Many people who first come in for therapy are either a) deep into shame territory, or b) deep into denial about being ashamed. I know this because I have been in both of those states at one time or another in my life. And here’s the thing about shame: it feeds on secrecy and isolation, which, incidentally, is another element of what most people are dealing with when they come in for therapy.
Whether you’re depressed and barely getting out of bed to go to work every day, or you’re gripped by anxiety, or you’re grieving the loss of something, the easiest course of action (at least at first) is to keep it secret. The secret lets you feel secure, safe, put together on the outside. But since you know exactly what’s going on, keeping all that stuff a secret just makes you feel like a fraud. And the more fraudulent you feel, the greater your sense of shame.
Now, I’m not saying that you have to shout your issues from every rooftop. There are many people with whom your struggles and challenges shouldn’t be shared because it simply isn’t safe. Those people will take advantage of you and even abuse you if you share your difficulties with them. But I am saying that when you’re dealing with something like depression or anxiety, you must have someone to whom you can go, share your struggles, and experience pure acceptance in return – no judgment, no moralizing. Just real love and human presence.
Love and acceptance are to shame what bleach is to germs – it has a powerful eradicating capability. And that’s why therapy can be so very helpful. A good therapist is going to give you that very love and acceptance that you need in order to begin dismantling the shame that has kept you hiding in secrecy for who knows how long.
But here’s the deal. Even if you have a stupendous therapist who really gets the whole love and acceptance thing–who really thinks shame sucks as much as I do–you’ve got to figure out a way to give yourself the same kind of unconditional love and acceptance. A therapist can help you get a first taste of true acceptance, but eventually you’ve got to pick up the spoon and start feeding yourself.
It doesn’t matter how many people around you love and accept you (although, the more the merrier). If you can’t give yourself the same thing, shame will always have a place to stay in your life. It may live in smaller and smaller quarters, but it won’t go away until you find a way to see yourself as eminently worthy of love and acceptance – so much so, that you can love yourself even when you screw up, even when you’re not at your best, even when you wish you were somebody else. It’s in those moments that the power of loving yourself can kick shame to the curb and give you the freedom to be fully you – a person trying to do better, get better, and be better every single day.