How to Combat Shame: An Exercise

This is going to be a long post, but I think it’s a good one, so if you’ve got the time, please read it ‘til the end.

 

Today, I want to talk about how therapy has changed my thinking pattern in a wonderful way. Specifically, in helping me to fight against my shame.

 

The type of therapy I use is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). In DBT, one of the many things I’ve learned about is primary versus secondary emotions. A primary emotion is a natural emotion every single one of us feels. There are six universal primary emotions: sadness, joy, fear, anger, disgust, and shock/surprise. Other emotions like guilt, shame, pride, and envy are not biologically inherent; they are learned and cultivated. According to science, these get ingrained in us when we are very, very young. We first begin to experience these secondary emotions when we are two years old. These secondary emotions are usually created when we feel a primary emotion and then attach all our judgments, and other harmful shit, to it.

 

I have a hard time with a lot of those primary emotions, but the emotion that I find is the most detrimental to me is shame. I feel shame about many, many things, but I mostly feel shame about having bipolar disorder. I know if I want to have hope of being someone who is consistently healthy, I need to work on feeling less shame.

 

Below you will find two lists. The first list is all the ways in which I feel ashamed, and the second list is statements I make that I use to combat this shame. It is an exercise I learned how to do through DBT and it has made a huge difference in my life. If you are someone who feels shame about your illness, or shame about anything else, really, I think this exercise I do will be useful for you to try.

 

Secondary Emotion: Shame

I am ashamed that I am sick.

I am ashamed because society tells me that being very emotional is dangerous and repulsive.

I am ashamed because one doctor said he didn’t believe me when I told him I was depressed.

I am ashamed when I cry because it makes me feel young and weak, and I am convinced others will see me the same way.

I am ashamed because something that I cannot remove ownership of (my brain) has turned against me and because my brain is still me, it’s really my fault I’m defective.

I am ashamed because I haven’t lived up to expectations I established for myself when I was young.

Along the same lines, I am ashamed because I can’t ever be the person I wanted to be (and, as already mentioned, it’s my fault).

I am ashamed because sometimes I use my illness to prevent myself from taking risks.

I am ashamed because I see how some things are easy for people and know that these are nearly impossible for me.

I am ashamed because I judge myself against the people I love and see that they are more successful than I am.

I am ashamed because I’ve hurt people when I was depressed and it makes me feel like I’ve been a bad person.

 

Now I will fight back against every single one of those shame statements.

 

I am ashamed that I am sick.

It is not my fault that I am sick. It is something that was always going to happen to me and I cannot control whether or not I have bipolar disorder. Being sick does not make me a bad person. Someone with a broken leg is not a bad person because they have a broken leg. It is how they cope with that broken leg that determines what kind of person they truly are.

 

I am ashamed because society tells me that being very emotional is dangerous and repulsive.

Society’s judgments are based in unrealities and outdated modes of thinking, and no one has the right to dictate how I feel about myself. Society may think that being overly emotional is wrong, but it is not wrong. It is human. It may seem strange to some people, but that doesn’t make it “bad,” just different. Recognizing that society’s feelings toward mental illness are inaccurate and inappropriate has spurred me on to fight back against stigma and change the mental illness discussion. That process has been hard and very, very rewarding.

 

I am ashamed because one doctor said he didn’t believe me when I told him I was depressed.

I was deeply hurt by that doctor because he was so invalidating, but it is because he was so invalidating that I decided to find another doctor. Eventually, I found my current doctor who understands me, advocates for me, protects me, encourages me, and makes me feel cared for.

 

I am ashamed when I cry because it makes me feel young and weak, and I am convinced others will see me the same way.

Crying is a biological reaction that is perfectly natural. Crying is an expression of emotion that motivates responses from, and creates feeling in, the people who witness it. Because crying is more visible than internal sadness, it’s easier for people to read me and see that I need help. I shouldn’t judge myself for crying because I know if I saw someone crying I would not think they were young or weak. When I allow myself to cry, I give in to my emotion and when I do that I feel both more free and more human.

 

I am ashamed because something that I cannot remove ownership of (my brain) has turned against me and because my brain is still me, it’s my fault I’m defective.

My brain is not only made up of bipolar disorder, therefore my brain is not against me. Bipolar disorder is a tiny fraction of my brain and by claiming that my brain is my disorder, I am giving it more power over me, and it’s hard enough as it is to fight it. If I can find a way to make this fight a little less difficult, it is in my best interest to do so.

 

I am ashamed because I haven’t lived up to expectations I established for myself when I was young.

and

I am ashamed because I can’t ever be the person I wanted to be (and it’s my fault).

I am not the only person who has turned out differently as an adult than they expected or wanted to be when they were young. That is not an experience unique to the mentally ill, and certainly not to me. As I have learned in therapy, first you have to stop believing “it is unfair” and “everything’s horrible” and “it shouldn’t be this way” in order to move toward acceptance. Once you accept your situation fully, you can decrease your suffering, if not your pain. Once you accept your situation fully, you are more likely to be effective in creating change. And if you can create change, you will see that it is possible for you to live a life worth living. I am not the person I wanted to be, but so what? I suspect no one is.

 

I am ashamed because sometimes I use my illness to prevent myself from taking risks.

The first step toward changing ineffective behavior is to acknowledge its ineffectiveness. As long as I am using my illness to keep myself from taking risks, I am missing out on opportunities that could be really beneficial to me. I can’t fail if I don’t try, but if I don’t try, I won’t get anywhere. My long term goal is to live a full, if small, life and I can’t reach my long term goal if I choose only to act on my short term goal to protect myself from failure.

 

I am ashamed because I see how some things are easy for people and know that these are nearly impossible for me.

There are tasks others who don’t have mental illness can do that are much harder for me. But, conversely, there are things I do better than those who don’t have mental illness. Because of my disorder, I am more empathetic and very in touch with the emotions of those around me. This allows me to connect more deeply with the people I love. My disorder has also fueled some of my writing and my writing means everything to me.

 

I am ashamed because I judge myself against the people I love and see that they are more successful than I am.

It is not fair to myself or to other people to pass judgment on how successful I and they are. By saying that they are more successful than I am, I am invalidating the struggles they have. I don’t want to hurt anyone else ever and it is hurtful to determine for them what their lives are like and how they feel about them. Instead of focusing on how unsuccessful I perceive myself to be, I should channel that shame and harness its potency to stimulate a different emotion that is more motivating and more healthy, like the drive to excel.

 

I am ashamed because I’ve hurt people when I was really depressed and it makes me feel like I’ve been a bad person.

I have made mistakes in my life, as we all have, and many of them did happen when I was most sick. Being sick has sometimes made it hard for me to make the right choices, and I have hurt people because of that. However, all of the people I have hurt I have apologized to and tried to make amends with. Beyond that, I can use my actions to show these people that I have grown and developed into a better version of myself. In working to prove to these people that I’ve changed, I prove to myself I’ve changed. I cannot take back the things I have done, but desperately wishing I could clouds my judgments and makes it harder for me to be gentle with myself. I am less likely to heal from the pain surrounding my regrets if I cannot be gentle with myself. If I cannot be gentle with myself, I’m less likely to be gentle to, and forgive, others.

 

Pretty deep, right?

 

One of my therapy group facilitators said once that feeling shame is an indication that your brain is trying to make you believe something untrue. So, if you struggle with shame and find that shame makes you think and feel things that you know are really hurtful and not likely to be totally accurate, I suggest you write down all your shame statements, and then try to create counter arguments to fight against each of those statements. It has done wonders for me.

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