by Kate Scolatti, LMFT | Jul 18, 2022 | General, Self Acceptance, Self Worth, Self-Esteem
As therapists, we hear from people in all walks of life. Every client is different and comes to therapy with varied experiences, but one thing remains true; most people hold shame for things they don’t need to. When we feel shame, our brains will often make us think that we’re the only one who could think or feel this way, or that only terrible people would be. Aside from being a horrifically uncomfortable emotion, intense shame is detrimental to our overall mental health, relationships, and long-term self-esteem.
While this is nowhere near a comprehensive list, below is a list of things I often hear in therapy, that are entirely normal. If you’ve ever had these thoughts, you are far from alone!
“When ____ died, I felt relieved”
What shame tells you this means: I must be a terrible person to feel a positive emotion after a death. Did I wish this upon them?
What it actually means: You’re a human capable of compassion fatigue, empathy for an end to suffering, potential safety benefits to yourself or others, awareness of resource strain, etc. Grief is always complex and there are typically many conflicting emotions that can include relief.
“I lied/cheated/stole in my past”
What shame tells you this means: “I am a liar, cheater, criminal.”
What it actually means: Many people hold shame for very minor mistakes or choices from their past. Barring violent or aggressive actions, most of the time there is a reason for these choices, that once understood, lets in compassion instead of shame.
“I _____ to cope”
What shame thinks this means: I can’t deal with the stress of my life.
What it actually means: Substances, “nervous habits”, and impulse spending are just some of the behaviors people often feel significant shame for engaging in when they are feeling difficult emotions. If your behaviors are causing you harm or aren’t working to reduce your distress as you hoped, all that means is that they aren’t quite the right option for you. There is never shame in trying to feel better, there are only things that serve you and things that don’t.
“I have intrusive thoughts about ________”
What shame tells you this means: “My brain is out of control, I’m disgusting/disturbed for thinking that way”
What it actually means: You have a normal brain, working exactly how a normal brain should. Intrusive thoughts are so common, that it’s more uncommon to be someone who hasn’t experienced an intrusive thought. To be frank, I’ve never met someone who hasn’t experienced intrusive thoughts, only people who felt strong emotion after them, and people who brushed them off and forgot about them. Having intrusive thoughts (even ones that feel totally out of character!) says nothing about who you are. If these thoughts are causing you intense distress it is certainly worth discussing with a mental health provider, but even then, there is no shame in experiencing them.
by Ericka | May 8, 2021 | Depression, Self Acceptance, Self Worth
If you believe you are “worthless,” it can bring on crushing feelings of depression and shame. But worthlessness doesn’t only impact how you feel. It also profoundly impacts what you do next. When you believe you are “worthless,” you might:
- Not ask for help
- Silence your voice
- Say ‘yes’ when you’d prefer to say ‘no’ (or vice versa)
- Deny your own needs
- Stick it out in a toxic workplace or relationship
- Stop trying
- Quit things that matter most to you
- Isolate from friends or family
- Spend money on others but not yourself
- Behave recklessly
- Cover up, conceal, or hide
The trouble is, the more you behave as if you are worthless, the more shame you feel, the more you believe you are worthless. This perpetuates more of the same stuck behavior. It’s a vicious circle.
DISCLAIMER: Before we dive in too deep, as detailed in my post “Why I Think ‘Worthless’ Isn’t a Feeling AND Why that Matters,” I see “worthless” as a judgment NOT a feeling. Worthlessness is a malleable belief system that can be changed as you alter thinking, change behavior (the focus of this article), and heal from past hurts or traumas.
CHALLENGE: Imagine for a moment that a miracle took place while you were sleeping and you wake up in the morning fully believing that you are a person of infinite worth. Really stick with the image for a few minutes even if it’s difficult. Grab a piece of paper and jot down your ideas about how you interact with your day differently if you were to see yourself as WHOLE and WORTHY.
