How You Can Heal Shame, Emotional Trauma & Self Worth
If you’ve ever felt like you weren’t worthy of love and belonging, if you’ve ever struggled to forgive yourself for mistakes in your past, if you’re scared to be vulnerable, if you’re afraid to own up to your past mistakes because of fear of judgement, if you constantly strive to prove yourself to others but feel as if you never measure up… I made this post for you.
I have been struggling with the shame, vulnerability, perfectionism, anxiety and the feeling of 'not enough' my entire life and so I set out and tried to find as many experts as I could to interview on that subject. I sought out neuroscientists, Harvard PhDs, and many more. Here’s what I learned from them.
Table of Contents
How Do You Deal With Difficult Emotions?
Let’s start with two core ideas about emotions and what they mean.
(1) Emotions are unavoidable.
You cannot avoid experiencing negative emotions — and by trying to or by pushing them down, ignoring them, and distracting yourself — you are actually causing these emotions to intensify and become greater. Trying to avoid experiencing negative emotions, paradoxically, makes you experience them more frequently and with more intensity.
Tal Ben Shahar — who taught the most popular class in Harvard’s history which was on Happiness — famously says that only two types of people never experience negative emotions — psychopaths and dead people. He has also shared a number of paradoxical strategies to embrace and accept negative emotions and improve your happiness.
Emotional perfectionism — or the idea that you should always be in positive emotional states — can cause some serious problems — and worsen the experience of going through negative emotions. Cultivating self compassion and a more realistic perspective that negative emotions are inevitable and natural helps tremendously (much more on Emotional Perfectionism and Self Compassion in minute).
Your emotions are messengers trying to send you information. The sooner you accept that and listen to what they are saying, the better off you will be.
(2) Emotions are data, not direction.
Negative emotions provide you with meaningful and relevant information that you can use to make decisions, prioritize, and understand that something is going on in your life. Listen to that message. But also know that emotions aren’t necessary correct or right — they don’t mean you have to go in that particular direction, but they are providing you with incredibly useful information that you should listen to and incorporate into your behavior.
In fact, when you look at high stakes performers like stock traders and professional poker players — they don’t try to remove emotion from the equation — they leverage their emotions to improve their decision-making process.
Healing Emotional Trauma
There are a few big tools for healing emotional trauma and mastering difficult emotions.
The first is meditation. Meditation is proven again and again in the science to be one of the most effective paths of dealing with anxiety, stress, and negative emotions.
In a recent interview I did with Dr. Rick Hanson, author of the book Buddha’s Brain, which is about the neuroscience behind meditation, he shares a number of insights into how meditation helps deal with stress and anxiety.
The second biggest thing you need to deal with difficult emotions is self compassion. This helps combat emotional perfectionism and build an understanding that it’s OK to experience negative emotions.
The Secret To Creating Self Worth
Self compassion is at the root of taking better care of yourself both mentally and emotionally. We often reserve the most brutal and severe self talk for ourselves — we say things to ourselves that we would never dream of saying to a close friend facing the same challenge, and we expect things of ourselves that we would never expect of anyone else.
Self-compassion is not woo-woo or soft — its very much grounded in psychology research. For example, Dr. Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and author, discusses self compassion at length in this interview including the below statement:
“The idea of being self-compassionate can seem very woo-woo and very soft.People might think, for example, that being self-compassionate is about being lazy or it’s about being weak or it’s about going easy on yourself. In fact, the research shows the opposite. The research shows that when people create a self-forgiving and safe psychological space within themselves, that those individuals tend to be more experimental, more able to take risks and to take chances, because they recognize that if they fail, that they still save their self-face. That individuals who are self-compassionate tend to be less weak, less lazy and, in fact, more honest with themselves and are able to get through setbacksand transitions more effectively.” Dr. Susan David
Dr. Susan David goes on in that interview to discuss specific strategies for implementing self compassion in your life, beyond just the intellectual acknowledgement that it’s important, including the following passage:
“Recognize how you might speak to yourself, because, of course, we all speak to ourselves. We all have inner dialogue. Some studies show that we have something like 16,000 spoken thoughts every single day and many, many, many, thousands more course through our minds. So many of these thoughts are about ourselves. We will have a dialogue with ourselves where we will say, “You’re such an idiot,” or, “You’re being a fraud,” or, “You are not cut out for this.” A lot of our language is lacking in self-compassion, where we would not use that language with people who we truly love and yet we use it with ourselves. A first aspect of cultivating self-compassion is simply become aware. Simply start noticing the language that you use to actually attack yourself, and that’s really critical.
