Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
In my experience of working with shame, I’ve found that when people are first learning about it, they generally ask about how shame manifests in the body. The reason is that they’re hoping for guidance so they can begin to better identify it in themselves.
It’s such a great question because it invites a sense of curiosity and mindfulness to the experience of shame. And I’ve often said that curiosity is a great antidote to shame.
Identifying how shame shows up in your body
Before we start learning to identify how shame shows up in our bodies, we need to understand that every nervous system is different. This is something that became clear in my experience.
In my work with clients, I integrate the Somatic Experiencing approach, based on the work of Dr. Peter Levine. This is a body-oriented therapeutic model that seeks to help the nervous system get unstuck from the fight, flight, or freeze response that is activated during a traumatic or stressful situation. In this approach, we learn to ask people where they experience a sensation rather than telling them where they should be experiencing it.
So, to get started, this is what you can do when you identify that you’re feeling shame. Explore what your body feels like in that moment. Ask yourself if you might be feeling heat, tightness, closed, small, or stuck, for example. If you’re just starting to learn about identifying sensations, I have a blog post that you might want to check out. In it, you’ll find a list of words describing different body sensations: you can try them out and see if any fits.
When you identify a sensation, can you discover where in your body you feel it the most? For example, some people feel heat in their face, others might feel their throat tightening, and others might feel sharp pain in their chest. Again, these are just examples. Identifying and acknowledging shame is one of the first steps in shame resilience.
Shame as a freeze state
Shame is an intense, whole-body freeze response to a situation. This is why it’s common that people will identify body sensations that relate to feeling frozen.
When exploring your own sensations, you might have used the words frozen, stuck, fuzzy, or numb, for example. People sometimes feel so overwhelmed by shame that they become disconnected from themselves. Because of the freeze, it may be hard to find words or move into action.
This is something that can be worked on in 1:1 therapy using Somatic Experiencing techniques. But I also believe that we can learn to identify shame as it’s happening and take a step back from it by building our resilience. The way I teach my clients how to do this is by using 6 scientifically-backed tools: 1) Connection; 2) Recognizing shame; 3) Self-compassion; 4) Self-talk; 5) Accepting your limits; and 6) Contentment. If shame resilience is something you’re interested in, I invite you to check out my online course Shame Resilience Skills.
So far I’ve given you some strategies on how to deal with our shame around productivity and parenting. This time, we’re going to see what to do when you feel shame about food.
It’s very important to know and to remind yourself that there’s no such thing as good foods and bad foods. As most dieticians and psychologists who work with disordered eating will attest to, labeling food as good and bad puts a moralistic value on it that shouldn’t be there. I have a philosophy in my house—one I picked up over years of listening to body trust and intuitive eating experts—that all food is good food. That means ice-cream is good, pancakes are good, avocados are good, chocolate is good. It’s all good.
Maybe you’ve seen this image before, but I find it so useful to help remind you the real differences between good and bad food:
Let’s take one example of food-related shame I sometimes hear. People who are struggling with shame can feel bad about the type of food they ate (let’s say it was extra dessert) or the amount they ate (especially if it was more than they planned). I’ve found that the most common responses when people experience food shame is either to attack themselves or to numb their feelings with more food.
I’ve found a couple ways to interrupt this. If you’re criticizing your food choices, keep in mind that feeling shame is only going to make you feel more stuck. Here’s something very interesting I’ve learned: every time you tell yourself that you shouldn’t eat something, this creates restriction. And the more we restrict? The more we binge. So it’s never really “eating too much” that’s the problem. The issue is in creating restrictive diets and shaming your body when it gets hungry. Caroline Dooner explains all about this and more in her book The F*ck It Diet, if you want to read more on this topic.
If you’re the type to numb out with food instead, you might try practicing mindfulness. Creating a pause between the impulse and the action may give you a moment to notice the emotions that are driving the behavior. If you notice you’re feeling ashamed, you can take care of the shame (through self-compassion, connection, or a number of other shame resilience skills you may already be practicing). If you’re feeling angry, or sad, you can take the time to take care of that too. You might also still choose to eat--the point is slowing down the whole process so that more and more options become available for taking care of painful feelings.
In my last post, I discussed the feeling of shame around productivity and how it generally comes up from this idea that we need to earn our sense of worthiness, of feeling we’re good enough. To continue this series, today I want to talk to you about what to do when you feel shame about your parenting.
