Episode 20: Coaching Through Shame

This week we are going to explore what shame is, and we are going to contrast it from an associated feeling of guilt. We'll talk about possible causes of shame, the effects of shame, and then we will talk about how we can effectively coach our clients around and through shame.
Coach with Clarity Podcast - Coaching Through Shame

20: Coaching Through Shame

We're wrapping up our mini-series about coaching through difficult emotions by exploring a big one... SHAME. Just reading or saying the word allowed is often enough to invoke feelings of embarrassment, brokenness, and unworthiness within us. And when our clients carry shame with us as a constant companion, it can block them from accomplishing their goals.

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Show Notes

We're wrapping up our mini-series about coaching through difficult emotions by exploring a big one… SHAME.

Just reading or saying the word allowed is often enough to invoke feelings of embarrassment, brokenness, and unworthiness within us.

And when our clients carry shame with us as a constant companion, it can block them from accomplishing their goals.

That's why in this week's episode, we're taking a close look at shame – what it is, what it's not, what causes it, and how we coaches can help our clients through it.

Topics covered

  • An exploration into what shame is
  • How it contrasts with an associated feeling of guilt
  • Possible causes of shame
  • The effects of shame
  • How we as coaches can effectively coach our clients around and through shame

Resources mentioned

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Well, hey friend – welcome to the Coach with Clarity podcast. My name is Lee Chaix McDonough and I'm so excited to have you here today. If this is your very first time listening to the podcast, I want to offer you a special welcome, and let you know that we are concluding a mini series that I've been conducting about coaching through difficult emotions. 

So two episodes ago, we talked about the role of sadness, and how it may be showing up in our clients and how we can coach them through it. Last week, we talked about anger, and so I'm wrapping up this little mini series by diving into shame.

And what I found as I was preparing for the episode is that shame is one of those emotions that frequently has a bestie – often sadness, often anger – and so you might find it helpful to go back and listen to those first two episodes before you dive into this one. It's not a requirement, this is definitely a standalone episode as well. But if you'd like to learn more about the intersection of these emotions, then definitely hop back and check out Episode 18, which is Coaching through Sadness, and Episode 19, which is Coaching through Anger. 

So now we are going to transition into today's topic, which is about shame, and how we as coaches can support our clients as they are working through the emotion of shame. So I envision that this podcast is going to be structured in four parts. First, we are going to explore what shame is, and we are going to contrast it from an associated feeling of guilt. Then in part two, we'll talk about possible causes of shame. In part three, we'll talk about the effects of shame. And then finally, in the fourth part of today's episode, we will talk about how as coaches, we can effectively coach our clients around and through shame. 

So I think this is going to be a really powerful episode, and I do want to preface it by saying that as we are talking about this emotion, you may find that it starts to come up in you. You may have memories of a time where you felt shame, and if that happens, I just want you to know ahead of time, it's normal, you're not alone in it, and in fact, by the end of the episode, you'll have some additional tools in your toolkit to help you work through your own shame as well. 

So during today's episode, when I talk about shame, I am referring to that deep feeling of being unworthy or wrong, or being in the wrong or on some level feeling defective or broken or bad. Shame is a deeply personal and internalized feeling, and it happens when we have taken messages that we've received, or messages that we've created about ourselves, perhaps we've linked them to events that have happened in our life, and we have internalized this message that there is something wrong with us, that we are unworthy of love and care the way that we are. 

And this is a very different feeling than guilt. And a lot of times we talk about shame and guilt together, and sometimes they do come in tandem with each other. But guilt is a little different. Guilt is a judgment that something we've done was the wrong choice, or we made a wrong decision. Whatever it is we've done does not feel consistent with who we are as a person, and it's likely in conflict with our deeper core values. But the thing about guilt is that it comes up when we've done something wrong, but it doesn't necessarily indicate our character or our worthiness. It still feels external to us. So guilt is not a comfortable emotion, but it does not go nearly as deep and it's not as internalized as shame. 

