Ten Steps to Transforming Shame and Building Self-Esteem
Rabbi Dov Heller, LMFT
Shame is the emotional experience underlying low self-esteem. It’s that awful feeling generated by perceiving one’s self as bad, defective, incompetent, unattractive. Everyone experiences shame from time to time. I meet someone I know and call them by the wrong name. “Oy, I can’t believe I’m so stupid,” I tell myself. The shame stings for a while but I move on with my day.
But some people are not able to move on from such an experience so quickly. They obsess about their mistakes, beating themselves up without respite. Such people suffer from what is often called, “toxic shame.” Toxic shame is perhaps the biggest psychological problem of our generation and it’s the greatest obstacle to emotional well-being and spiritual growth.
Toxic shame is destructive in six ways:
- It leads to self-hate, depression, hopelessness, and addictions. People often turn to drugs to numb the unbearable pain of shame and self-hate.
- It leads to perfectionism and grandiosity.
- It leads to jealousy and comparing oneself to others which results in a loss of independence, personal agency, and self-directedness.
- It leads to panic, fear, and anxiety as one desperately tries to salvage his damaged self-worth which is living in a self-preservation mode.
- It leads to being terrified of emotional intimacy because of one’s fear of being vulnerable and being “seen.”
- It leads to perceiving God as punitive, living in fear of punishment by a God they can never please.
Toxic shame is usually the result of some kind of childhood trauma involving constant criticism, punitive discipline, lack of attunement to feelings and needs, narcissism, cruelty, being compared to siblings, verbal abuse, unfair treatment, deprivation, and more.
As bleak as this may sound, there is hope. In fact, I guarantee that anyone who recognizes their suffering and wants to find true relief can do so with the proper psychological and spiritual guidance.
Identify something you constantly beat yourself up for and use these ten steps to begin a process of transforming your shame into self-esteem.
- Face the truth. First of all this means feeling your shame and taking full ownership of it no matter how uncomfortable it is to do so. Secondly, acknowledge how much you are suffering because of this crushing shame. Exercise: Say, “Today I have decided that it is no longer acceptable to live a life of suffering and self-torture.”
- Recognize that this flaw, limitation, mistake, habit, sin does not define you. Try to understand that you are not this flaw. You are a human being who has this flaw. Exercise: Say, “Starting today, I refuse to let myself be defined by this flaw.”
- Recognize that God does not expect you to be perfect and that He fully embraces and accepts you with this imperfection. God gave us a commandment to correct our mistakes (teshuvah, repentance) because He loves us and knows we will constantly fail and fall short. God loves our humanness. Free yourself from the need to be perfect. God has plenty of beautiful angels. What he needs is real human beings. Question: If God fully accepts me and loves me with this flaw, why can’t I accept myself with this imperfection? Exercise: Say, “The truth is I am a messy human being and it’s great to be human!”
- Recognize that the true purpose of life is to grow, not to be perfect. The Jewish refrain for life is “progress not perfection.” When we live with a success-focus, we will always feel discouraged and depressed. When we live with a process-focus, we will feel alive and joyful. Question: Can you see this flaw as an opportunity for self-improvement and not more evidence that confirms you’re bad?
- Recognize that we can only grow from the place of our present struggle. This requires self-understanding and above all, self-honesty. Authentic growth is about taking one small step at a time. We can never make big leaps. People who struggle with shame tend to aim too high and as a result crash and feel even worse about themselves. Exercise: Identify the point where your real struggle is with this issue and make a plan for how to move to the next step only.
- Recognize that it is essential to learn to be patient with yourself, to have self-compassion, and to be kind to yourself. Being patient means accepting that it is hard to be a human being. There are not quick fixes or magical solutions to our struggles. It means accepting that growing is slow, frustrating, and at times imperceptible. Exercise: When you make a mistake, fail, or fall short say, “I’m not bad. I’m human and it’s ok to make mistakes and be imperfect.”
- Recognize that it is essential to know how to manage social pressure. The society we live in defines what success and failure, winning and losing is in both the secular and religious worlds. These definitions of success and winning can be crushing and discouraging for the majority of people who will never win the “gold medal.” One of a human being’s greatest fears is to be a failure. When we measure ourselves by society’s standards of success and failure, we most always will fall short and end up feeling like a failure. Question: How does society’s expectations and pressures make it hard for me to accept myself with this imperfection?
- Recognize that it is essential to formulate your own definition of success and failure that will protect you against social pressure and guarantee that although you may fail, you will never feel like a failure. Exercise: Formulate your own definition of success that will insure that you feel like a winner even as you fail and fall short.
- Recognize that you are a unique person with special strengths and creative powers and that you have a unique contribution to make in the world. The purpose of life is to discover your gift and then give it away. Shame is ultimately transformed when we identify and take ownership of our unique mission. A person who is making his or her unique contribution to the world will surely feel proud and good about herself. Exercise: Clarify what you most enjoy doing that also has a positive impact on others and the world.
- Recognize that you are on a journey towards being free of shame. Never be afraid if you get stuck to reach out for help. As the Talmud says, “The prisoner cannot free himself from the prison.” And above all, never forget to reach out to the One who ultimately cares about your success and happiness. He is always there to help you.
These ten steps need to be reviewed over and over and practiced daily. This process of transforming shame takes work. But I fully believe that if you have decided you can no longer live in “shame prison” any longer, you will find the key to set you free. And when you finally learn how to be and to embody being an imperfect human being, free of self-hate, you will experience the true sweetness of being alive.