You’re going to hear me say it every time, folks. The first step to getting out of a shame spiral is recognizing that you’re in one. So how might you know that you’re experiencing shame about parenting? Let’s say in this case that you accidentally snapped at your kid, and you’re wishing you hadn’t. Maybe the self-critic is showing through, and it’s beating you up for letting your irritation show. Or you could find that the irritation grows, and the blame turns toward your child (e.g., “They’re being such little monsters! Why can’t they ever listen to me?”) or your co-parent (“They only act this way because you’re so lenient with them!”). Some people might instead withdraw, concerned that if they let someone else know what’s going on, they’ll be judged even further. And other people might deny or brush off their behavior because it’s embarrassing to admit to (e.g., “It wasn’t so bad”). These are common reactions to shame and they’re often our best cue that we’re caught up in it.
When you recognize a shame spiral in the midst of it happening, it’s a good time to pause, take a step out of whatever room you’re in, and go find a quiet space to attend to your feelings. Yes, that’s right. I’m giving you permission to close your bedroom door, or lock yourself in the bathroom for a few minutes, or go on a walk, or whatever you need to do in order to have a few moments of compassionate space to yourself. Even if you have a crying baby or child in the other room and all you can manage is to take a few breaths. It’s going to help you, your child, and your relationship with them if you can take just 10 seconds to start making your way out of the shame spiral.
I’m always a fan of using self-soothing and self-compassion strategies first, and looking at things from a cognitive perspective later. So please, I encourage you to do what you need in the moment to bring kindness to yourself in the difficult situation you’re experiencing.
After that, it might help to remind yourself that we don’t need to be perfect parents in order to have good, healthy relationships with our children. I love how Diane Poole Heller puts it:
“The perfect parent does not exist, nor does it need to. According to developmental psychologist Edward Tronick, even exceptional parents are only 20-30 percent attuned to their children, but even this amount of attunement can lead to Secure Attachment if parents are willing to repair the ruptures that occur between them and their children.”
I love sharing this information with clients. 30%? I think most of the parents I know are aiming for 90% and then feeling terrible when something inevitably gets messed up. I love understanding that we can repair when things go wrong. This is also where shame resilience comes in. The more we see ourselves as bad parents and stay caught in shame, the harder it becomes to do anything about our mistakes. If you can see yourself as someone who’s doing the best they can, and who might make mistakes sometimes along the way, then you’ll also be better able to take actions to fix those mistakes. In this way, we can start to separate our actions (which may not always be perfect, even when we’re trying our best) from our identity as a person.
I talk a lot about shame and how to deal with it--in fact, in case you’re new here, I have an online course called Shame Resilience Skills. This will be the first of a series of posts where I will discuss shame specifically in relation to different things that can come up in our lives. So, to start, let’s talk about what to do when you feel shame about your productivity.
The first step to reducing shame in any situation is always to recognize it. Say to yourself “I am in a shame spiral about productivity”, or “I am getting caught up in all the messages about my productivity being tied into my worth”. Remind yourself that this is shame talking.
If you’re ready to explore shame about productivity in greater depth, you might want to ask yourself where you first learned that you needed to do more in order to feel good enough. A lot of the time, the way that this works begins with an experience where something bad happens in our lives. For example, we are bullied, or a parent is neglectful, or we experience another type of hardship. But the child brain doesn’t know how to make sense of these difficult events and, at a young age, is very, very egocentric. What this means is that a child believes everything happens to them because of their own doing. So if something bad happens, a child believes it must have been because of something they did or didn’t do. A child’s understanding of why abuse or neglect happened might be “It’s because I’m not good enough”. They’re not able to see the bigger picture of why a parent would be neglectful or someone would be abusive toward them and realize that it has nothing to do with them. Instead, they accept the idea that it’s because they are not good enough as a fact.
Because feeling not good enough is so uncomfortable, we as children will do what it takes to get away from this feeling. If we truly believe at our core that we’re not good enough, then what makes sense in order to cope with that? Children try to “be better” in ways like increasing their productivity and achievements at school, or by being more likeable and pleasing in their families and in their relationships. They do everything they can in order to earn a sense of worthiness. What the child doesn’t realize is that they never had to earn it to begin with.
This is your reminder now – you don’t have to earn your worthiness. It’s okay to put down your projects, close your laptop, and rest for the day.
In my work, two of the biggest themes I talk about a lot are burnout and shame resilience—I even have an online workshop on How to prevent burnout and my most recent one is about Shame Resilience Skills. If you've been following me for a while, you might already know this. What you might not know yet, though, is that there’s an overlap between the two.
Here’s what I've noticed: at the root of overworking (which eventually leads to burnout) often lies a sense of shame. We might feel that our worthiness is directly connected to our productivity—either because we've been told so or been made to feel so in indirect ways.