Depending on how deeply the belief of worthlessness has taken hold, perhaps behaving as if you are a person of worth starts with taking care of basic tasks of living, such as:
- Rolling out of bed (maybe rolling on to the floor if that’s what gets you started)
- Getting dressed in clean clothes
- Taking a shower
- Brushing your teeth
- Checking the mail
- Scheduling that doctor’s appointment or dentist appointment you’ve delayed
- Getting in to see a counselor or psychiatric medication prescriber
If your beliefs about worthlessness have impacted your relationships, behaving as if you were a person of worth might look like:
- Reaching out to friends or family you find trustworthy
- Practicing vulnerability (again, with those you find trustworthy)
- Accepting an invitation (or declining an invitation if your experience of worthlessness involves co-dependent people-pleasing)
- Putting yourself out there to make a new connection
- Raising your standards for friendship or dating
- Setting boundaries with someone causing you harm
- Speaking up about something you’re needing
If beliefs about worthlessness have impacted you at work or school, behaving as if you are worthy might involve:
- Requesting accommodations
- Applying for that promotion or job change you’ve been too scared to try, even if it doesn’t work out; as a student, perhaps trying out for the school play or a position on a team (regardless of outcome)
- Going back to school later in life
- Asking for help or more training
- Giving yourself a break to prevent burnout
- Making a change to your schedule to accommodate what you’re really needing
- Living like Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena”(however that translates for you)
If body image struggles have been a source of worthless thoughts, perhaps behaving as if you are fully worthy involves:
- Buying clothes that fit your body comfortably at its current size
- Nourishing yourself with consistent food intake throughout the day
- Moving your body in ways that feel joyful but not self-punishing
- Not letting your body hold you back from living your life (ex. Going swimming, traveling, dating)
- Asking your doctor not to weigh you unless it’s (truly) needed medically
- Respecting your body with your thoughts (get your inner bully in check)
- Reading the book “Body Respect” by Lindo Bacon for even more ideas
These are all only examples. You will customize your behavioral REBELLION against worthless beliefs based on how worthlessness impacts you.
ASK: What action does worthlessness want you to do? You can either obey or disobey. Real change happens when you begin to DISOBEY.
In Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy (DBT), there is a skill called “Opposite Action” that helps shift negative beliefs with different (opposite) behavior. Here’s a video where you can learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkxOICjG2is
The big idea is this– If acted as if you are a person of worth EVEN BEFORE YOU BELIEVE IT’S TRUE– you can impact how you feel about yourself positively. Sometimes Action comes before Belief. Sometimes Action comes before you Feel any differently.
As mentioned above, many folks that experience worthless beliefs have trauma experiences that have contributed to low self-worth. If you’re curious about the impact of past experiences on worthless beliefs, ask yourself..
- When did you first start to believe you are “worthless?” Did someone in your life send you this message– directly or indirectly?
- Did you have experiences of emotional neglect that taught you that your feelings or needs weren’t valuable?
- Did you experience physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse at anytime in childhood or adulthood?
- Did you experience other Adverse Childhood Experiences(ACES)?
Let’s not pretend that any of this work is easy, especially if you are feeling depressed! That’s why many people get support from a professional therapist when doing this work. Don’t hesitate to reach out for support. You’re worth it!
by Ericka | Jan 14, 2020 | Depression, Self Acceptance, Self Worth
Have you ever been so dejected or depressed that you began to question your worth as a person? What triggered that moment for you? Was it:
- A rejection, break-up, or abandonment?
- A harsh word or critique that hit like an arrow in the heart?
- A failure to live up to your own expectations?
- Feeling in over your head, burned out, or unable to perform?
- Something else?
As counselors, we often hear clients describe their feeling during these moments as “worthless.” It’s as if some lack of performing, achieving, belonging, or approval could strip away a person’s value as a human, leaving them with a sense of emptiness.
Do you have a sense of self-worth that goes up and down? A conditional self-worth that is dependant on being liked or on your achievements? As you’ve perhaps experienced, having a conditional self-worth can be risky:
- Perhaps you overwork, overachieve, and compulsively climb ladders trying to prove yourself. Do ever really reach the finish line or are you stuck on a hamster wheel constantly striving? Does that cost you time with your family or friends? If a setback occurs, do you name yourself “failure” and pay a cost with anxiety, depression, or a suicidal urge?
- Perhaps you base self-worth on the condition of others’ approval (which can go up or down). Do you have a good or bad day depending on if someone else’s reactions to you? Does that ever lead you to over-committing or people-pleasing? Do you hold back, minimizing your voice in relationships? If a subtle rejection occurs, do you notice yourself having a big emotional response?
Perfectionism is the embodiment of achievement-oriented or approval-oriented self worth. Brene Brown describes perfectionism and its cost best:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfet, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”
-Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
It’s time to change how we think about WORTH. What if you could experience a form of self-worth that did not ebb and flow with your achievement or approval? Would you step off of the “conditional self-worth” rollercoaster? Wouldn’t it be amazing to experience security in your self-worth despite successes or failures!