A second part of creating this felt experience of self-compassion, there are many different ways, but one of the ways that’s frequently very powerful is when you’re going through a setback or a difficulty and you’re starting to be really hard on yourself, is to imagine yourself as a very young child running to yourself as, you, the adult and saying, “Oh my goodness! This happened to me today,” and imagine in yourself how you would treat that very young child, that three or four year old who’s failed at something, who’s done wrong at something and to imagine the kind of love that that child actually needs and the experience that that child actually needs of someone reaching out and giving a hug. That can be really powerful.” — Dr. Susan David
How To Overcome Emotional Perfectionism
One of the biggest things working against self compassion is emotional perfectionism. This is the mistaken belief that you need to be in a positive emotional state all the time and can actually worsen your subjective experience resulting in behavior like “getting anxious about being anxious” or “being angry about being angry” etc.
One of the most profound and personally impactful conversations I’ve ever had about smashing emotional perfectionism was this discussion with Megan Bruneau. We discuss how perfectionism creates an illusion of control and distorts your reality, how to become aware of the critical inner voice at the root of your pain and unhealthy habits, the incredible power of self compassion, and much more.
Cultivating Self Compassion
Dr. Ronald Siegel, another psychologist with Harvard Medical School, he discusses proven strategies for cultivating mindfulness and self compassion (one of the cornerstones of which is meditation). He share this insight:
“When we are hurting, when we notice that we’ve had a disappointment, we’ve had a failure, something hasn’t turned out well, which [it] inevitably will. Inevitably, we’ll have these moment of defeat, that we can just be nice to ourselves and give ourselves a hug, feel the feeling of vulnerability, feel the feeling of failure, and trust that that’s okay too, that it’s just part of the cycle and we don’t have to identify with that or believe in it. Because as it turns out, none of us are so great and none of us are so terrible.” Dr. Ronald Siegel
Meditation, along with loving kindness practices, can be powerful tools for cultivating and building self compassion. So if you want to take better care of yourself mentally and emotionally, start with the simple act of being more loving and compassionate to yourself.
Self Awareness: Your Ultimate Superpower
“So, the first thing we have to do is understand – I mean, you can’t do any of these without self-awareness. So the first thing is to understand what is your go-to-armor. How do you self-protect when you're in uncertainty risk and feel emotionally exposed?” - Dr Brené Brown
Ask yourself, how do you naturally react to protect yourself when you feel uncertainty and emotional exposure? Do you go towards perfectionism? Are you a people pleaser? Are you the blustery, posturing tough guy? Are you the knower? Are you the cynic? Finding out where you got to protect yourself is a key of starting to be more courageous.
I kept hearing self awareness crop up so frequently in my interviews with experts, neuroscientists, and psychologists that I sought out a leading research psychologist who specializes in self awareness — Dr. Tasha Eurich.
She called self awareness “The Secret Weapon of the 21st Century.”
Self awareness underpins nearly every other skill. If you’re self aware, you can grow, improve, learn, and get better. If you’re not, you usually plateau and end up stuck.