In trying to get away from the uncomfortable experience of shame, many of us strive to be perfect. We might make demands to ourselves to appease that voice: "I'll just achieve more at work, I’ll be pleasing in my relationship, I’ll give more in my community…" But, at some point, we reach our limits. We’re only human, so we get exhausted, our bodies break down, and resentment settles in.
I often have clients who come to me with the goal of getting better at being perfect. Although this is an impossible standard, they’re beating themselves up for not continually being able to meet it. Instead of giving them strategies to “get more motivated” and just get on with achieving more than they possibly can, what I do is work with them on the root feeling of shame. Why? Because I believe that they are good and worthy just as they are, without having to do anything more, and I want to help them feel that way.
What can we actually control?
This push to be perfect doesn’t always come from inside ourselves, though. Many times we’re actually made to feel guilty or ashamed of our choices by other people, even if they don’t mean to, like when someone tells you “Wow, you’re leaving early!” or “I wish I could do that but I have a lot more work to do!” Unfortunately, as many of my clients have found, if you’re waiting for someone else to change, you might be waiting a long time. This is why, instead of waiting for other people to realize what they’re doing and change their ways, I focus on behaviours that we ourselves can do differently.
Another thing we can get really caught up in is trying to get someone else’s permission or acceptance of our boundary, to convince people that we have the right to our own boundaries. It’s important to learn that we can simply do what we need to do for ourselves and let other people deal with their own discomfort around it.
Setting the boundary and then sticking with it when we get pushback will feel uncomfortable for us, too: here’s where accepting our feelings and practicing self-compassion can be really useful. We might have to remind ourselves that you can be a good person, even if other people are disappointed, or that other people don’t have to understand your boundaries in order to respect them. This is the heart of burnout prevention and shame resilience.
From my perspective, self-compassion boils down to being as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend. Over the years I've had a lot of people ask me about whether they could forgo compassion and just get things done by motivating themselves through shame and grit. My short answer is, I tried that method. As I’ve previously shared, it led to an entire year of intense daily pain. That was over years ago and I still have chronic pain issues, so life will never quite be the same. Fortunately, I've found ways to cope with it that don't involve telling myself what I "should" be doing.⠀
Oh, and the other answer involves that there's good research to back up my very individual story (thanks Kristen Neff!) about how shame isn't motivating – self-compassion is the way forward.
When I talk to clients about self-compassion, I often talk about acceptance. In this post, I wanted to touch on acceptance in three specific areas: acceptance of mistakes, acceptance of our limits, and acceptance of our feelings.
Accepting that we make mistakes
We hold ourselves to such impossible standards sometimes. And hey, I get it. If we can just be perfect, then we’ll never have to feel the horrible feeling of shame, right? So we aim for perfection, try never to make a mistake, and then hold our breath. Unfortunately, perfection is a plane of existence that doesn’t exist.⠀
From my perspective, not only is making mistakes allowed, but we can end up growing and transforming because of them. It’s part of what helps us move through life and learn about ourselves and our world. When we make a mistake, I feel like there’s SO MUCH we can do with it. Getting stuck in shame is not the only way. We can actually learn, repair, forgive ourselves, and do a ton of amazing healing work after we mess up.
I know forgiving ourselves might be a hard one, so here's my thought: we all make mistakes. After all, we're all human. We can learn to be accountable. We can learn to take responsibility for our part. We can learn to take a step back from shame and forgive ourselves, remembering that our mistakes (or the things we didn't know then) don't have to define who we are.
Accepting our feelings
Accepting our feelings has been an especially significant theme in the last year because many of us have been feeling uncomfortable emotions and probably also wishing we weren’t going through so much stress, anxiety, and pain. Isn’t that human? To be wanting to move away from the hard parts, and also to be feeling a lot of it right now.
However, when we try to get away from the difficulty, we deny our reality. And that reality doesn’t go away. We might temporarily push it down, but to what effect? The most long-lasting impact I see is what Tara Brach would describe as shooting ourselves with the second arrow. Not only are we still feeling the initial anxiety that was there – we’re now also feeling the shame of it too (“what’s wrong with me that I just can’t get through this?”). We’re left with twice as much pain, or more often more than we initially started with.
Now don’t get me wrong. If I could magically get rid of my fear of public speaking, or airplanes, I would! But since I can’t wave that wand, I’ve found there’s a better option: acceptance. Leading up to those events, I can take of those fears and anxieties rather than ignore them or try to muscle my way through the pain. Most of us know by now that pain gets worse when we try to suppress it, so I think it’s time to try something different. When we’re more self-compassionate and can accept what we’re experiencing as human, we do a way better job of taking care of the physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts that go along with everyday life, and the whole thing gets easier to cope with and less intense over time.