I want to suggest two key strategies for revolutionizing your experience of self-worth.
- Clarify what you really feel when you say you feel “WORTHLESS.”
I want to suggest that “WORTHLESS” is a judgment NOT a feeling. It’s a proclamation of subjective self-assessment. It is more thought than it is emotion. These judgments are similarly not feelings:
But, you might argue, “I DO feel strongly when I have those thoughts!” YES! A distorted negative self-evaluation would certainly evoke a strong feeling! Let’s see if we can clarify what you are really feeling in those moments. Perhaps one of these feeling words would more accurately describe the emotion that goes with that thought:
This perspective shifting skill is essential: Instead of going along with the “I’m worthless” judgment, NAME WHAT YOU’RE FEELING and WHY.
For example: “I’m feeling ashamed because I yelled at my kids.” “I am feeling afraid because I lost my job.” “I am feeling sad because she broke up with me.”
2. REDEFINE WORTH.
The striking reality is that there is no standard measurement of WORTH. There is not a test you can take, a medal you can earn, or a status you must reach. The concept of what defines self-worth is unscientific, self-determined, and deeply personal. YOU HAVE THE POWER to change your self-assessment.
What if you were to intentionally choose to believe WORTH is a birthright, something inherent in your humanness? I think that’s what the founders of our country believed when they wrote these words in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
WORTH does not have to be conditional. You can found your self-worth on the powerful certainty that you have sustaining value that can not be earned nor lost.
HYPOCRICY CHECK: Do you apply unconditional worth to other people better than to yourself? For example, if you’re a parent, your child might make choices that make you lose their trust, but could they ever lose worth in your eyes? Never! You might already believe in unconditional self-worth, as it applies to others. Are you applying the same concept to yourself? If not, now’s the time. Take the leap of faith. It’s worth it!
Now, if we combine the name-your-feelings skill with the concept of unconditional self-worth, you can see how it’s possible to make mistakes, have setbacks, and receive rejection without it meaning anything at all about your worth as a human.
If you’d like help building a secure sense of self-worth (or overcoming your achievement- or approval-oriented perfectionism), a therapist at Star Meadow Counseling may be available to help.
Also check out behavioral strategies for shifting out of worthless thoughts in our latest blog: “How to Disobey ‘Worthless’ Thoughts.”
by Ericka | Jul 22, 2019 | CBT, Self Acceptance, Self Worth
When was the last time you heard from your inner critic? You know, that voice in your head that constantly judges you, puts you down and compares you to others. The one that tells you you’re not good enough or smart enough and says things you would never dream of saying to another person.
Now you may think this inner critic, while annoying, is relatively harmless. But this is simply not the case. This inner critical voice limits you and stops you from living the life you truly desire. It hinders your emotional well-being and, if left unchecked, can even lead to depression or anxiety.
Here are some ways you can silence that inner critic and stop beating yourself up.
Give it Attention
That’s right, in order to gain control over your inner critic you have to know that it exists. Most of our thinking is automatic. In other words, we don’t give our thoughts much thought. We barely notice a critical thought has passed. Give attention to your thoughts, all of them. This will help you recognize the critical voice.
Here are some emotional clues the critic has reared its ugly head: whenever you feel doubt, guilt, shame, and worthlessness. These are almost always signs of the critic at work.
Separate Yourself from Your Inner Critic
Your inner critic is like a parasite, feeding off you. You were not born with this parasite but acquired it along the way. Your inner critic hopes it can hide and blend in, and that you’ll think ITS thoughts are your own.
You have to separate yourself from this parasite. One way to do that is to give your critic a name. Have fun with this naming. You could call your inner critic anything from “Todd” to “Miss. Annoying Loudmouth.” It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that you learn to separate it from your authentic self.
In order to take the power away from your inner critic, you’ve got to give it a taste of its own medicine. As soon as you recognize your inner critic is speaking to you, tell it to shut up. Tell it that the jig is up, that you know it is a big, fat liar, and that you want it to go away. If you want to really make this voice recoil, tell it you are choosing to be kind to yourself from now on. A counselor can help you learn to talk back powerfully using strategies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Self-compassion to an inner critic is like garlic to a vampire.
Create a New Inner Voice
If you want to defeat an enemy, you need to have a powerful ally on your side. It’s important at this juncture to create an even more powerful inner voice. One that is on your side and acts as your BFF.