And I think a really easy way to differentiate between the two is to remember that when we feel guilt, we feel it because of something we've done. When we feel shame, we experience it because of something we believe we are. So guilt is about an action. And shame is about being, and so shame feels intensely personal, and can be extraordinarily painful. 

Guilt, on the other hand, can possibly serve a purpose. It typically arises when we've done something we wish we hadn't, so it lets us know when we are misaligned with our values, and guilt can actually motivate us to take action, to make amends or to do something differently next time. 

Shame, on the other hand, is rarely a motivating emotion, it doesn't normally cause us to change our behavior. In fact, many of you have heard the phrase “shame spiral,” and that's what happens a lot: we internalize it, and it becomes even deeper, and so the presence of shame, actually begets more shame – as opposed to guilt, which provides us with a path through to relieve that emotion. 

So guilt tends to be outward and it tends to cause us to want to admit what we've done wrong and change our behavior. Whereas shame can feel almost secretive. It's something we hold inside, we don't want to talk about it, and it can actually breed more of that feeling. 

Another difference between the two is that guilt tends to be localized. And when I say that, I mean, it tends to be about one specific issue or one specific action, and there's very clear boundaries around what causes us to feel guilt. Whereas with shame, it tends to be pervasive, it tends to take over and all of a sudden we are wholly and completely defined by whatever perceived lack is motivating that shame. So its boundaries are much more diffuse and it's much easier for us to buy into those shame messages and allow it to wholly define our character. So guilt tends to have clear parameters and it's about one instance, shame tends to bleed out and really define one's entire identity. 

So now that we have a clear understanding of what shame is and how it differs from guilt, let's go into the second part of today's podcast episode where we're going to talk about the causes of shame, and there are several different factors that we can explore together. 

The first that I want to talk about is shame that arises when we are out of alignment with social or cultural norms. So if we don't fit the “ideal criteria” (I know this is a podcast episode, but if you could see me I'd be putting air quotes around the word ideal), if we don't fit the ideal criteria of what society has deemed to be the perfect person, then we may internalize the belief that there is something fundamentally flawed or wrong about us. 

There are many, many ways that this can show up. I see this a lot with particularly women, although we're starting to see it more with men, in terms of body image. And if our body does not conform to what our society says is an ideal body, then we may feel shame that we don't measure up. And that may be due to circumstances beyond our control, or we may tie it to choices that we've made, but regardless there is this belief that our bodies are not okay the way they are because they don't meet the social ideal. And so we internalize that message and we believe that there's something wrong with how we look, and therefore something wrong with who we are. 

I think we also see the effects of social and cultural shame with regard to sex and sexuality. If we grow up in a society that tells us that the only acceptable expression of love is between a man and a woman, and that's not how we roll, if we are attracted to people of the same sex, if we're attracted to any gender, well, then that goes in stark opposition to what our society has generally told us – that love is only love if it's between a man and a woman and that an expression of that love through sex should only happen within the confines of marriage. 

Well, those messages can be extremely hurtful to people who are a part of the queer community, and that's why it's not uncommon, especially early in one's identity formation, for there to be internalized shame about who they are because of who they love. 

And this is what makes shame such a difficult and complicated emotion. Because there is nothing wrong with loving anyone you choose, and yet when our society is telling you that, and those are the messages that you're seeing in the media, and in your community, then you may believe that there is something wrong with you, that there's something deficient or defective, something that needs to be fixed. And so that can lead to a state of shame and feeling like there's something wrong with who you are, when really what's wrong is the message that society is sending you. 

We have also seen this in our society's treatment of Black and Brown people. And again, it's not just with body image, it's really as a whole, that the White experience and specifically the straight, cis-male, White experience is the norm, and everything has been tailored to fit that experience. So if you are not White, if you are not male, if you are not cisgendered, if you are not straight, then there is something “other” about you. And that othering can lead someone to internalize the sense that they're not “normal,” and that they're not okay. 