Accepting that you have limits
You may have noticed by now that acceptance is a tough one because we're working to accept things we'd rather not. Like the fact that we do, in fact, have limits and can't do it all. Or like how we wish we had more time and energy for the things and people we love and, at the same time, our body is breaking down, making it impossible to give any more without great detriment to our health. ⠀
At the risk of sounding repetitive, you are human. Even if sometimes you don’t want to be constrained by those limitations. Even if you think you should be "better by now" or "able to handle more". Fighting it isn’t working anymore. Pretending it’s not there isn’t working anymore. Work on accepting that, just like every other human on this planet, you have limits too.
If you’re curious to learn more, please feel free to check out my new online Shame Resilience Skills course. I go over more of the elements of acceptance and my favorite ways of bringing about more self-compassion into your daily life.
As Brian Mahan described, shame is predominantly a physiological wound. We have a physiological response to shaming experiences; a holding pattern or stuckness that can emerge. Even for people who might know on a cognitive level that they have nothing to feel ashamed of, deep in our bodies we feel unworthy, bad, or wrong.
This knowledge can guide us to how we can heal shame. It's not just a matter of having new cognitive information: it's the physiology that we need to heal. So, if we can work with our imagination in the present, then the lower brain is going to take all the information as if it was real, as if it was happening now, and we’re going to have a physiological response to it. If we can have a physiological experience of compassion, softness, or being protected... well, it's an entirely new pathway.
Said another way, the lower brain is collecting information from the higher brain and middle brain as well as our five senses. It does not have the capacity to differentiate between reality and perception. This is why imagination is such a powerful way of working with shame. Through imagination, we have a new physiological response. Imagining something compassionate, protective or kind happening for our younger self can have an effect on our brain that’s quite similar as if it had actually happened for us.
In my work I've been helping clients revisit the original shaming incidents through imagination. By doing so, we can help the child part of them have a new experience of feeling understood, safe or welcome. For example, through imagination we might help the wounded child understand that they did nothing wrong.
This is important because, when we're children and something goes wrong (e.g. parents get divorced, we experience neglect, someone is cruel to us, etc.), our child-brain understanding of why that happened is because "something is wrong with me". We feel the pain and we can't see that it might have been our parent that caused the pain (because our parent is perfect, in our minds), so it must be us. We take "something is wrong with me" as absolute truth, and it becomes a powerful coherent narrative because then it explains (or seems to explain) everything else difficult that follows. If later we're bullied at school, or if we experience body-shaming in the culture, or if we struggle in friendships, it all feels like it's because "something is wrong with me". And we never question it. It just feels true, because we adopted it SO EARLY ON, before we had the capacity to think critically or examine things from other perspectives.
Using imagination to help give the young child the kindness, support, and unconditional love they needed back then allows us to free ourselves from toxic shame. This way of working is very much in line with what I learned from the hakomi therapy community: that we heal not by having new information, but by having new experiences.
In this video, I provide an intro to shame (including examples of how it can show up in our day to day lives) and shame resilience. Shame resilience starts with being able to identify shame and take a step back from it when it arises. Fortunately, shame resilience can start today with tools such as self-compassion. I include one simple idea anyone can try out, starting right now.
Note: This article was originally published on "The Anti Hustle Project".
When I first joined Instagram, I came across some ads about growing my social media following and building my list, directing me to "get 10,000 followers now!" The ads usually featured women with a trendy yet relatable vibe, and I’ll admit it – I clicked. Getting 10,000 followers was appealing on some level, and if other women in the helping field were doing it, maybe I could too. I even signed up for a free webinar on growing my list. As a result of that one click, IG started showing me more of those types of ads, some of which I’d pause upon, until before long those were all the ads I saw. And the result? It absolutely made me feel not enough. I felt more anxious and caught up in getting likes than I ever had.
After that initial click, I probably had 2-3 solid weeks of staying up late, sitting on my phone, liking and following account after account on IG. It’s not that I was spending more than an hour or so in a day. But when you run a business and have a rambunctious 3-year old, there aren’t many hours in a day to work with. When all of my “Nicole time” was taken up with trying to get more followers, it really did have an impact. I was ignoring my body (it wanted to move!) my heart (it wanted to connect) and my mind (it wanted to read). And each night I’d slide into bed a little more tired and a little more hopeless about the mountain in front of me.
