Building Resilience against Shame and Self-Judgment
Illustration by Hiroki Nishiyama
On a ranch in upper Marin County in September, Shauna Shapiro, PhD, invited an audience to each put a hand over their heart. It’s a simple act she instructs people to take all the time.
She was speaking on a panel at Futurewell, a sustainability and wellness summit where the audience was mostly women. But throughout the day, a number of men approached her to express their gratitude. One told her that putting his hand on his heart was the most powerful thing he had done all day. Another, who had recently had heart surgery, admitted that he had never thought to treat his heart with kindness. A third vowed to start every morning with that one simple practice because of how it would impact the rest of his day.
That’s exactly where Shapiro, who researches how mindfulness and self-compassion can change lives for the better, asks people to start. She has something she calls the 5 percent principle: Today, can you show yourself 5 percent more love? Can you trust yourself 5 percent more? It’s an approach that is particularly important for men, Shapiro finds. Men, she says, often have a harder time coping with struggle, failure, and shame. And while a mindfulness practice can make a big difference, it can be hard not to bring an all-or-nothing attitude to building a healthy headspace.
Mindfulness isn’t about completely eradicating shame, she says, and it’s not about being the most loving, self-compassionate, kind person in the world. It’s about baby steps—like a kind affirmation when you make a mistake or a gentle hand on your heart in the morning. “It’s never too late to change your brain,” Shapiro says. “But it doesn’t happen all at once. It’s these gradual changes where we shift habits of shame and self-judgment into ones of kindness and compassion.”
A Q&A with Shauna Shapiro, PhD
It’s about separating our behavior from who we truly are. Shame is like, “Because of what I did, I’m bad.” Whereas remorse is: “What I did was wrong, but I’m not bad.”
When we shame or judge ourselves, or if we’re shamed and judged by someone else, the brain goes into a fight-or-flight response. It releases a cascade of norepinephrine and cortisol, which shuts down the learning centers of the brain and shuttles all our resources to survival pathways. So shame robs us of the resources and the energy we need to do the work of productive change.
Men face unique challenges in our culture. Certain ideas about masculinity and what it means to be a man—like that it’s not okay to show weakness or that you are definitively supposed to be a provider—can lead to toxic feelings of shame when men make mistakes or fail.
And shame, especially in men, forces them into this emotional armor. They lose touch with their authentic self and become lost from one another. Shame is very isolating.
Absolutely. Research shows that people who are depressed have significantly more thoughts of shame and feelings of self-judgment.
That may sound intuitive, but here’s what’s interesting: Usually, someone’s first episode of depression is catalyzed by something bad that’s happened—maybe you’ve gotten divorced, or someone died, or you lost your job. We have pretty good treatment for depression, and we’re pretty good at getting people out of a first depressive episode. But then these people who have been depressed are at much higher-than-normal risk of falling into a second episode of depression—even if there isn’t another precipitating event—because they spent so much time carving out those negative thought pathways during their first episode. By the third episode of depression, there usually isn’t an event that’s catalyzed it; shame and negative self-talk have become mental habits.
Once researchers identified this shaming, judging way of talking to ourselves as one of the significant reasons why people relapse into depression, they were able to develop techniques to prevent that relapse. Scientists Zindel Segal, John Teasdale, and Mark Williams developed a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression, which helps people who have recovered from an episode shift how they speak to themselves and how they treat themselves. And by teaching people to treat themselves with kindness and compassion, they have made significant strides in preventing depressive relapse in those people.
When we make a mistake or when we want to change, we often turn to two very misguided and very opposite coping strategies.
The first coping strategy is tearing ourselves down and shaming ourselves. What I tell people is this: If it worked to beat yourself up when you make a mistake, I would tell you go ahead and do it. But it just doesn’t work. It shuts down our brain’s capacity for learning and growing and changing. So it doesn’t actually help us.
The second coping strategy is building ourselves up. We work on our self-esteem, trying to make ourselves feel better. What’s interesting about self-esteem is it can be just as ineffective as shaming ourselves. Self-esteem is a fair-weather friend. It’s great when everything is going well in your life, but when you’ve made a mistake or something bad has happened, self-esteem deserts you. Self-esteem requires success to prove self-worth, whereas self-compassion says you’re worthy no matter what.
This is where self-compassion gives us this resilience that self-esteem doesn’t. Self-compassion says, “No matter what’s happened, I am here for you with kindness and acceptance. No matter what happens, I’m in your corner. I’m your biggest ally.”
That’s really what gives us resilience. Self-compassion helps us develop grit. In Angela Duckworth’s book on the subject, Grit, outlines how resilient people have this nonjudgmental attitude where their definition of failure is completely different. They don’t see failure as something wrong with them. They see it as a learning opportunity and a part of growth.
The antidote to shame is vulnerability, kindness, and compassion. In a culture where vulnerability is perceived as a weakness, especially for men, it takes incredible courage to admit our pain, fear, and mistakes.
Self-compassion gives us the courage to see things clearly. Sometimes we do something wrong and it’s so painful and we’re so embarrassed that we don’t want to think about it again. We repress it. We deny it. So the first step is to say to yourself—kindly—“Oh, ouch. I did that, and I don’t want to do that again.”
Second, once we see our mistake clearly, 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.
But you can’t tell someone, “Oh, just be kinder to yourself” or “Just stop judging yourself.” We actually have to rewire those mental pathways. It doesn’t change overnight. Self-compassion can help us rediscover our goodness, dignity, and purpose and help reverse years of self-judgment and shame. But it takes practice.
Shauna Shapiro, PhD, is a professor and researcher at Santa Clara University and a fellow of the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute. Shapiro is the author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness and Mindful Discipline. Her newest book, Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity, and Joy comes out in January 2020.
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