Shame is feeling bad about ourselves. It’s not about an action. That’s guilt. Shame is about US and our inherent value. Shame tries to convince us that we’re flawed humans. The messages that we receive throughout our lives, especially from the patriarchy, teach us that we are unworthy because of our sex assignment at birth, gender identity and sexuality.
Shame entices us to work harder which leads to efforting our way to validation and taking on “second shift labor” in the home and in the workplace.
Shame tells us that we’ll feel worthy when we achieve perfection.
Shame whispers that we’re not enough, even when we succeed.
Shame rides shotgun with media representations of diet culture, beauty industry toxicity, and unrealistic lifestyles.
Shame teaches us to smile and look pleasing because we need to hide what’s inside.
Look for the shaming messages when you notice contradictory thoughts like these:
You’re not thin enough. You’re too thin!
You’re too loud. Speak up!
You’re selfish. Stand up for yourself!
You should know what you’re doing. Ask for permission!
Find a career. Start a family before it’s too late!
Look attractive. Not like that!
We didn’t come up with shame all on our own. Patriarchy was (and still is) our greatest shame teacher. It conditions us to believe that something is wrong with us if we don’t fit into the narrow gender expectations created for us. It tells us that certain goals are off limits. It shows up through Imposter Syndrome.
I remember one day when I was teaching women’s and gender studies at a religiously-affiliated liberal arts university, and someone told me that I was endangering my students’ salvation by promoting an “ungodly matriarchy” in my courses. I could have laughed or yelled. I could have felt empathy for the individual. I could have felt sadness or self-pity. To be honest, I did laugh. I also felt angry. I didn’t feel any empathy.
But, you know what else I felt? Shame. Here’s why.
I was raised hearing the narrative that feminism was not only wrong, but evil, and that any person who did not follow very narrow gender roles was so flawed that they were beyond God’s love. Seriously. So, here I am with a PhD in women’s and gender studies, teaching the discipline as a full, tenured professor when someone hurled the ungodly matriarchy nonsense my way. The shame that rattled quietly in my brain and nervous system for over 40 years jumped into action to verify this individual’s accusation of my moral flaws, even though I disagreed with his opinion and could have debated my position well.
That’s what unexamined shame does. It keeps us company and pipes up when circumstances feel risky. The good news is that we’re not stuck in shame. It lingers until we shine loving light on it and recognize that shame serves a purpose of keeping us out of “trouble.” Shame hangs out in the shadows until we realize that it reinforces the patriarchy’s values, not ours. That’s when we choose our values and our freedom. The opposite of shame is self-love and when we get coaching that teaches us to have our own backs, we feed our souls instead of the shame.
The patriarchy might be our greatest shame teacher, but we control our own self-love which disrupts the shame. That’s the revolution that coaching offers.