And we have especially done this to People of Color, to Black and Brown people who have been told that the way they look, the way they act, what they believe, how they talk is inappropriate, because it does not conform with the social expectation that whiteness is superior. We can talk about how wrong those messages are, but the fact is that has been a part of our culture for so long that those messages get internalized. So even if you are a Person of Color, on some level, you've been breathing in that message your entire life and so there may be some internalized shame. And that's so profoundly unfair. 

And as a white woman, that is one area where I need to be aware of my own privilege, to understand that I have not been subjected to that same level of shame as my Black and Brown peers. Yes, I have plenty of things going on in my own experience that have led to feelings of shame in the past, but I have never experienced shame as a result of my racial or ethnic identity. So as coaches, when we are working with our clients, and especially when we are working with our clients who are of color, we need to be aware of the social effects of shame and how that may have influenced their experience as well. 

Now, shame is not limited to social and cultural causes, and, in fact, I think another cause that many of us have experienced has been a result of certain religious beliefs or conditioning. Many religions place a really strong emphasis on morality, or on moral behavior. and there are very strict guidelines about what behavior is acceptable, and what behavior is not. And so when a person engages in unacceptable behavior, we go beyond guilt and into shame, so if someone is exhibiting a behavior that is deemed immoral by a particular religion, then they may experience shame if they have ascribed to that belief, or they may be shamed by other members of that religious community. So shame that's anchored in one's religious experience, I think, is connected to social and cultural shame, but I do think it's worth calling out as a separate cause. 

There's also a connection between shame and one's self esteem. And that makes sense, because after years and years of social conditioning, and being told that you don't measure up to the social ideal, that can really take a toll and reduce one's self esteem. And what I've seen is that shame really correlates highly with self-limiting beliefs and even destructive beliefs. 

So that inner dialogue, or that messaging that we tell ourselves about why we are wrong, and how we will never measure up – I call those messages my inner trolls, and my inner trolls definitely come out to play at different parts of my life, especially when I'm about to do something big and bold and really put myself out there. And let me tell you, creating a podcast episode about shame is definitely one of those trigger points, where my own inner trolls are coming up and saying, “Who do you think you are? You're no Brene Brown, who are you to be talking about shame?” And so that messaging just kind of takes over. 

And if I trace it back, I know the messages that have been shared with me, or that I've created in myself over time, that has led me to really question my own worthiness, and whether I have the right to talk about shame. So I have to do my own work, and I will walk you through some of those techniques in a little bit. But I do want to point out the fact that there is a connection between self-esteem and shame, and it makes sense that the more shame one feels, the more impaired their self-esteem will be. 

I think another really interesting phenomenon that happens with shame is something that I've heard referred to as “Tall Poppy Syndrome,” which is such a great name for it when you understand what it means. Essentially, it means that you're growing too quickly, and someone feels the need to cut you down to size so that you are in line with everyone else. We are told that we are too much of something – we're too big for our britches, we're too smart for our own good. These qualities that are actually strengths, when we show them, they, on some level, make someone else feel threatened. 

So we are told that we are too much and we need to rein ourselves in, and that messaging can be really damaging because all of a sudden, we start to doubt ourselves, and we start to wonder if we are okay the way we are, and then we shrink. We contract and we don't show up with our big badass self in the world. We feel ashamed of who we are. So Tall Poppy Syndrome definitely connects with shame because on some level, we are told that because we are who we are, we are insufficient, we need to cut ourselves down to size in order to be accepted by the group. I've definitely experienced that in my life. And I suspect if you're listening to this podcast, you may have experienced it too. 

Now the last cause of shame that I want to talk about is trauma or abuse, and what we find is that shame often goes hand in hand with trauma and abuse. Survivors on some level may feel responsible for whatever led to their traumatic event, and therefore they blame themselves for it happening. They internalize that experience and they make it about who they are, not what happened. And again, whenever we make something about who we are as a person, we're heading into the territory of shame. 

