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Mindfully Letting Go of Shame

“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.” 

― Pema Chodron

By Leo Babauta

I was talking with a friend yesterday who is going through a very hard time, and of all the emotions that have come up for them during this struggle (anger, despair, etc.), shame has been the most challenging emotion of all.

We all feel shame, and it’s perfectly OK to feel it. There’s nothing wrong with us if we feel shame — it’s a very human emotion.

But it isn’t very helpful in most situations, and so we can bring mindfulness to bear on the shame. And practice letting it go.

Before we can let go, it’s worthwhile to mindfully work with our shame.

What Shame Shows Us

When I said shame isn’t very helpful, I didn’t tell the full truth — actually, it’s very useful, in showing us what we think about ourselves.

When we feel shame, it usually is because we’ve done something that we think says something shameful about us. And so it shows us where we believe there is something wrong about us, something inadequate, ugly, unworthy of love.

Of course, that belief is not true. But in order to let go of that ingrained belief, we have to see it first. Shame shows us where that belief lies hidden.

I’ll give some examples from my own life:

In the end, the core belief is that we are inadequate and unworthy of being loved. But the reason we believe those is that we believe we haven’t lived up to some expectation: being successful, being lean, being disciplined, being generous, being a contributor to society, being environmentally conscious, etc. The expectations are in our minds, but they were given to us by society’s messaging, since birth. These expectations and beliefs are not so solid as we believe. Once we can see them, we can bring mindfulness practices to work with them.

Mindfully Working with the Beliefs That Cause Shame

It can be helpful to write down the beliefs that are causing us to feel shame, or to speak them aloud (perhaps to another person, like a trusted friend or therapist). Getting them out of our heads helps us to get clear on them. And sometimes saying them out loud can make them feel a little silly. I’ve found that true for myself — saying a belief out loud to another person takes away some of its power, maybe shows me how hard I am on myself.

So once we’ve said it out loud or written it down, let’s look at how to bring mindfulness practices into the equation:

If you practice in this way, you might start to loosen your beliefs that cause shame, and let yourself feel trust in your basic goodness and worthiness of love. And if you do that, the shame might start to drift away, not needed any longer. What would you be left with if you didn’t have the shame?