Here’s how Dr. Eurich puts it:
“The reason self awareness is the meta-skill is basically our self-awareness sets the upper limit for so many of the skills that we need to be successful in the world right now. Things like communication skills, influence, emotional intelligence, collaboration. We can only be as good at each of those things as we are self-aware. The other thing I call it sometimes is the secret weapon of the 21st-century. So many people think they’re self-aware, but they actually aren’t. So people that work on it are the ones that really I’ve seen reap the rewards time and time again.” — Dr. Tasha Eurich
Are You Self Aware?
According to Dr. Eurich’s research — 95% of people think they are self aware, but only 10–15% of people actually are.
That’s pretty scary stuff. The even crazier thing is that those who have the least self knowledge are often the least aware of it.
The good news is that research also shows that self awareness is an “infinitely learnable skill” according to Dr. Eurich.
So what happen when you don’t have self awareness?
You don’t see yourself objectively.
You don’t understand your own strengths, and much more importantly your own weaknesses.
You aren’t aware of your own cognitive biases.
You aren’t aware of the thought patterns and mental addictions that prevent you from achieving what you want.
You reject criticism and feedback because you don’t like it
You reject ideas because you don’t like them.
You make blame and excuses for your failures instead of taking responsibility for them
You don’t know your own limiting beliefs.
You don’t recognize patterns of self sabotage that repeatedly manifest in your life.
Being Human and Making Mistakes
Making mistakes is part of being human, and yet we are all so scared of making them. Do you ever avoid doing something, just because you’re afraid you will make a mistake? Do you spend endless hours trying to perfect something, hoping that it will finally be flawless so that no one can point your mistakes out?
The thing is, we all make mistakes. The power and beauty of mistakes is not in avoiding them, but rather accepting them when you make them, learning from them, and growing from there.
Let’s see what a research psychologist who’s studied tens of thousands of people has to say. Here’s a paraphrased passage from one of my favorite books of all time — Mindset by Carol Dweck.
“Instead of trying to learn from and repair their failures, people with a fixed mindset simply try to repair their self esteem…by assigning blame or making excuses…You can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny making them.” — Carol Dweck in Mindset
That last line is extremely important. The only way to learn from your mistakes is to actually accept that you made them. To be self aware enough to say “yeah, I screwed up” and to take responsibility for it. And to know that it’s OK to have made that mistake to begin with!
Without self knowledge, you are constantly ignoring feedback from reality. Carol Dweck explains this further in a recent interview.
“If you’re looking to repair your self-esteem, maybe you’re looking for people who did worse, maybe you’re looking to place the blame, maybe you’re looking to deny the failure, in any of those cases, you’re not going to be better off going forward.
Neuroscience research shows that when people are in a fixed mindset, the part of their brain that processes errors is hardly active. They are just turning away from that error as quickly as possible. As a result, they’re not correcting the error at the next opportunity as much as people in a growth mindset.
In a growth mindset, that area of the brain is on fire, it’s just super active, they’re looking at the error, they’re processing it, they’re learning from it and they’re correcting it.” — Carol Dweck
The resounding lesson taught by everyone from Navy Seals to ancient stoic philosophers is clear — take responsibility for your own mistakes —and don’t be afraid to make them — that’s the only way to create a learning opportunity, build self awareness, and grow.
Developing Your Self Awareness
So what can you do to improve your self awareness?
Here are a few simple evidence based strategies you can use starting right now.
Meditate. Yes, everyone says meditation. That’s because there is a ton of science about how it really does work. One of the first things meditation teaches you is how to be aware of your own thoughts and biases. That’s a key step in the journey of self awareness and self knowledge. This podcast “The Skeptic’s Guide To Meditation” is a great place to start.
Develop a Growth Mindset. Carol Dweck touched on this earlier — and goes much more in depth in this interview as well as in her book. Developing a growth mindset gives you permission to look at your own mistakes and shortfalls without ego or defensiveness getting in the way. A growth mindset gives you the ability to objectively judge your own abilities. This is a cornerstone of self knowledge.