And unfortunately, sometimes the perpetrators of abuse may try to convince the survivor of that as well. Well, if you've ever heard of the phrase “gaslighting,” it is a part of that – it is efforts by the perpetrator to convince the survivor either that the abuse isn't happening or if it is, it's their fault. 

So we do see shame emerge, often among survivors of trauma or abuse, and this brings up an important question that we've explored in the two previous podcast episodes: Should coaches be working with people who are experiencing this level of shame if it's connected to trauma and abuse, or should they be referred to a therapist? And this is why as coaches we need to be very clear about our boundaries with the work we do. We need to familiarize ourselves with when it's appropriate to refer a client to a therapist, and again, I will direct you to the International Coaching Federation’s white paper about this very topic, and we'll have a link to it in the show notes. 

As coaches, we need to understand where the line is between our work as coaches, and when a client would be better served by a mental health care professional. So when it comes to deciding whether we should be coaching someone with a trauma history, I think it's very important that we take the time to see where the client is in their trauma journey. If they are early in the process, if they are just starting to come to terms with the trauma, and they've not yet separated their sense of self from the traumatic event, then I think this is someone who would be best served by a therapist. It's very common for survivors of trauma to fuse their sense of identity with the traumatic event. That level of fusion can be very deep, and that is the kind of work that I believe is best left to a mental health therapist to conduct with the client.

Once someone has done that level of work with the therapist, then it may be appropriate for them to seek further support from a coach. So I think about clients that I've worked with who have done the healing work around the traumatic event, and they no longer feel like their identity is tied to what happened to them. And yet, they still may notice patterns of behavior or behavioral habits that come up that are getting in the way of them achieving what they want. And on some level, it may be linked back to old messaging that has its roots in the traumatic event. 

When this happens, it doesn't cause high levels of distress in the client. They're able to see it for what it is and, if anything, it may be frustrating or annoying, but it's not invoking intense feelings of fear or shame. And this is an example of someone for whom coaching may be an appropriate approach, because as coaches we can help them recognize those old habits, those patterns of behavior, and the thoughts that are linked to them, and then we can help the client decide what new thoughts they want to create and what new action they want to take in their lives in order to move through it. 

But again, as coaches we want to be incredibly sensitive to where someone is in their trauma journey, and to partner with the client to determine which type of helping professional is going to be best suited for them right now. In some cases that will be a therapist, and in later stages of their journey, it may be a coach. 

So now that we've done a deep dive into the causes of shame, let's talk a little bit about the effects of shame. I've alluded to this already that there is a correlation between shame and mental health disorders. A person who is experiencing depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, addiction, and in some personality disorders may experience shame as either a cause or a symptom of that disorder. And again, this is why as coaches we need to be aware of this, and to know when it's appropriate to refer a client to a therapist. 

Shame can also compromise a person's relationships. It can affect the way they're able to communicate or relate with other people, and this can be among family members, it can be with romantic partners, it can be with friends and colleagues, but it can definitely influence the way someone shows up and the way they build relationships and continue relationships with other people. 

Shame certainly highlights someone's emotional suffering, so that when something happens, and the expected reaction would be sadness or grief, shame may compound that feeling so that it feels even more profound. And of course, shame is also the source of many cognitive distortions, or, when I talk about cognitive distortions, I mean unhelpful, and often untrue thoughts that we create about ourselves and about our worthiness. And those unhelpful thoughts and those limiting beliefs are exactly what we can target when we are coaching our clients. 

And so that's what I want to talk about for the remainder of this podcast episode, exactly how we can coach our clients through shame. So first, I want to caution you and advise you not to rush the process. If you are going to be working with a client and coaching them through shame, it is imperative that you have spent the time to build rapport and trust with your client. So you want to follow their energy and pay attention to their level of readiness. 

