How to let go of shame and transform your pain into growth
I’ll never forget the day my heart was shattered into a million pieces. I felt so broken that I couldn’t even step outside my own door. That was a day that changed things for me … forever.
As many of you know, the core of my coaching practice is showing my clients how to practice self-compassion. How we deal with our negative thoughts and feelings is everything in terms of how we achieve our dreams and live our lives.
Well, I wouldn’t preach what I haven’t practiced. In this post, I’m going to tell you about that devastating day of heartbreak, and how it threw me into some serious self-doubt and shame.
Say it ain’t so, you say? True story. But, it’s OK friends, because that black hole was the entry gate into the self-love rituals that have since transformed my life.
So back to the story…
I went through a pretty devastating break-up about five years ago. My partner and I had been together for a long time. The plan was to spend the rest of our lives together. I’d written all of the applications and essays to get him into his dream MBA program. I left my life, my job, my home, and moved to a new city with him so he could pursue his dreams. We moved in together, and began building a beautiful life together.
But … the universe had other plans. A close family member was diagnosed with a serious illness and I had to leave my boyfriend, move home, and take care of her. During that time, my partner began to slip away from me. Consumed with studying and partying, he couldn’t find time to connect with me anymore. He wasn’t available to me when I needed him the most.
I remember calling him from the hospital in tears, and him telling me that I needed to learn to “take it easy and chill.”
Four months after I left my ‘dream’ life, the man who had written me poems about “forever” had “fallen out of love with me.” I was back to square one.
The day we split up, I just broke down. I started questioning my choices, my worthiness, my beauty. I lost faith in every aspect of my being. I couldn’t function. My whole body was shaking. My nervous system was completely overloaded by a tidal wave of emotions.
But life doesn’t stop for heartbreak. I was scheduled to go to a business meeting with my business partner—and one of my closest friends. I told myself I had to go and put on a suit and the best smile I could muster.
When I tried to step out the door though, my body literally collapsed. I went back inside and called my business partner. I told her I had a stomach virus and couldn’t make it that day.
“You ok?” she asked.
“Yeah, fine. I just ate some bad food or something,” I told her.
I couldn’t tell her the truth about what was going on. That I was heartbroken and having trouble coping.
In my head, I was running this script:
“I’m a person who takes care of others. I give people advice on their mental and physical health for a living. I practice yoga and meditate for hours every day. I preach gratitude and positive psychology. I have helped my friend heal a thousand times. What will she think of me I can’t keep it together?
What a fraud I am. Here I am preaching something I can’t practice. I’m despicable.”
I was, in other words, ashamed of who I was.
And I’ll tell you what … of all the terrible emotions I felt that day—the sadness, the loss, the worry—shame was by far the most painful.
There’s nothing more agonizing than to think so poorly of yourself that you believe you’re not worthy of love.
What is shame?
Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of connection.”
In other words, shame is a real pain in the ass. Your shame usually says things to you like:
You’re not good enough.
Who do you think you are?
You are an unwanted burden to others.
Everyone else seems to be able to do it, but because you’re fundamentally flawed, it’s never going to happen for you.
…..on repeat, like a broken record.
For many of us, shame takes up permanent residence in our consciousness, always questioning of our ability and worthiness—constantly reinforcing our inherently negative bias.
How shame damages
Like other harmful emotions, shame weighs us down and keeps us trapped in an unending cycle of harmful behaviors.
Ashamed of our perceived shortcomings, we become hyper-vigilant about keeping them hidden. We hide our real selves behind secrecy and silence, avoiding any real intimacy and authenticity in our relationships.
Often it leads to other unhealthy coping mechanisms. When the pain of feeling unworthy becomes too much to bear, we can look to numb it with drugs, alcohol, food, working too much … all bottomless pits that only intensify the shame.
That’s why shame so often coincides with addiction, bullying, and eating disorders, and other societal tragedies.
And here’s the thing: there are very few people I know who’ve achieved their dreams without taking some pretty big risks. But shame keeps us from taking risks, because the fear of another “failure” is too hard to bear. It takes us out of the game that we gotta play if we ever want to attain a deeply meaningful life.
The worst part of shame, though, is the irony inherent within it: it keeps us trapped in exactly the situations we’re ashamed of.
If you’re ashamed that your marriage isn’t working, you might stay in the relationship, because you’re too embarrassed to let others know or admit to yourself that it’s failed.
If you’re ashamed that you drink too much, you’re less likely to admit you have a problem and seek help, and instead turn to more alcohol to numb the pain.
The thing I needed most the day my relationship ended was to feel loved and cared for, but my shame made me hide. It cut me of from the connection and support that was available to me, and reinforced the idea that I was unworthy.
Composting your shame
During the time I was dealing with the breakup, I spent a lot of my time doing environmental restoration work. A couple days after my partner and I ended things, I went to a training on the life cycles of the forest.
There, I learned about an amazing miracle called “pioneer species.” When land is infertile and a new ecosystem needs to be created, pioneer species are the first plants to grow. They develop deep roots that drill into the soil, creating channels that allow water and air back in.
They also contain bacteria that replenish the nitrogen in the soil, an essential element for other plants to grow. Then, as strong, resilient and sustaining as these plants are, they quickly die down.
Not because they’re weak, but because they have another critical role to play in creating an environment where other plants can grow. When they die and fall to the ground, they create a compost, adding precious mulch and more nutrients to the soil. They give the ground back the fertility it needs to grow into a forest.
In these pioneer species, I saw a reflection of myself. Sure, often I was a pioneer for others … nurturing them and supporting their dreams.
But, like the cycles of nature, there were parts of me that needed to die. My relationship needed to end. My addiction to always having all the answers needed to stop. I couldn’t keep striving for emotional and psychological perfection.
They had to go back to the soil and break down. If I struggled to keep them intact, they would cost me tremendous amounts of energy, making me even more vulnerable to the forces of nature (aka, life). But if I let go, if I allowed them to naturally decompose, they would eventually turn into compost, once again nourishing new, even stronger life.
Woohoo! A great big ol’ breakthrough!
Inspired by what I had learned from the pioneer species, I ran to my business partner and friend and told her what happened—I let it all out! She held me and reminded me of all of the good in me that I couldn’t see at that moment. She told me I was still one of the strongest people she knew.
That was the beginning of my path to healing.
Turn that shame into compost
You too can compost the parts of you that make you feel unworthy and disconnected. When we open up about our shame, we nurture so many gifts:
- An opportunity for connection, by sharing your pain with a trusted friend
- A learning experience that sets you up for gaining important wisdom about life, love, and relationships
- Humility to remind you that you are only human and that no matter how hard you work to control your life, sometimes it will get the best of you
- Compassion for yourself when you’re going through bad times, and for others when you see them in pain because you know how they feel
- Gratitude for all that you have, all that supports you
- Forgiveness for the people that have hurt you, so you can truly let go of the pain
When it’s time for something to end — whether it’s a relationship, poor food choices, a career path, or a way of responding to pain — shame won’t serve you. This is the cycle of life. Let it fall to the ground and accept the pain, but don’t believe that you’re not worthy of love. Own your mistakes and your commitment to grow through them.
In doing this, they’ll give you new life. And inspired by your courage, others will be strengthened too.