Shame Messages: Negative Core Beliefs


Shame & guilt are universal emotions that we have all experienced. The best way to distinguish between guilt & shame is this -- guilt says “Woops, I did something wrong, I did something bad.” Shame says “I am bad, there is something wrong with me.” Small differences in language, hugely different meanings. Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling when something we’ve done, or not done, doesn’t measure up to our values. Guilt is usually specific to the experience, can be helpful and adaptive, and motivates us to change and grow. Shame, on the other hand, is the devastating feeling that there is something wrong inherently with who we are, thus making us unworthy of love and connection. Shame is typically consistent over time and experiences, a stable belief about who we are. Shame tends to be toxic, not adaptive, and is associated with depression, bullying, eating disorders, addiction, aggression, violence, and suicide.

Usually our shame messages, or negative core beliefs, develop early in life from family rules (be seen not heard, don’t be a burden, we don’t share hard feelings), family roles (the performer, the jokester, the all-star kid, the troubled kid), or from early childhood pain (abuse, bullying, family ruptures, trauma, etc.). Negative core beliefs often act as a magnet attracting evidence that supports its belief, but repelling contradictory messages. For example, someone with a negative core belief of “I’m unlovable” may have that message reinforced when a boyfriend cheats on them as a teenager, or can’t find a roommate in college, or when they feel lonely at a wedding in adulthood. These early wounds become tender buttons that get pushed in our adult lives. For instance, if someone yells at me or I feel I’m “in trouble” today as an adult, I will often feel exactly the same way I felt as a 2nd grader when I got in trouble for talking and had to pull a card in class.

We work hard to avoid feeling shame, and often turn to hiding places to numb out the uncomfortable feeling. We may use food, TV, technology, exercise, alcohol, substances, sex, porn, control, shopping, gambling, people pleasing, busyness, gaming, work or anything else to protect ourselves from feeling shame. Learning to recognize our cycle, like reaching for the ice cream after a stressful day or controlling the household when feeling afraid, can help us replace those numbing behaviors with more healthy coping. Instead of pouring another glass of wine, pick up your journal, call a friend, go for a run, or sit and meditate. Taking the time to identify our negative core beliefs can help us notice when they get triggered and use affirmations to remind ourselves of truth. Instead of spiraling into negative self-talk about being unlovable, someone may think “That’s old stuff. I know I am beloved, I am perfectly imperfect just as I am.”

Ultimately, as Brene Brown says, vulnerability is the secret superpower to fight shame:

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.

How can you fight shame today? Healing your shame may help impact your family for generations.

The 3 Essential Parts of Forgiveness

Recently my church community has been focusing on forgiveness - what does it mean that we are forgiven and what does it look like to be a forgiving people? It’s a challenging process, and one that’s been rattling around in my head quite a bit recently. Forgiveness has often been something I've had to work at, perhaps you can relate. Sometimes we feel stuck, and forgiveness seems an impossible task. Other times we can be too quick to offer forgiveness, dismissing the pain the wound has caused. Either way, how in the world are we to forgive?

I am a bit of a Brene Brown groupie (if you haven’t seen her TED talks or read her books, make that top of your to-do list). Brene outlines 3 crucial steps to forgiveness:

1. Acknowledge the pain.
The very fact that forgiveness is necessary depends on there being some breach of relationship, pain, wounding, disappointment, or betrayal. If we are to truly forgive others, we first must acknowledge that we were wronged and feel the pain that was caused. (The same is true in offering apologies, another topic for another day.)

2. Let die.
Of an already difficult process, this is arguably the most difficult step. Letting die means grieving the loss of the relationship as it was. Sometimes letting die means choosing to bury our loss, pain, anger, power, or being right. According to Brown, forgiveness always involved grief and in forgiveness we will "die a thousand deaths". This part of the forgiveness process takes great sacrifice, and it may be a step we need to return to and choose again and again, putting to death the parts of us that want to continue to punish, withhold, and use our pain as a shield or weapon to oppose the other. This grief and burial of something old may make space new life to be born. Other times it may be a loss without the continuation of the relationship.

3. See new life.
Burying and grieving what used to be can create fertile soil for new life to be born. The pain that required forgiveness in many ways means that the relationship may never be the same, it is truly something new. Sometimes embracing this new life can bring hope, joy, and beauty from brokenness. This may be a reconciled relationship, or it may be new life in a different way. I loved the reminder in my church that recognizing the new life is a task only for the forgiver. When others step in to point out new life may (i.e. “I know it was painful, but look at all the good that came from it!”), it may feel minimizing or patronizing. But when the forgiver can genuinely see new life sprouting after acknowledging their pain and grieving their loss, the new life may even be sweeter than the old.

When we walk through the difficulty of extending forgiveness to others, it can truly free us from being tethered to our pain and anger, and it can revolutionize the way we receive forgiveness as a sacrificial gift from others.