability to change or improve in the future—therefore, it’s technically out of my hands, isn’t it? It implies that there’s nothing I can do about my cravings or compulsions…

Responsibility is Scary

There’s a kind of fear and anxiety that comes when we relinquish our belief in our own horribleness. We actually resist accepting ourselves because the responsibility is scary. Because it suggests that not only are we capable of change in the future (and change is always scary) but that we have perhaps wasted much of our past. And that never feels good either. In fact, another little trap is when people accept that they’re not a horrible person—but then decide that they are a horrible person for not realizing that years ago!

De-Coupling Shame

Manson’s proposed solution to shame is self-acceptance. This begins with the practice of de-coupling our intense, uncomfortable emotions from our moral judgments. 

Once we’ve de-coupled our emotions from our moral judgments—once we’ve decided that just because something makes us feel bad doesn’t mean we are bad—this opens us up to some new perspectives.

Without the moral judgment, occasional over-indulgence, numbing, or self-denial can simply be viewed as a slip-up. It’s a cue to get better at spotting the early warning signs of the underlying emotional stress that activated it.

Once we accept that we’re not “morally” perfect and never will be. We stop feeling that we’re a horrible person. And when that happens:

  1. There’s nothing to numb anymore…  
  2. You see no reason to punish yourself. On the contrary, you like yourself, so you want to take care of yourself. More importantly, it feels good to take care of yourself.
Right vs. Skillful

Manson’s post reminds me that there are two common translations of the eight-step program for well-being by the authors of the original mindfulness manual.

They both include: understanding, intention, action, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. But they take a different approach to translating the adjective that precedes them. 

Native western language speakers commonly choose the word “right” (right understanding, right intention, etc.) implying that there is a morally “wrong” understanding.

Native eastern language speakers commonly choose the adjective “wise” or “skillful.”

This may seem like an academic distinction until we screw-up. 

Then it means choosing between: 

• remorse (guilt for a wrong committed “because we’re a horrible person”) 

• regret (disappointment at an unskillful action)

We may grudgingly to what is right out of shame. 

We may enthusiastically choose to do what is wise or skillful out of self -acceptance.

Ten Minute Exercise

Self Compassion Variation

1. One minute.

Next time you do something that you perceive as wrong or unwise, make an objective note of what happened.

I (did or didn’t ) _____________________.

2. Set a timer for two minutes. 

Think to yourself:  I (did or didn’t ) _____________________ because I’m a (weak | lazy | incompetent | stupid | spineless | worthless | bad) person.

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.

3. Set a timer for two minutes.

Think to yourself: I’m ashamed that I (did or didn’t) ______________.

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up. 

4. Set a timer for two minutes. 

Think to yourself: I (mistakenly | unintentionally | absent-mindedly)  (did or didn’t) _______________. 

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

5. Set a timer for two minutes. 

Think to yourself: I regret that I (did or didn’t) _______________. 

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

6. Take one final minute to sit with the realization that all of us do unwise or unskillful things (pretty much on a daily basis). Accepting this in ourselves allows us to learn and grow.

Compassion Variation

1. One minute.

Next time someone else does something that you perceive as wrong or unwise, make an objective note of what happened.

He/she/they (did or didn’t) _______________.

2. Set a timer for two minutes.

Think to yourself:  (He/she/they did or didn’t ) _____________________ because they’re a (weak | lazy | incompetent | stupid | spineless | worthless | bad) person.

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

3. Set a timer for two minutes.

Think to yourself: (He/she/they) should be ashamed that they (did or didn’t) ______________. 

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

4. Set a timer for two minutes.

Think to yourself: (He/she/they) mistakenly (did or didn’t) _______________. 

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

5. Set a timer for two minutes.

Think to yourself: He/she/they regret(s) that they (did or didn’t) _______________.

Closely observe the subsequent thoughts and feelings in your mind and body until time is up.  

6. Take one final minute to sit with the realization that all of us do unwise or unskillful things (pretty much on a daily basis). Accepting this in others allows us to forgive and to grow. 

Bonus exercise: For working with emotional regulation, try the exercise from Digesting Emotional Eating.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.