So an example in my own practice is that a lot of times people will come to me for business coaching. They want specific guidance on how they can take their coaching business to the next level, and so that's where we start. We start with some of the how-to and and start implementing some action plans. As we work together, that's when some mindset issues often show up and some messages about worthiness and feelings of shame may emerge. And only at that point are we able to really explore that. If I had gone there from the very first session, before I had spent any time building a relationship with someone, they wouldn't have been ready to explore it and it may have actually been interpreted as an affront. So do not rush this process, even if you get the sense that shame is what's going on here. Take your time, do not rush it. 

So my following guidance is going to assume that you have taken the time to build the relationship with your client and that there is mutual trust that exists. So as you are entering into this conversation, we're going to ask our client to create space for the shame, and there's different approaches to doing this. A lot of times I will ask my clients to describe what shame feels like, and not just as an emotion, but where they feel it in their body. I asked them to get really clear on describing it. And sometimes I'll even ask them, What is your shame saying to you? What message is it trying to communicate? And whatever that message is, it’s something that we will come back to. So if we can help the client really key in to the shame message, that's going to be really important. 

And while we're doing this, while we're asking our client to really explore what the shame experiences for them, we always want to follow up with our two best friends: confirm and affirm. We want to confirm what the client is saying to make sure we're understanding them clearly, and we want to affirm them in the process. We want to make sure they know that whatever it is they're thinking or feeling is acceptable and understandable. That's part of creating that safe space for our clients. As we do that, we want to, again, call out that specific message that's emerging, and our work as coaches is to help the client depersonalize that shame message. 

So often I will turn it into a separate being, maybe it becomes a shame monster, or maybe you even give it a name. So an example from my own life that I'll share with you is that I really internalized some messaging around money, specifically that I was irresponsible with money, I couldn't be trusted with money, and that no matter what I was always going to make mistakes with money. And so that became my Money Monster, and that's how I thought about it: The Money Monster’s coming up again. I could look at how I'm feeling about money, and the act of doing that created some separation between who I was as a person, and how I was internalizing my beliefs around money, so it creates a little distance. And now all of a sudden, we can talk about not Lee and her feelings about money and her shame about it, but about the Money Monster, and the messages that Money Monster is feeding me. 

The next step is to engage our clients in a conversation about how this message may have been serving or protecting them. So even though these are very painful messages that have their roots in shame, on some level, it is serving the client. It may be keeping the clients safe, it may be keeping them in line with social norms so that they aren't shunned, it may be a control mechanism, and it may be some worst case scenario preparation going on. But if we can help the client understand, not just what the message is, but why it’s there and how it's been serving them, that can be the first step in the process of disconnecting from the message. Because then we can ask them, how helpful is this message really? And could there be a more helpful message that doesn't require you to feel ashamed? 

Sometimes clients will need a little bit of time to get to that stage where they can create a new message, and something that I find really helpful is to view the event that kind of spurred this initial belief through a more compassionate lens. So let's take my Money Monster example again. When I think about one of the formative events that caused me to think oh, I'm irresponsible and bad with money, it was when I was 18 years old. I was a new college student, I was still learning about how to manage my money, and I overdrew my checking account. I bounced a rent check, and I was terribly embarrassed because my checking account was linked to my parents’ checking account. And the bank called my parents to let them know that I had done this. They didn't call me, even though I was 18, they called my parents, and so I was terribly ashamed of myself. I felt like I had done something incredibly wrong, and my parents had to bail me out. 

Now I recognize that I was very fortunate in that situation to have parents who could bail me out, and that the bank actually called them to help rectify the situation. I'm fully aware that there are many people who do not have that level of privilege that I do. And yet even with that privilege, I was not exempt from feeling ashamed of my behavior, and thinking that I was a terrible person because I had mismanaged my money. 

So let's go back to this event and view it through the lens of compassion. How can I now hold compassion for my 18-year-old self? What would I say to her? Or what would I offer her? To let her know that, Yeah, you made a mistake, but it doesn't have to define who you are. 