Journal. Journalling helps put thoughts on paper, clear up your thinking, develop self awareness, and lets your return later to assess your thought process.
Check out this interview with Dr. Eurich to learn more. She’s an expert in self awareness after all. Listen to that episode, check out some of her work, and learn the strategies she recommends for becoming more self awareness.
Those are all great starting steps to building your self awareness. Once you’re more self aware, you can truly start to live a more courageous life, rumble with vulnerability, and overcome shame and anxiety.
Living A Courageous Life
Dr Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work. She is the author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and her latest book, Dare to Lead, which is the culmination of a seven-year study on courage and leadership.
“When I think about all of my work over the last 20+ years, I don’t think that I’m more proud of anything that the research that we’ve done on courage and the fact that courage is teachable, observable and measurable.” - Dr Brené Brown
As you’ve seen in this article, understanding your emotions, letting go of emotional perfectionism, embracing self compassion and self awareness are all amazing steps on the journey towards living a wholehearted, courageous life. What else might help as you walk this path of courage and vulnerability?
Take Off Your Armor
“You armor weighs 100 pounds, but the resentment weighs 1,000 pounds. The armor, it's killing you, and the drinking and the working and the achieving and acquiring. None of it will ever take away the pain that that armor causes you. This is such an opportunity in your life to figure out the armor and to really start using some loving kindness and some self-compassion to talk to yourself about how it's not serving you anymore.” -Dr Brené Brown
What kind of armor are you hiding behind? What armor has helped you through tough experiences in your life, but might be weighing you down now?
Find out begins with self exploration and understanding. Ask yourself, when you were younger, even a small child up until your early 20s, how did your armor serve you? In what way did people pleasing, or being a perfectionist, or being a cynic serve you? Once you understand that, you can slowly start to take that armor off.
Learn To Get Back Up
“Can you imagine if you didn’t know – If you physically fell and you didn’t know how to get back up? You’d spend your whole life tiptoeing around. You’d spend your whole life like bracing your palms on the hood of a car when you step off the curb, then you would follow the car with your hand until you open the door. Then you’d hold on to the handle as you try to get into the seat. You would never let go of everything and just walk, because you would fear, ‘If I fall, I don’t know how to get back up.’ The same thing is true in our socio-emotional world. If we don’t know how to get back up after failure, disappointment, or setback, we will spend an enormous amount of energy making sure we never have to get back up.” -Dr Brené Brown
We don’t teach people how to get back up after they fall. And because we don’t teach people how to rise, they never take the leap. The most important skill in life is getting back up when you fall. It’s okay to fall down in your personal and emotional life, all you need is the courage, through vulnerability and self compassion, to stand back up again.
This is one of the most important and underrated skills in life, and yet very few people seem to talk about or share the importance of it. Self compassion, a growth mindset, and self awareness allow you to see that you’re only human, mistakes are OK, and we all make them. Once you have that understanding it’s like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders, and you’re free to live life to the fullest.
Now You Can Live a Courageous Life
“I don’t have a definition for courage that’s any different than data-driven definition for vulnerability. We define vulnerability as the willingness to show up and be seen when you can’t control the outcome. The definition of vulnerability as a construct itself is it’s the emotion we experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Any conversation that we start around what is courage is, it’s the willingness to put yourself out there when you can’t control how it’s going to go.” -Dr Brené Brown
Are you ready to move past the shame, vulnerability, perfectionism, anxiety and the feeling of 'not enough' in your life and live a wholehearted, courageous life? With the incredible tools, resources, interviews, and lessons shared in this article, I hope you feel clarity and confidence that you can do it.
Rumbling with vulnerability is all about stepping into uncertainty and emotional risk, right?
So what are you waiting for? Life is calling. Time to get vulnerable and step into courage!
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P.S. If you enjoyed, this you might also like our full catalogue of episodes about emotional intelligence here if you want to dig in even more!