Getting Rid of a Shame-Based Self Image

“Dummy!” “Idiot!” “Screw-up!” “Bitch!”

The labels you may give yourself when depressed often emerge from a shame-based self image and are not surprisingly the names you have been called in the home you grew up in. But what happens when you believe those labels are accurate? Your self image can direct many of your choices and relationships without you even being aware that you are in cahoots with the persons who shamed you as a child.

I recently talked with a woman who told me she wanted to improve her self esteem because she knew that she held herself back from some achievements by not believing she could succeed. I thought her self-image was also a problem, because she viewed herself as the dumb screw-up that her family had labeled her. Yet when I asked if she was willing to give up the labels she had for herself, she looked surprised. “How can I give them  up,” she asked,”when they are true?” She went on to say she wanted to give up the belief that she was ‘dumb’ and a ‘screw-up’ but she had never thought of herself in any other way.

“What about making mistakes?” I asked. “Are you allowed to just make a mistake like every other person?” On reflection, she said she certainly did make mistakes but those merely proved she was dumb; yet other, smarter people, could just make a mistake and it did not determine their quality or abilities. When you look at other people, you can see their qualities through their words and actions without hearing the labels they give themselves, while you may not be able to see yourself so objectively.

My client was curious, “What can I do about this when I just find it very hard to see myself in any other way?” When your self image is rooted in shame, you fear being exposed as flawed, insufficient or just plain bad. You are not likely to believe your successes are anything other than accidents but that your failures are the logical outcome of who you “really are.” This belief system has likely been around for w while and it is self-reinforcing. You are not allowing positive feedback to get into your self-image and change it, while you allow negative experiences to reinforce the shaming labels you apply to yourself.

I believe one way to walk out of the negative labeling is to actively develop self-compassion. Researcher/author Kristin Neff has found that becoming more objective about your abilities and actions is possible through the practice of self-compassion. This mindfulness-based approach allows you observe your own actions and the responses of others to you without any judgment. Observing without judgment can move you to see yourself in new, objective terms and can lead to greater understanding and acceptance of yourself without the negative labels. A consequence will be greater compassion toward others and more positive relationships.

Barbara Fredrickson, a brilliant researcher about positive emotions and their roll in long-term health, wellbeing, and resilience suggests a similar approach. In her book Love 2.0 she explores all the benefits of positive connections with others, and nurturing those can be a way of nurturing one’s own self-esteem. Loving self and others becomes over time the way to greater health and happiness. You can nurture positive emotions deliberately and these will help lift you out of your shame-based labeling of yourself.

But self-compassion and loving oneself (and others) take practice. In my next blog I will share some ideas for ridding yourself of negative labels and developing self-compassion.

In the meantime, you might be interested to measure your own self compassion. Visit my website at where I have a link to Kristin Neff’s quick assessment of your level of self-compassion.

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