A Coaching Power Tool By Sara Kwon, Relationship Coach, UNITED STATES
How to Deal With Shame vs. Compassion
Humans are intrinsically in search of a connection with others, with common ground being foundational to any relationship. Common ground is significant whether it is meaningful and intimate such as family values or career goals, or superficial and fleeting such as fashion sense or the sports team that you are rooting for. Unfortunately, people often conflate the natural desire to build these connections with the need for approval, which perpetuates the belief that our acceptance is conditional.
Within this underlying belief, our emotions and behavior can be influenced even just by the potential of external judgment or disagreement. Our worthiness becomes vulnerable and fragile, hinging on the idea of conditional approval. This inevitably breeds a disempowering shame-fueled mindset because we cannot simultaneously practice self-love and authenticity and ensure that everyone always approves of us. Shame can hinder and entirely prevent our ability to exist to our most unique, purposeful, and fulfilled potential. Feeling shame is an inevitable experience, but it presents itself as a major barrier to growth when it is not processed mindfully.
While others may very well cast judgment and shame with malicious intent, it is our responsibility and right to manage our emotions and triggers – nobody can “make” you feel shame, it is an emotion that we apply to ourselves. Awareness creates choice, and when we understand this, we build greater emotional regulation and create a life of opportunity. In the case of shame, a productive and supportive perspective to integrate is self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a gentleness that we have the power to give ourselves in tough times and is a potent remedy for shame. It acknowledges the pain and suffering that we are experiencing, but diminishes shame’s power and encourages growth through a broader perspective of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness as identified by Dr. Kristin Neff, author, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. She states, “What distinguishes self-compassion is that it goes beyond accepting our experience as it is and adds something more—embracing the experience (i.e., ourselves) with warmth and tenderness when our experience is painful.” (September/October 2015). This compassionate perspective helps us to embrace and identify what we need at that moment to feel supported and move forward with deeper understanding and intention.
Coachingsparks reflection and awareness. The partnership has unlimited potential to support clients throughout the transformational process of adopting a more self-compassionate mindset.
Shame vs. Compassion Definition
Humans are imperfect; We will disagree and we will fail. Shame is the internalized message that “I am not good enough,” or “I am bad.”
Dr. Brené Brownshares the important distinction between shame and guilt in Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience:
Shame – I am bad. The focus is on self, not behavior. The result is feeling flawed and unworthy of love, belonging, and connection. Shame is not a driver of positive change. Guilt – I did something bad. The focus is on behavior. Guilt is the discomfort we feel when we evaluate what we’ve done or failed to do against our values. It can drive positive change and behavior.
In many ways, shame has been weaponized to coerce people into change. This has shown up in magazines dedicated to body shaming and diet culture to sell readers their solutions, public and private citizens bashing each other in a political tug-of-war, and even spouses’ critique of how the other enjoys spending their free time. It has become normalized to observe and engage in shaming behavior on a regular basis.
Shame is prevalent throughout all relationships within society, but can be most detrimental when experienced through the eyes of our closest relationships – the ones that we primarily rely on for our consistent experience of love, belonging, and connection. When we are rejected or judged within these relationships, our feelings of safety may be affected – Safety to be our true selves and safety in knowing that our value does not disintegrate if and when we make mistakes or disagree.
When shame induces the lie that we are broken and unworthy of love, our options of moving forward feel limited if not nonexistent. If we are convinced of this, we certainly do not feel that we are capable of success, and do not feel motivated toward growth. Instead, when we lean into shame the outcome is often stagnation, inauthentic behavior, resentment, and disconnection.
Dr. Kristin Neff’s three elements of self-compassion are self-kindness vs. self-judgment, common humanity vs. isolation, and mindfulness vs. over-identification.
Self-Kindness: Recognizing that hardship, failure, and struggle are inevitable in life and meeting these experiences with an understanding and gentle outlook rather than punishing or criticizing ourselves.