To create this new voice, start noticing the good things about yourself. No matter what that nasty critic said about you, the truth is you have fantastic traits and abilities. Start focusing on those. Yes, it will be hard at first to let yourself see you in a positive light, but the more you do it, the easier it will get.
Life is short. To have the most fulfilling one possible, we have to stop wasting time on beating ourselves up. Take these 4 steps and learn to quiet that inner critic. Your best you is waiting to be celebrated.
Some people’s inner critic is stronger than others. Sometimes the greatest ally you can have in your corner is an impartial third-party, a therapist who can see you for who you really are.
If you or a loved one could use some help defeating your inner critic and would like to explore therapy, get in touch with a counselor on our team. We would be happy to speak with you about how we might be able to help.
by Ericka | Aug 31, 2018 | Body Image, Depression, Self Acceptance, Self Worth
The feeling of shame has a reputation of being the vampire of emotions–the feeling that will suck the life right out of you. Because it comes with it a very physical discomfort, heat, and pain, it’s probably on your list of emotions to be avoided at all costs.
In this blog, I’m going to ask (and attempt to answer) the hard questions: Why do we experience shame? What utility does it have for us? What’s a person to do when they’re feeling trapped in a shame spiral?
First, to understand why we experience shame, we have to explore what triggers it.
Shame happens when you’ve broken an agreement that you’ve made with yourself. It is a faithful (and loud) reminder that you’ve strayed out of bounds and broken an internal “rule.” Sometimes shame goes ahead of you, before you’ve actually done the “wrong” deed, preventing you from taking an action that would be out of alignment with your values.
Our internal “rules” are a mixture of AUTHENTIC and INAUTHENTIC shame, a concept pioneered by Karla McLaren in her book, “The Language of Emotions.”
AUTHENTIC shame happens when you’ve broken the code of your character or integrity. These “rules” are the moral code that you would apply NOT ONLY to yourself but to other people as well. For example, a part of my moral code is to not gossip. Every single time I find myself participating in gossip with a friend, a feeling of shame creeps up, informing me with its icky feeling that I’m out of line. My “rule” about gossip is one I would teach my children and one I’d hope all people would embrace.
AUTHENTIC shame helps you live a value-drive life. It acts like a curb, nudging you back to alignment with your deepest sense of integrity.
On the other hand, INAUTHENTIC shame happens when you’ve broken internalized rules that apply ONLY to you. Here are several examples:
- A student to has to get all A’s and feels shame for that lone B+ on their transcript.
- A teen girl feels shameful disgust for the fat on her body because she’s taken in messages that fat is abnormal/wrong/shameful
- A woman has a miscarriage and feels shame, believing this wouldn’t have happened to her unless there was something bad/wrong with her.
- A man looks in the mirror at his receding hairline and feels a twinge of shame, as if he’s broken the rule that a man must have a full head of hair.
- A professional’s voice shakes while giving a presentation at work, feeling shame because they believe it’s bad/wrong to display any form of anxiety in public.
INAUTHENTIC shame is triggered by breaking the “rules” you have for yourself that you would NEVER intentionally pass on to other people.
With INAUTHENTIC shame, there is likely a part of you that recognizes the harmful nature of your “rules.” You might recognize that it contributes to your experience of depression, low self-esteem, poor body image, or toxic perfectionism. AND, you might still feel stuck, buying into those “rules” despite your recognition of the double standard at play.
HOW DOES INAUTHENTIC SHAME DEVELOP?
INAUTHENTIC shame springs forth from messages you’ve received from the outside (a critical comment from someone or maybe even messages from the media about what an ideal person is like). It’s as if you’ve taken someone else’s garbage home with you, accepted it as your own, and lived with its stench day after day.
THE REALITY IS: Whether your experience of shame is AUTHENTIC or INAUTHENTIC, 100% of the time it is informing you about internal rules that you are breaking.
4 STEPS FOR BREAKING OUT OF INAUTHENTIC SHAME
- Start by labeling the shame as INAUTHENTIC, as something that has been applied to you and caused you harm.
- Identify clearly what “rule” you are breaking. What are the specific details of the rule? For example: The rule that I’m not allowed to make mistakes OR The rule that I have to do X, Y, and Z by the time I’m 30 or else I’m a failure.
- Ask yourself: Where did this rule come from? What has allowed this rule to take root in you over time? Whose garbage is this?
- Try out Karla McLaren’s CONTRACT BURNING visualization skill for a powerful and effective way of releasing that old “rule.”
