Sometimes we make the decision to keep the best of ourselves – the richest, warmest, most engaging part of ourselves – unseen. It happens when we hold back – from relationships, possibilities, opportunities, discovery, adventure. From the world. We lid our potential. We stand back, pull back and wait until the moment is right to take that chance, go for that job, start that business, make that change, fall in love, say the words.
But what if the thing that was going to make the moment ‘right’ was us. Our willingness to take a risk.
The courage we need is in all of us. Too often, we never know how ‘right’ we could feel, because of the need to keep ourselves safe. There’s a reason for this. And there’s a way to stop it getting in our way.
Why we hold back.
When it comes to the decision to take a risk and move towards something we want, the fear of shame is spectacularly powerful in keeping us back. It’s the wolf at the door and it will stop us walking fully into the world before we’ve even reached for the knob.
We’ve all felt it. That feeling of not being good enough, clever enough, hardworking enough, loveable enough. Of being too forward, too silly, too much. It’s that feeling of being stripped back to nothing, placed on show, judged and reduced. That feeling of being scooped out with a spoon.
The memory of shame remains long after the original experience is gone. The memory scars and it spreads. And that’s how it stifles us.
Whether the memory of our original shame experience is gauze thin or whether it remains vast and searing, the fear of feeling shame again is enough to keep us in check. The fear can cripple, squandering potential, possibilities, love and life. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
There’s something we need to understand about shame and it’s important: Shame doesn’t come to us to stifle us, but to protect us. It’s not shame that holds us back, but our fear that we will be shamed again and that we won’t see it coming.
Shame isn’t the enemy we think it is. But our fear of it is.
Shame feels thick. It feels heavy and unmoveable. It hurts. Shame really hurts. But it also protects. It settles itself to somewhere inside us to remind us that a particular situation, behaviour, person isn’t safe, or can’t be trusted. If it could talk in it’s purest form, it’s voice would be kind and its words would sound something like, ‘Hey now, careful. Remember what happened last time?’
In the right amounts and in the right situation, shame works hard for us. It keeps us safe from hurt, from humiliation, from falling. It’s there to warn us about the people and situations that can’t be trusted.
The problem with shame is is that it doesn’t stay isolated. It spreads from the original experience into similar situations, sounding a warning and pulling us back when there is no need. This is when shame becomes oppressive – when we expand our fear of it into situations that seem similar to the original experience, but aren’t.
The fear of feeling shame again is what stifles us – this, together with our tendency to see all situations and all people in the same light as the one that originally hurt us.
For example, instead of being careful not be ‘silly’ in front of the mother who criticised our ‘silly’ behaviour, we keep that daring, fun loving spirit under wraps in front of everyone, and in every situation. We stop seeing each situation as new and unique and we respond to them with old behaviour that is no longer useful. We see everyone or everything as having the same capacity and the inclination to hurt us as ‘that’ person (or people or environment) did back then.
We also make the mistake of believing that we are the same person, with the same vulnerabilities we’ve always had and the same rawness and capacity to be hurt. Perhaps we do have the same capacity to be hurt, but it’s also likely that we have a greater capacity to deal with it. With every hurt we get stronger. We get wiser and braver. Our potential to deal with the things that go wrong, gets bigger.
The fear of shame is enough to stand us still, but by seeing it for what it is, we can lessen its influence and move it gently out of our way.
It’s difficult to deal with shame directly because in many ways, in its purest, most adaptive form, it’s there to look after us. What we want to do is keep it as a warning for the right situations, not all situations.
What we can deal with is the way we let those feelings of shame filter through into situations where it doesn’t need to be. Shame doesn’t do that. We do. That’s good news, because it means we can change it. Here’s how.
Are you sure you want to do this? (Spoiler Alert: Yeah. You do.)
The feeling that something is missing can feel physical. So too can living short of our potential. We’ve probably all felt it at some point but perhaps not all in the same way. For me it feels like a pressing from the inside. Usually from my chest. For some it might feel like an ache or a heaviness. Sometimes a numbing. Sometimes it’s a modern day hunting and gathering – we eat, drink, buy, attach, but still there’s that feeling that something is missing. Often, we know what it is that would make the difference but stop ourselves from moving towards it. Here’s how to change that.
Look for the differences.
Sometimes, there’s a good reason to hold back and sometimes there isn’t. Living fully is about knowing the difference – knowing when to move forward and when to pull back. To do this, it’s important to see every situation for what it is, rather than through a filter that has shame, or experiences of shame, as its lens. A situation or person may look the same as one that has triggered shame, but in fact it may be very different.
It’s so important to see all situations with open eyes and an open heart. If you feel that you’re holding back from something or someone, first ask yourself who or what this situation or person reminds you of. Are you responding to the situation in front of you? Or to a previous one?