Common Humanity: Recognizing that “suffering and feeling inadequate is part of the shared human experience.” We are not alone.
Mindfulness: Observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment or overwhelmed reaction. It is also important to not suppress these feelings, as Neff notes, “We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.”
When we practice self-compassion, we create awareness around our internalized fundamental attribution errors, which is also known as correspondence bias or over-attribution effect. This is the tendency for people to attribute personality-based explanations for behaviors as opposed to a more holistic assessment of the situation. This unconscious cognitive bias is based on the assumption that “a person’s actions depend on what “kind” of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental force that influences the person”(Simply Psychology). This awareness expands our focus from “I am bad” to “I feel bad in this situation,” allowing us to view and discuss the circumstances from a more mindful, objective, and loving place.
As the FlipIt Method teaches, we have to be able to acknowledge and feel the disempowering feeling in order to have clarity around their perspective to then flip it. Dr. Brené Brown shares the atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience,
Shame thrives on secrecy, silence, and judgment.
Practicing self-compassion sheds light on our emotions, so we can “name the shame” while understanding that we are still worthy of love and kindness. This practice honors our worthiness to experience the full spectrum of life’s emotions – including shame – and build resilience to grow and take action that authentically suits our needs and desires.
Dr. Kristin Neff also shares the motivational, action-oriented power of fierce self-compassion in her book Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive. Beyond the reassuring comfort of tender self-compassion, humans have the potential for fierce self-compassion which involves protecting, providing for, and motivating ourselves which is the fundamental reason that clients come to be coached – To harness this motivation to move forward and do things differently.
Just as tenderness can be turned inward so that we nurture and care for ourselves, the fierce energy [of Momma Bear] can also be turned inward to stand up for ourselves. What’s essential is that like yin and yang, these two faces of self-compassion are balanced and integrated so that we can be whole. When both are present, it creates a caring force that can be used to transform ourselves and the world around us.
Shame vs. Self-Compassion in Relationship Coaching
The premise of coaching is the client’s desire to grow. As a coach, part of my role is to identify disempowering mindsets that may be inhibiting my client’s ability to grow. While shame may be a catalyst for change, is likely not authentic, effective, or lasting change, and acknowledging and practicing self-compassion will help my clients become more resilient when shame arises.
Connection cannot thrive in a culture that despises truth, empathy, and compassion. A culture that refuses to humanise those that don’t mirror the approved set of beliefs and opinions. Connection is more likely to happen as a result of honest, reality-based conversation and understanding – even when agreement is not the goal. Be wary of those that prefer you disconnected, angry, unstable, and reactive. Africa Brooke Developmental and Executive & Success Coach, consultant, and international speaker.
Shame can be pervasive and uniquely devastating in the lives of my target clients – individuals and couples who are seeking more meaningful and authentic romantic relationships. When we interact with others we are often faced with a mirror of our insecurities, fears, and judgments, that we may interpret as the way this important person sees us. And along with the beauty and fulfillment of romantic relationships inevitably come experiences of disharmony, rejection, and judgment.
To get rid of one’s problems, all one can do is live in the universe all alone.
Alfred Adler, Austrian psychiatrist and founder of Adlerian psychology, provides this cheeky response to interpersonal relationship problems which is highlighted in Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s The Courage to be Disliked. The reality is, that we do not live alone in the universe and it is a fundamental part of human nature to seek connection. When we do this, we are vulnerable to shame, hurt, and other complex experiences.
Exploring your emotions, values, and beliefs without the judgment of others at the forefront allows you to build clarity around and honor your truth. Through coaching, clients can create greater awareness around experiences of shame and create purposeful action plans along with sustainable structures to set themselves and their relationships up for success. Self-compassion builds self-worth, which leads to authentically aligned behavior and connections.
