Your system holds a lot of shame. There is shame about who you are as a person. You feel that you do not belong and are unloveable. You have been rejected by others. There’s no way you’ll put yourself out there again. You carry shame about earlier decisions. Because you acted this way, you feel raw and exposed. There is a constant sense of dread that reminds you, “Never again will I make that mistake.” You hold a lot of shame about failures. You’ve messed up, said the wrong thing, wrote the wrong answer. Your stomach goes in knots just thinking about it. You feel ashamed about inaction. It repeats incessantly that you should have done something, acted differently, or reacted faster. You feel ashamed about who you are as a parent. You keep thinking your kids would do better with someone else. When all of this is hurtling towards you, how do you overcome shame?
Dealing with Shame
It’s hard to acknowledge our shame. We worry that others will judge and reject us for our deepest insecurities, so we don’t speak up. Because shame is so uncomfortable, we tend to push it away. We avoid addressing it, only to have it repeatedly show up. We feel awful, alone, and hopeless in this pattern.
Thanks to Brené Brown, most of us have are familiar with the benefits of addressing shame and vulnerability. In theory, we know one of the best ways out of shame is to be nice to ourselves and accept that we are imperfect human beings. Dealing with shame involves validation, self-compassion and seeking connection with others. That’s the simpler answer. The more complicated answer involves addressing all of the parts of us that block this work. To overcome shame, we have to deal with many other internal layers (e.g. our inner critics, our avoidant parts, our self-hatred, our panic, and other struggling emotions).
Getting to know our parts:
Internal Family Systems therapy recognizes that our mind is compartmentalized into protective categories or “parts”. There are three different parts inside of us: Managers, Firefighters and Exiles. In order to overcome shame, we need to understand how these parts play a unique role in improving and delaying our healing.
During traumatic and painful events, our minds suffer. We struggle to get through these horrible events. As time goes on, we start to carry negative beliefs about ourselves based on what we experienced. We suddenly feel we are insignificant, weak, unattractive, incompetent and don’t belong. These wounded parts of our personality are what IFS refers to as “exiles.” Exiles absorb the impact of traumatic and difficult events. Exiled parts carry our vulnerable emotions and beliefs. They learn to feel ashamed of themselves, that there is something fundamentally bad and flawed about them. Shame is not an innate feeling. We are not born feeling ashamed of ourselves. It is something we’ve learned based on our environment and experiences.
Sitting with our shameful exiles can feel unbearable, so we form some protection. We do whatever we can to prevent these parts from becoming triggered. We do whatever we can to shut them down quickly if they are triggered.
“Managers” are the first layer of protection. These parts help us stay safe by doing whatever is possible to stop our exiled parts from getting triggered. For example, if your exiles believe that you are unattractive, your manager parts may pester you to work out daily or wear makeup. If your exiles cannot trust your own judgement, then you may have manager parts that constantly seek reassurance from others. Worried about being stupid? Your manager parts prevent you from every trying or moving up the career path so your intelligence will never be assessed.
Manager parts focus on preventing us from feeling hurt, wounded, ashamed, or any other exiled emotion. They do this by pushing us, criticizing us, reminding us to keep going, doing more and never becoming vulnerable again.
The second layer of protection is referred to as “firefighters.” When our exiled parts are freaking out inside, our firefighters know it’s important to contain that flame. So they react. They work on quick fixes to settle the fire down. They use distractions and various forms of self-soothing when our system gets triggered. For example: someone calls you unattractive, your firefighters seek comfort in a nice bottle or three of wine. You realize you made a mistake at work, your firefighter parts draw attention away by yelling at other colleagues. Your exiled part is triggered for overeating, your firefighters compensate by purging and over-exercise. Firefighter parts are aware that the pain has come up, and they focus on getting rid of that pain as quickly as possible through any means possible.
Shame Starts Young
When we are young, we long to be loved and accepted. We want to belong and feel significant. When our parents meet these needs, we’ve struck gold. Our system can relax when we make mistakes. We don’t personalize it, and we move on fairly quickly.
For those of us who have not “struck gold”, our system gets hijacked following a mistake. We fear reproach, criticism, disappointment, anger, or any form of negative feedback from our caregivers. As kids, we don’t have a whole lot of resources, so we internalize these messages. We start to believe that there is something wrong with us: We are a screw up, we are incompetent, we do not deserve good things. This moment creates our exiled parts.
How our parts become intertwined in the shame pattern
Despite knowing that we will continue to be hurt and rejected, we can’t help but reach out to our caregivers. What other choice do we have at a young age? Our exiled parts are always looking for a better ending. They want redemption. They want our parents to somehow stop their patterns of anger and criticism, and instead, turn to us with love and warmth.
Our manager parts are also paying attention to these attempts. Our managers learn what is and is not effective in keeping your exiled parts from getting in trouble and feeling ashamed. They are aware of what pisses off your parents, and triggers your exiles to feel ashamed once again. For example, if you know that being slim and attractive gets your mom’s approval, your managers will continue to berate you to go to the gym and start another diet. Ironically, these managers shame us for making the wrong choices in order to get us to learn. You don’t need your mom to continue to shame you, your manager parts will repeat her words for you.
Unfortunately, our exiled parts keep trying. Your mother may present as biting and cold, but this doesn’t stop your exiled part. You continue to invite her to outings, provide thoughtful mother’s day gifts and call every Sunday. When you are hurt and rejected by her lack of interest, your firefighters come in trying to extinguish the pain. They encourage you to drink, hook up with a random person, lash out at your partner, or any other means in hopes of releasing this shame. And, once again, our managers (e.g. that harsh inner critic) attack for making poor decisions.
Working with our protective parts to overcome shame
Forgive me for using a Shrek reference here. IFS reminds me of Shrek’s comments that ogres are like onions: we all have layers. There are layers and layers of protection we use to keep our exiled parts safe. We can’t deal with shame if we do not address the managers and firefighters that maintain our shame cycle. As Donkey wisely reminds Shrek: “”You’re so wrapped up in layers, onion boy, you’re afraid of your own feelings!” We get so caught in protecting ourselves, we get scared to actually help our exiled parts.
To overcome shame, we have to first work with our protective parts. It’s hard to show love and self-compassion if a harsh critical voice keeps dismissing your kindness. You may have difficulty forgiving yourself if a firefighter part continues to binge drink. Shame rarely works alone; it always come with protection. So to overcome shame, we have to work with your entire system. We have to gain trust and permission from these protective parts to give you some space so that you can work with your exiles.
Internal Family Systems Therapy and your shame
In therapy, I focus on creating a safe space for your entire system to show up. This includes all the parts of you that are eager to get started, as well as the parts of you that dread working on these issues. This is normal. When we have experienced shame or been shamed by others, our system launches into a protective stance. It’s braced for rejection and judgement, even in the context of a safe therapy setting. It’s important to take the time to build that therapeutic trust before launching in to your most vulnerable concerns.
Shame deserves self-compassion, belonging and validation. Healing comes from witnessing these painful moments, learning to see the safety in today, and trust in your own capacity to handle things differently. The resources you had back then are not what you have available today. Your exiles and protective layers aren’t always aware of that. They often see you still stuck in that place of trauma, and react accordingly.
If you are struggling with shame, and would like to work with your internal system, reach out. Schedule a free consult to see if this is a good fit for you.
All the best,