I’ve come to believe that self-worth is essential to thriving, and that not feeling worthy leads us to make choices and settle for lives that are less fulfilling, meaningful, and joyful. As a coach, helping others to feel worthy of the lives they want is my greatest calling and greatest challenge.
What prevents us from feeling worthy is the fundamental belief that we’re not enough. I’ve seen this play out for many clients and loved ones. And there’s a word for this – it’s called shame.
Brené Brown, PhD, is an acclaimed shame researcher. She defines shame as: “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
I have personal experience with shame. One memory is particularly vivid, and it’s from the months after giving birth to my son.
The first three months felt pretty blissful. Then month four hit, and I was suddenly awash in Postpartum Depression. Four months of intense depression were followed by several more months of lingering sadness.
The experience that was most painful in this season was when my son would cry without any apparent cause (as babies do) and later tantrum without explanation (to be expected). When he would cry for more than a few moments, it was deeply uncomfortable. I’d then judge myself for being uncomfortable. I often thought: “There is something wrong with me. Why does this bother me so much? Other moms don’t feel this upset by crying.”
After a few weeks of telling myself this story, it became worse. I began to feel a deep underlying anxiety whenever I was with my son, knowing he could cry at any moment and the shame spiral would begin. I craved time away from my son, which reinforced the thought that something must be wrong with me: “Motherhood should be joyful. It shouldn’t involve this much suffering. I shouldn’t need time apart from my child like this.” The most painful thought? “Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a mom.”
Today is my son’s second birthday. And even now, over a year later, that thought makes me emotional. I think it’s because an emotion like shame is so powerful that even the memory of it feels vivid and visceral.
How did I move past these feelings of shame? It took a lot of work and support, but I discovered three things that helped.
TOOL NO. 1: THE SHAME FORMULA
A therapist once shared that when we utilize numbers and formulas, we turn on the frontal cortex of our brain, which inhibits the emotional, often irrational, part of our brain called the amygdala. I remember a major shift in my thinking when I applied this lesson to my shame. I was on a walk near my home when I thought of this formula:
Pain + Judgment = Shame + Suffering
It is simple enough, but it allowed me to feel less helpless. I realized there was something I could do to mitigate my suffering. If I could subtract judgment, I’d also remove shame and suffering.
Judgment = Shame + Suffering
I still had the pain, but it felt lighter, and I felt more resilient. By uncovering this formula, I was able to challenge the shame I was feeling, realizing it’s the byproduct of my own irrational, judgmental thoughts.
Brown writes: “What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.” If we can notice and challenge our self-judgment, we can overcome shame.
TOOL NO. 2: SELF-COMPASSION
Shame deprives us of the tools we need to thrive. It keeps us stuck by preventing us from learning, growing, and changing. It steals our energy and motivation.
Shauna Shapiro, PhD, is a clinical psychologist. Her research provides an anecdote to shame that is rooted in neuroscience. The anecdote is self-compassion.
She writes: “We need to approach ourselves and our pain with kindness. An attitude of kindness bathes our system with dopamine. Kindness does the opposite of what shame does in the body: It turns on the motivation and learning centers of the brain, giving us the resources we need to change and grow… Self-compassion can help us rediscover our goodness, dignity, and purpose and help reverse years of self-judgment and shame.”
Self-compassion is powerful, but how do we practice it?
I think we, as humans, are good at compassion. We see a suffering person, and we want to take away their pain. A loved one expresses self-judgment, and we respond with reassurance. A friend is feeling low, and we want to lift them up. When we are suffering, experiencing self-judgment, or feeling low, we can choose to extend comfort, grace, and unconditional acceptance towards ourselves. That’s how we practice self-compassion.
Shapiro provides a simple exercise you can try that she calls the 5 Percent Principle: “If your dear friend, or your daughter, or your husband was in this situation, what would you say to them? Treat yourself like your dear friend [with] five percent more kindness; five percent more compassion.”
TOOL NO. 3: FACT-CHECKING OUR THOUGHTS
Shame cannot exist in the absence of thoughts that we are not enough. Shame thrives when these thoughts go unchecked – repetitive and invisible.
One of the simplest things we can do to disable shame is to examine our thoughts, pulling them into the light so we can take a proper look. The thoughts that cause shame often won’t survive the scrutiny.
Cultivating a practice of managing our thoughts is both the work of a lifetime and completely simple. Each time you pause to examine your thoughts, you’re caring for yourself. You’re reestablishing control over your mind. You’re acknowledging that your brain is an organ designed to keep you alive – not the authority on your life.
Try this: notice when you feel shame, and write down the thoughts you’re having about yourself in the moment. Then, take one or more of these steps:
(1) Add a tally mark next to a thought each time it repeats itself. This simple act helps you notice when you’re having a thought, and makes it less invisible and less powerful. You might even notice that you only have a handful of recurring thoughts that are doing damage – this can make the work of changing your thoughts feel more manageable.
(2) Assess and attempt to challenge these thoughts. Is there a flaw in your logic? What might a counterpoint be to this thought?
(3) Leverage your learning on self-compassion, and write down a sentence or two that you would share if a loved one was struggling with a similar thought.
A favorite resource I discovered is called The Anti-Anxiety Notebook. This journal takes you through effective evidence-based methods to fact-check your thoughts.
THE RIGHT QUESTION
The goal of this work and these tools? To undermine the belief that you’re not enough and to promote the belief that you are worthy of love and belonging, unconditionally and irrevocably. With this perspective, you can tackle hard challenges, overcome adversities, take up space, negotiate a better offer, refuse to settle, invest in yourself. Life becomes more beautiful and vibrant when you know you’re worthy of good things.
So how can we know we’re worthy?
As a coach, I’ve seen the power of the right question. So, to increase my odds, I’ll leave you with several. My hope is that the answer to these questions will help you internalize the ideas above, disable shame, believe in your unconditional worth, and thrive. It may seem like a tall order, but as I say, I’ve seen the power of the right question.
How are you feeling right now given what you’ve just read?
What was a time when you felt most worthy?
What about this experience made you feel worthy?
What was a time when you felt least worthy?
What is something you’ve said about yourself when you were feeling unworthy?
What is a counterargument to this self-judgment?
Do you believe a child’s worth is unconditional?
At what age did your worth become conditional?
What is one area of your life where you’d like to extend yourself more compassion?
When can you set aside time to notice your thoughts?