As we embody our personal authenticity and in turn nurture more authentic connections, we increase our sense of trust and safety around shame with our current partner and/or within the relationship(s) we are pursuing. The clarity that comes from compassion empowers us to address important feelings or situations, prioritize what we truly want in our own lives and with our partners, and communicate effectively and respectfully.
Coaching Shame vs. Self-Compassion
It will be important as a coach to notice when shame may be present because as previously shared, shame thrives in secrecy and silence. This means the client, even if they have awareness around it, may not be forthright about the shame they are experiencing.
Signs for a coach to look out for may include:
- A fixation on the external and what people think of them.
- A sense of uncertainty or inability to establish clarity around what they truly want.
- Hearing the words “I should…” – Either shared frequently or with noticeable significance.
- Hearing an experience or feeling of rejection, judgment, or unworthiness.
- Hesitancy to explore emotions
- Emotional sensitivity/heightened emotion
- Fundamental attribution errors
It is important to approach shame thoughtfully. The depth of these rooted feelings is often much greater than we can tell from the surface. This highlights the importance of the coach to create a safe environment, where challenging topics and feelings may be explored but always with the client’s trust in the coach’s objectivity and empathy.
A thoughtful place to start is simply sharing observations and/or asking the client about how they are physically feeling when they are discussing – or showing hesitancy around discussing – shame. Questions may include:
- What, if any, physical sensations come up for you as you discuss this?
- How does your body feel when you experience shame?
- I am noticing that you are talking quietly [now after sharing that you were not invited to your friend’s wedding]; What comes up when I share this with you?
- I am noticing you holding your head in your hands [as you share about your recently closed business]; How are you physically feeling at this moment?
Through grounding into their physical body, the coach offers the client the opportunity to build what Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. and author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma calls “moment-to-moment self-awareness” which is an awareness that is registered in the present moment. This allows clients to identify and communicate their visceral experiences and softly opens the door for deeper reflection.
This awareness sets the foundation for “naming the shame” and creating mindfulness around the experience. Questions may include:
- What do you feel might trigger this shame?
- What emotion or emotions do you associate with this physical feeling?
- What about this situation makes you feel shame?
- How does it feel, mentally, physically, and emotionally when you share these thoughts/feelings?
As the client continues to explore, the coach inquires and/or offers a new perspective. Questions may include:
- How would you like to feel about yourself in this situation?
- What would feel compassionate (or kind) for you to say to yourself right now?
- What would self-compassion look and feel like for you?
- What might you gain from a self-compassionate mindset?
- What might be different if you took a more compassionate approach?
- What advice would you give to a friend in this situation?
- This opens the perspective that others have most certainly felt similarly– Taking the focus off of the self and seeing shame as a collective experience.
- How might you be able to use this awareness around shame and self-compassion to move forward?
As the coaching takes place, the client explores what van der Kolk calls the “autobiographical self,” meaning self-awareness that is tracked over time and “creates connections among experiences and assembles them into a coherent story.” The perspective shift from shame to self-compassion creates a new narrative – a new story for the client to mindfully embody about how they feel, what they want, and what is possible for the future.
Cultivating strong self-compassion in the face of shame is a lifelong practice. However, as with any true change, the more clients practice it the more engrained and effective it often becomes. The experience of shame will be shorter-lived, will cut less deep, and will be more easily mitigated with the quick implementation of this empowering compassionate mindset for oneself and others. Within relationships this means that arguments may be avoided, communication will be clearer, and support will be more easily shared, which will be building a greater sense of trust, safety, and authentic connection.
Neff, Kristin. “The 5 Myths of Self-Compassion. What Keeps Us from Being Kinder to Ourselves?” Psychotherapy Network, September/October 2015.
Brown, Brené. Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience.Penguin Random House, 2021.
Neff, Kristin. https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/
McLeod, S. A. (2018, Oct, 31). Fundamental attribution error. Simply Psychology. simplypsychology.org/fundamental-attribution.html
Neff, Kristin.Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive. HarperCollins Publishers, 2021.
van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books, 2015.