If you’d like help shifting out of INAUTHENTIC shame, a counselor may be able to help. The counselors with Star Meadow Counseling love helping clients explore and alter the “rules” that have kept them stuck.
Alexander, S. (2018). Mind Body Connections.
McLaren, K. (2010). Language of emotions. [United States]: Sounds True.
by Ericka | May 28, 2018 | Anger Management, Anxiety, Relationships, Self Acceptance
Years ago, I was the guitarist in a rock band. Well, okay, the term “rock band” might be a bit of an exaggeration. It was really a group of fresh-faced college students playing children’s music at local parks. The trouble was, our drummer had just learned some fancy new fills and was throwing off the beat–repeatedly, in every single song.
Ever the “nice” kid, I recall being wracked with anxiety as I prepared to confront the drummer. I waited passively first, hoping he would figure out on his own that he was the one messing things up. When that didn’t do the trick, I knew it was time to say something.
It was around that time that one of my mentors taught me how to use “I”-Statements, which forever changed the way I approach awkward conversations, and allowed me to find the words for opening up to the drummer.
“I”-Statements are an approach to confrontation that allows the person doing the confronting to take ownership for their own thoughts, feelings, and needs. Not surprisingly, “I”-statements typically start with the word “I.” Here are some example “I”-Statement sentence starters:
- I noticed…
- I feel… (and you have to use an actual emotion word here!)
- What I’d like is…
In contrast, “You”-statements put the blame on the other person, setting into motion the type of defensiveness that often escalates a confrontation into a fight. A typical “You”-statement might sound something like– “Drummer dude, you’re screwing up our rhythm!” That approach would probably not have lead to anything constructive and may have damaged band cohesion.
Instead, an I-statement allows me to express how I’m being impacted and what I need. For example: “Drummer dude, I noticed myself struggling to keep a steady strumming rhythm during those transitions when you’re using the new drum fills. I’ve felt lost during those parts. What I’d like is to hold off on using the new fills until we can get in sync with our rhythm in practice.”
Sometimes, an “I”-statement doesn’t feel like quite enough, especially when the awkward conversation you are preparing is particularly hard for someone to hear.
Let’s be real! Being on the receiving end of feedback can be uncomfortable, exposing, and make us feel vulnerable! Most of us have a natural defensive mechanism that steps in when those feelings come up while someone is giving feedback. That defensiveness can come across as denying, blaming, excusing, or ignoring. When you’re anticipating defensiveness in your awkward conversation, the “Empathy Sandwich” technique might come in handy.
A palatable confrontation is like a bologna sandwich.
- The top slice of bread is an empathy statement. You can demonstrate empathy (which helps soften your confrontation) by showing that you understand where the other person is coming from. You put yourself in their shoes. For example: “You’ve been so excited to try out the new drum fills you’re learning!”
- The bologna is the meat of the confrontation– the main point you’re hoping they hear. “I noticed myself struggling to keep a steady strumming rhythm during those transitions when you’re using the new fills. I’ve felt lost during those parts. What I’d like is to hold off on using the new fills until we can get in sync with our rhythm in practice.”
- The bottom slice of bread is another empathy statement. “I understand why you’ve been so motivated to try the new fills! You’ve got that battle of the drummers competition coming up and you’re worried you might not be ready!”
The empathy sandwich technique might not work so well if the “meat” of your sandwich has too many layers. Do your best to stick to the point. What do you most want them to hear? If you throw in the kitchen sink, they will likely miss the point.
The empathy sandwich technique works best when the empathy statements you choose assume the best in the other person, are non-judgmental, and reflect your sense of how the other person is feeling.
In her book, “Daring Greatly,” Brene Brown provides a checklist that a person can use to gauge whether or not they are ready to give feedback.
“I know I am ready to give feedback when–
- I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you;
- I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you)
- I’m ready to listen, ask questions and accept that I may not fully understand the issue;
- I want to acknowledge what you do well instead of picking apart your mistakes;
- I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to address your challenges;
- I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you;
- I’m willing to own my part;
- I can genuinely thank you for your efforts rather than criticize you for your failings;
- I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to your growth and opportunity; and
- I can model the vulnerability and openness that I can expect from you. (p.204, Daring Greatly)”
A printed version of Brene Brown’s checklist can be found at her website.
If you’d like support gearing up for an awkward conversation, a counselor at Star Meadow Counseling is available to help!
Brown, B. (2017). Engaged Feedback Checklist. Retrieved May 28, 2018, from https://brenebrown.com/downloads/engaged-feedback-checklist/