The worst part was how anxious and unsatisfied I felt. This really threw me because I’ve done a lot of work on self-worth. I make a point of not exposing myself to advertisement and staying out of the comparison trap. I’ve moved away from spaces and people who make me feel insecure and moved toward those that embrace me in all of my humanness. It’s sometimes strange to say it out loud, but I really like who I am and the work that I’m doing. I absolutely still make mistakes and know I have a lot to learn, but at the core I’m pretty solid.
Of course, it was no real surprise that when I was constantly exposed to this messaging, it got harder to scroll on by. I got caught up. But it was so not like me to feel this way that I had to take a second look and really think about what I was doing.
I know for some industries, having a strong platform and following might be important. I was definitely feeling the pressure of getting thousands of followers, but did I need thousands of followers? Honestly, for me at that point, no. I have a full practice and a strong local community. So why was I feeling like what I was doing wasn’t enough? I blame hustle culture.
Hustle culture goes beyond simply reaching your target audience. It pushes us to always be doing more, striving for higher numbers, and never feel satisfied with where things are. It had me tying my self worth into the number of likes I got and that’s a losing game.
Hustle culture seems to operate out of a scarcity model. In other words, there’s this sense that there’s not enough to go around, and so if you’re going to be successful, you need to “hustle hard” to get it. This, from my perspective, encourages three problematic things:
1. feeling like nothing you do is enough;
2. acting overconfident; and
3. using pressure sales
Feeling Like Nothing You Do is Enough
I’ve already talked about not feeling like I could do enough. It was a totally unsatisfying way of being. I was completely disconnected from gratitude, and I wasn’t doing the things that would actually nourish me on a deeper level. I had to give up the anticipation of one more follower and invest in the things that actually made me feel good, in a real way.
As for acting overconfident, I see this a lot in my field. New therapists can be all too eager to prove their worth and build their practices. They end up volunteering for complex cases and a broad range of issues that may not truthfully be in their scope. The more I work in this field, the more I realize the importance of knowing our own limitations. I may want to help and be keen to learn, but that’s not the same as having the relevant training and years of experience that more complex cases truly require. It’s not the same as having the time and energy to give to each person. I now know that I’m not always the best option for each client, and that’s part of recognizing my scope as a Psychologist. I don’t say this to be humble – I say it because I’ve learned.
Using Pressure Sales
As a helping professional in a position of power, it’s important to me not to use pressure sales or convince people that they need to work with me. I’m one option, but I’m not the only one, and I believe part of truly informed consent needs to involve being clear about what we’re offering and the limitations of it, rather than trying to overhype ourselves or act as if there aren’t similar services out there. I believe in being really cautious about the influence I’m having on people and being very mindful about my use of power. I'm here to provide a safe, confidential place for the people who want to work with me. I’m not here to tell people what the right path for them is.
The more I thought about it, the further away from hustle culture I wanted to get. I have some clients who are entrepreneurs and I’d never tell them to hustle hard. And as clients accessing my services, I’d certainly never want them to feel hustled. So why are we uplifting hustle culture as if it’s something to strive for?
I found an alternative that worked for me. I started with embracing slow growth and being satisfied with “good enough”. I also had to situate myself back in the abundance model – the belief that there are enough clients to go around for everyone. The abundance model helps remind us that we don't need to trample over our own boundaries or convince others that they need our services. Rather than hustling to compete and prove our worth, we can work to collaborate, build community, and do good work that speaks for itself.
I also had to surround myself with more people who feel the way I do to help remind myself of this. I surrounded myself with others who believe in a feminist approach to marketing, which I think is much more relational and community-minded. Natalia Amari reminded me of this and I owe her a debt for that.
Oh and did I gain 10,000 followers in this process of figuring all this out? No, I didn’t. But I’m less caught up in feeling like that has to happen now or I’m a total failure. I’ve re-embraced slow growth and I’ve started to feel more grounded in the work I’m putting out there as a therapist and writer. That feels like something to be proud of.
My good friend Lily recently did an episode on "mom pressures" for her podcast (the fantastic Lady Sh!t with Lily and Britt). She asked me to write a few things about the pressures moms face, and I accidentally wrote her a novel about it. Here's what I came up with one evening.
Most people who have seen me in the last few years know how much I rely on self-compassion - in my own life and in my life as a clinician. I've seen so many amazing people struggle with never feeling good enough and self-compassion is the foundation I return to again and again.
How often in a day do you catch yourself in "shoulds"?
Maybe it’s about a goal you’re trying to reach - “I should be further ahead with this project”. Or about something you’ve been told is important - “I really should work out more”. Perhaps it’s about a past mistake - “I should have known better”.
Did you ever wonder “whose voice is that?”
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.
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