And if a client isn't able to do that for their past self, perhaps it might be helpful to ask them to imagine the person they love and admire most, and imagine that this person went through a similar event. What would you say to them? How would you approach them? And then what would it be like if you could offer yourself that same level of understanding and empathy from that point? 

Then we can partner with the client to help them create a message that would better serve them, one that really reinforces their worthiness. Now, it's one thing to create a new message, it's quite another to internalize it, and that's why I love creating some sort of ritual or experience that allows the client to release the old message that's rooted in shame, and to embody the new message that's anchored in worthiness. So a simple ritual could be writing the old message down on a piece of paper and burning it in a safe place. It could look like taking the new message and posting it all over someone's house or workspace as a reminder. I've even had clients who've gotten a tattoo of the message or have a symbol that reminded them of that new belief that they were choosing to embody. So there are ways to make it very personal, to release the old message and to fully adopt the new one. 

So we've covered a lot just now about how we can coach our clients through shame. But I think the key things to remember are that we are creating space for them to express it, we're confirming and affirming them throughout the process, we're helping them identify the specific shame message that has been limiting them, we're asking them to evaluate the purpose of the message and how helpful it's been, and then we're inviting them to create a new message, one that's rooted in a place of compassion, of empathy, and of worthiness. And our clients may benefit from some form of activity or practice or ritual that helps them fully step into and live out this new message. 

So with that, let's go into this week's Clarity in Action moment. Much like I've asked you to do for the sadness and the anger episodes, I am going to invite you to do some self-coaching around your own shame experiences. So I am going to invite you to identify one of your inner trolls or one of your messages that have been limiting you the way my Money Monster was limiting me. Let's get really clear on the internal dialogue or the message that it's been giving you. 

And I'm going to ask you: how has it helped you? How has it served you? And is it still helping and serving you? Or is it holding you back? What would it look like if we viewed that message through the lens of compassion, of understanding, and of empathy? What would it look like to release that message and to choose a new one? 

What would that new message be? What would it look like if you lived a life fully in alignment with that new message? And what steps can you take to help you fully release that old message that's no longer serving you and step in to this new message that is? 

This would be a great opportunity to journal through some of these questions, or to partner with a coach that you trust to do your own work around the shame messaging, because as coaches we are called to do our own work on these very issues. We cannot show up and fully support our clients if we are not doing our own work as well. So I'm going to invite you to do this work, and to consider doing the work with a therapist, if appropriate, or with a coach that you trust. 

All right, my friends, I want to thank you for showing up and diving into three difficult emotions. Over the last three weeks, we have done a deep dive into sadness, anger and shame. And I know that these emotions are often unpleasant, often unwanted, and yet they are a part of the human experience. It is normal and often appropriate for us and for our clients to feel sadness, anger or shame at any given time. And as coaches if we can normalize that experience for ourselves and our clients and help them find a way through, then we are really standing in our presence as powerful coaches. 

So thank you for spending these last few weeks with me, and I'd love to hear how this series has resonated with you, how it's affected your coaching, or how it's affected your life personally. So please feel free to reach out. You can always find me in the Coach with Clarity podcast, Facebook group, just head to https://www.coachwithclarity.com/facebookgroup to join. You can also find me over on Instagram: @coachwithclarity. And of course you're always welcome to reach out to me personally, and you can send me an email at info@coachwithclarity.com. 

All right, my friends. I hope you have a wonderful week. I will be back in your feed next week, and next week's show will be a little lighter than these difficult emotions we've just explored. In fact, I'm going to take you behind the scenes of my coaching quiz, and I'm going to introduce you to each to one of the five coaching styles. It's going to be a really fun and illuminating podcast episode, and you won't want to miss it. So I will see you then, and until then, this is Lee Chaix McDonough, reminding you to get out there and show the world what it means to be a Coach with Clarity.

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