Let me give you an example. I once had a neighbour who was awful – no other way to say it. He had a long grey beard and wore round glasses. After my experience with him, I had an automatic response to all men with long grey beards and round glasses. My automatic response was to bristle. I would see these men as I saw my neighbour, not as separate people with their own personalities. Seeing these people for who they were – as different to my neighbour – took a deliberate effort. When I was able to do that, the bristling that would always be my first response would ease.
If you’ve experienced shame in one situation, it’s normal and understandable to want to protect yourself from it ever happening again. Our natural response then, is to generalise our ‘potential shame situation’ radar to many similar situations, and respond to them all the same way. You’ll limit yourself though if you respond to new situations with an old response that is perhaps no longer helpful. To turn this around, look for the differences. How is the situation different? How is the person different? Is it in a different environment? How are you different?
Find your lift.
The damage of shame is done through the self-talk that tends to happen automatically and out of our awareness. To counter this, we need a lift statement – a statement that will speak to us above our fear of shame. Here’s how:
♦ Find the words that hold you back.
What’s something (or someone) you feel like you’re holding yourself back from? What’s the belief that’s stopping you from moving forward? Maybe it’s that you’re not good enough? Loveable enough? Capable enough? Worthy enough? Try to get a handle on what it is for you. It might be around the way you look, what people think of you, your capacity to earn money, your capacity to get what you deserve.
I’m going to share mine with you so I can illustrate how this works. We’re in this together, right? For me, the general one that takes up space in my head from time to time is ‘I’m not enough.’ The two specific ones that creep in are ‘I’m not likeable enough,’ and ‘I’m not capable enough.’
I know where they come from so they’ve lost a lot of their kick, but sometimes when the guard’s asleep, they sneak in. They can be bold like that. What’s the one that’s pressing in you? You’ll know when you have it – you’ll feel it.
♦ Now, to what makes it work agains you.
The worst thing about these beliefs is the way they keep us hidden from the world. These words dress the beliefs up as truths and direct our behaviour, usually by finishing off our beliefs with ‘so I won’t‘ at the end.
‘I’m not enough, so I won’t ….’; or
‘They won’t like me, so I won’t (talk to him/ her/ ask them out / approach the group);’ or
‘I’m not smart enough, so I won’t (go for a better job/go for the promotion/start my own business).’
This is how we keep ourselves hidden.
Now, see if you can finish your sentence ‘ [ Your belief ] so I won’t.
♦ Time to rework it. (Because you’re way too good to let a few words get in your way.)
Examine your beliefs as fears rather than truths. For example:
Rather than, ‘I’m not enough’, try ‘I’m worried I’m not enough.’
Bring them into the spotlight. These thoughts often work automatically. They’re just there and sometimes, they’re so good at what they do, they direct our behaviour without us even realising they’ve been in the area. All we know is that we’ve held ourselves back.
If someone you cared about was telling you that this was what they say to themselves, what would you say? Chances are you’d smother it with loving words and an open heart. They’re the words you need to say to yourself. It’s the rebuttal. The negation. The ‘but …’. Play around with the words until they feel right. You’ll know it when you have it. For me, it’s this ‘… but I’ve got what it takes.’
‘I’m worried I’m not enough – but I know I’ve got what it takes.’
After a while, this will become the automatic thought. It will step up and take front and centre when the fear of shame holds you back. Try it now for yourself.
‘I’m scared that [ your belief ] but I know …
♦ Now we’re going to supercharge it.
Research has shown that self-talk is more powerful when we use ‘you’ instead of ‘I’. Change your statement to reflect this. This will be your new self talk.
‘You’re worried that [ your belief ] but you know you’ve got what it takes.
Now that you’ve got the idea, change the statement so it doesn’t feel cumbersome for you. For me, it looks like this:
‘You’re worried you’re not enough but you know you’ve got what it takes.’
This is the statement that will move you forward. It will give you the lift you need. Whenever you start getting in your own way, this is the statement to call on. I feel it physically when I say mine. It’s the words that you need to be deliberate about when you feel like your holding yourself back. They might not feel like they belong at first. They might feel awkward and cumbersome. All habits do at the start. But that’s a sign that you’re doing something different. That’s growth.
The thought of doing something you’ve been wanting to, but have held yourself back from, can feel overwhelming. Of course it will. If it didn’t, you would have done it long ago, right? You don’t have to know how it will end and what it will look like you get there. You don’t have to have the full path in your view. You really don’t.
The truth is, the path you think you’ll be taking from the start will likely end up looking completely different. You’ll be redirected, you’ll take wrong turns, you’ll go right when at the beginning, you thought left. As long as you know the general direction and have an idea of what’s involved at the beginning, just take the first step. It’s the hardest one. Do that, and the rest will unfold. The most frightening time is just before the first step but sometimes, the only way through to the very best things is straight the middle.
Now, take the step. Say the words. Take the chance. Move towards him. Or her. Go be amazing.