Even if you’ve learned to be painfully hard on yourself, you can melt your shame with awareness and presence.
If you’ve ever told yourself you were “too sensitive,” you know how painful that is. To reject a trait you were born with is to reject your very being. Unfortunately, our Western culture glorifies an extrovert ideal: the dominant, outgoing, charismatic, “man (or woman) of action.” It is not particularly friendly to highly sensitive people.
If you’ve absorbed these cultural messages (and who hasn’t?), and even more if you know very little about your HSP trait, you’ve probably learned to deny or disparage your sensitivity. I’ve written here about my colleague Jacquelyn Strickland’s five stages of cultural awareness for HSPs. The first two stages of Jacquelyn’s model are, in fact, “deny” and “disparage.”
In Stages One and Two, the shame you feel can be overwhelming. For HSPs, emotional intensity and overarousal go hand in hand. If you chronically feel shame, you will also experience chronic overarousal.
No one, sensitive or not, functions optimally when overaroused, so you can fall into a vicious cycle. The more your overarousal increases, the more your functioning suffers, and the more you feel ashamed.
Fortunately, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. It begins with self-awareness. Noticing you are denying your sensitivity or disparaging it is the first step. Once you’ve become aware of your inner dialogue, you can begin to create a kinder inner relationship with yourself.
Do you need a new “interior decorator?”
It sounds simple to notice how you are treating yourself internally. However, this kind of noticing can be tricky. Self-criticism can be surprisingly subtle, becoming “part of the wallpaper” of your mind. You rarely look closely at it, yet it affects the whole mood of the room.
If you chronically feel bad, it’s time to take a good look at your mental wallpaper. You can start by noticing any thoughts about yourself that you are aware of, and writing them down. Don’t edit. If you are shocked by your meanness towards yourself, remember that awareness is the essential first step towards change.
However, your self-criticism and self-judgment may not be obvious to you. When you have thoroughly absorbed a belief about yourself, it’s as if you’ve put on a pair of contact lenses. You now live in a world where that belief is “just how things are.”
In this case, it won’t feel accurate to you to say, “I’m telling myself I’m way too sensitive.” Instead, you simply feel you are way too sensitive. This belief that your essential being is flawed is the core of shame.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
When you are wearing “shame lenses,” your mistakes, challenges, and conflicts appear to be the inevitable result of your flawed, damaged, deficient nature. Why would we do this? Why would we choose to believe something is wrong with us?
I say “choose,” because believe it or not, this is a choice, though not a conscious one. Our shaming self-view is an old coping mechanism. If you did not feel accepted as a kid, you needed a way to make sense of that. You needed a way to cope with the pain of not being accepted. You felt powerless, and you needed a way to take back some kind of power.
Self-shaming is an excruciating but brilliantly effective tool to accomplish those three objectives. You told yourself, “I am not accepted because I am not acceptable. I am flawed, damaged and deficient.”
This strategy may have been emotionally unsustainable, but it gave you something to work for: if you could fix yourself, everything would be OK. This self-disparaging part of you has faithfully persevered in an effort to help you be “better,” and therefore lovable.
No wonder many HSPs struggle with perfectionism. If you believe being perfect will take away the pain, you can maintain a sense of purpose even under painful circumstances. In addition, the constant vigilance required to monitor yourself for imperfections distracts you from the underlying pain of not feeling accepted.
The antidote: Inner Relationship Focusing
To let go of perfectionism and self-disparagement you need self-acceptance. This sounds like a paradox: how can you accept and “be with” yourself when you believe you don’t deserve to be accepted? How do you remove your “something is wrong with me” contact lenses?
You do that by accessing the bigger “you” that can be with ALL that. You need a perspective big enough to hold all this with compassion. Inner Relationship Focusing, the powerful work of Barbara McGavin and Ann Weiser Cornell gives you a powerful way to find this bigger “you” and to transform your inner world through radical acceptance. Here are four steps you can use to get started.
Step 1: Notice how you feel
First, acknowledge exactly what is happening now. Simply observe and describe:
Hmm, wow, I feel kind of—off?…yeah, kind of low….yes, that’s it…it started during that call with Kevin.
If you’re not sure how you feel, you can say to yourself,
I feel great right now. Everything is great.
Then sense if that feels true. If there is any way in which it is not true, acknowledge that.
Step 2: Describe what is here
As you stay with the “off” feeling from that phone call with Kevin, begin to describe more specifically how and where you feel “off.” Let’s say you sense that your stomach feels not-right. Describe what you feel, like this:
I’m sensing something in my stomach that feels…hmmm… prickly…and jumpy…
Now there is a bigger “you” here, sensing the “something” in your stomach (or wherever you sense it): the “I” in “I’m sensing.” From this bigger place in yourself, you can go on to the third step:
Step 3: Actively offer acceptance to this feeling
You don’t have to change or fix the prickly jumpy feeling. Just be with it. You can say,
I’m sensing if it is OK to let this be just as it is, for as long as it needs to…
This simple, powerful act offers your inner world exactly what it needs: radical acceptance. If another part of you pops up that doesn’t want to let the first feeling be as it is, then go back to Step 1 with this new part: notice it, describe it, offer it space to be as it needs to be:
I’m noticing a voice popped right up and said, “No way! I hate it when my stomach feels like this!”…I’m letting it know I hear it…seeing if it’s OK to let it be as it is, for as long as it needs to…
Step 4: Adopt an attitude of wondering
Wonder and curiosity are key elements of Self in Presence, that bigger “You” that can be with anything that comes up:
Hmm…I wonder what wants to be felt or known here…
You wonder, and you wait—but without expectation. This kind of wondering is different from the mental, analytical kind: it means you allow yourself to wait, curious, in a state of not-knowing.
Here we have another paradox: you wonder and you are curious, but you do not have an agenda. While this is hard to describe in words, it has a distinct feel to it which you will learn to recognize.
Repeat as needed
Any time you feel ashamed, stressed, anxious, or depressed, or catch yourself thinking or saying self-disparaging things, go through these four steps. Each time you do this, you shine light on the thoughts and beliefs that comprise your inner “decor.”
As you offer the presence of your bigger Self to these suffering inner parts of you, they will gradually release their grip. They will no longer determine your worldview. You will be better able to see the many positive aspects of your sensitivity.
As your self-disparaging thoughts fade, you will naturally move up to the higher levels of HSP cultural awareness that Jacqueline Strickland describes: acknowledging, affirming, and eventually promoting your trait. You will feel less anxiety, overwhelm, and self-doubt, and more peace, happiness, and self-acceptance.
Where are you on the HSP cultural awareness journey? If shame is still a part of your wallpaper, remember that you can melt your shame—simply by being with it.
Thank you Kaitlyn (firstname.lastname@example.org) for the photo.
Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on January 25, 2016.