April 20, 2016

Breaking the Self-Care Shame Cycle.

Got Lost, Holly Lay/ Flickr

I have the honor of working with many smart, compassionate, capable people, folks who are out there doing so much good in the world: leading organizations, supporting others as healers and teachers, activists and consultants, mothers and fathers.

Outwardly, these people look like they have it all together, yet when I hear the inner stories, I find that most people have struggled, in one way or another, with their relationship to self-care. They have felt embarrassed and struggled for years with their weight; they’ve been hooked on sleep medication for too long because they are riddled with anxiety in the night; they have had a secret addiction to cigarettes for the last twenty-five years; they feel ashamed that they can’t seem to get over their resistance to exercise; they haven’t had sex with their spouse for years.

It seems that no one is immune to these secret sources of shame, no matter how evolved or competent they may seem.

I have found that other than sharing these secrets with a health practitioner like myself (in the way of a confessional), most of us rarely, if ever, share what is really going on for us in our relationship with self-care—the frustration, the confusion, the embarrassment, and the shame.

Even if we occasionally confide in a professional, there is a sense of isolation, a compartmentalization where we don’t open up to our friends and loved ones about our struggles. The irony is that if we did, we’d probably discover that we are not alone at all. Most of us, in our own way, are struggling to achieve and sustain the changes we need in order to feel more alive and vital.

One of the most insightful writers on the topic of shame is Brené Brown, and I have come to lean on her wisdom often in my own life and in my work with clients. She cuts right to the heart of what is going on for so many of us by showing us how universal the experience of shame is. “People often want to believe that shame is reserved for people who have survived an unspeakable trauma,” she writes, “but this is not true. Shame is something we all experience.”~ Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

The cost of the isolation and the shame is huge. We can find ourselves in a self-perpetuating cycle as we become trapped in our self-judgments and pain about our inability to create and sustain change. The loud voices within reinforce the behavior patterns and then the behavior patterns reinforce the loud voices. When it comes to our perceived failures in the realm of self-care, we rarely take the risk to be vulnerable and, because of this, we unwittingly keep ourselves locked in unhealthy patterns.

So how do we break these unhealthy patterns? Brown suggests that the key is vulnerability, a topic that she has researched and written about extensively. She points out that we often associate vulnerability with negative emotions like fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment. These are emotions we don’t like to share and so we are invulnerable. But according to Brown, the big mistake that most of us make is that we forget about all the positive emotions that also come from vulnerability, things like love, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.

Think about it: Have you ever had the experience of becoming upset about something that happened—perhaps you did something that felt embarrassing or that you regret and then spent days or weeks replaying the scenario in your mind, perhaps losing sleep over it? Finally, you reach out to a close friend or a counselor and share what happened. You cry. You admit to all the things that you are ashamed of or that upset you. You feel seen and heard. And most of all you feel loved and accepted.

Somehow, in sharing our truths, no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassing it might be, we feel lighter. The intensity of what we were carrying and grappling with dissipates. And our perspective shifts. What had felt so important and all consuming no longer does. We have moved on, and in the process feel more relaxed, whole, and accepting of ourselves.

We can free ourselves in this way from the burden of shame around our own self-care. We can choose to vulnerably bring ourselves out of the isolation and to share with others the truth of what we are embarrassed by and how we struggle in caring for ourselves.

We as humans are all in this together; no one is immune to this pattern.

Once we have the courage to accept and share those parts of ourselves that we feel ashamed of with others, we can build a new relationship to our health that embraces all of who we are. This is the doorway to our own blossoming, our own thriving.





Author: Deborah Zucker

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Holly Lay/Flickr 





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