Finding my Empathy-Voice

Last week, I talked about overusing “I’m sorry,” and how that leads to disconnection from the people around us. I’m in an 8-week class right now on understanding shame and how it drives disconnection, fear, and anxiety, and how to build shame-resilience skills. Shame is that voice in your head that says “you’re bad” when you make a mistake or feel you fall short of some expectation. Not, “you made a mistake, and that was a bad choice.” Shame says, “you made a mistake, and you are bad because of that.” It comes from a place of judgment that makes you feel isolated from everyone and everything around you, and makes it difficult to connect with others, and with yourself. The class I’m taking is helping me recognize those situations when my shame-voice is triggered to tell me “you’re bad” on repeat, and how to refocus my energy to a place of compassion.

Reevaluating how I say “I’m sorry” has been one way that I’ve refocused myself to that compassionate, connecting mentality, but it’s still difficult. It’s easy to lay blame on myself when I feel that I fall short of who or what I’m supposed to be, and that blame turns into fear that I am unworthy of acceptance and belonging. It’s hard to drown out the shame-voice when it repeats itself so many times that you feel you have no other option than to believe it.

Before I started my class, the instructor encouraged me to take a self-compassion assessment to see where my levels of self-kindness, self-judgment, isolation, and common humanity fell. The more self-kindness and common humanity I had, the greater my sense of empathy toward myself and my sense of connection with others was. The more self-judgment and isolation, the more I needed to work on those empathy and connection skills. On a scale of 1 – 5 after the assessment, my self-kindness and common humanity were both around 1.5, and my self-judgment and isolation were almost 5. Clearly, I had some skill-building to do.

One thing my instructor suggested to our class when we began to feel shame-triggered is to “get curious” and understand why it is our shame voice starts to talk to us. Then, she said to ask what the most compassionate thing we could do for ourselves in that situation would be. Then, do that thing.

I’ve never had much trouble exercising empathy with others, but it’s proven much more difficult to be empathetic with myself. Luckily, my shame-resilience class has broken down the practice of empathy into four steps to exercise when we find ourselves needing to foster that connection.

1. Stay out of judgment

A big thing my shame-voice tells me to do is practice judgment when I’m shame-triggered. First, it’s judgement for whatever shame-triggered me in the first place, whether that’s turning down a party invitation, making a mistake on an assignment, or eating an extra piece of cake. Then, it judges me for being shame triggered at all, and tells me things like “you’re weak,” “you’re crazy,” “you’re unworthy of patience and love.”

To replace my shame-voice with an empathy-voice, I have been learning to instead say “it’s okay that you’re feeling shame-triggered. It’s okay that you made a mistake.” This is incredibly difficult, because it challenges me to be patient with myself, which is something I’ve always struggled with. I am an incredibly harsh critic of myself, so it’s easy for me to let my shame-voice trick me into thinking I deserve the shame and anxiety I experience. But my empathy-voice reminds me that I am a human being who instead deserves empathy and compassion.

2. Take your own perspective

This is the “getting curious” that my instructor talks about. Once you’ve successfully navigated around shame’s call to judgment, it’s time to step into your own shoes and understand the place from which you were shame-triggered. This part is difficult, too, because asking “why do I feel ashamed” challenges you to face the problem head-on. It’s easy to dismiss shame as something you “deserve” or something that “just is what it is” if you don’t try to understand where it comes from. It’s easy to judge and isolate yourself. But, the point of working for a healthier life isn’t that it’s easy.

As I’ve “gotten curious” about why I feel anxious and ashamed in different situations, I’ve noticed that oftentimes the situation isn’t what it seems like on the surface. Take my party example: when I say no to a party invitation, my shame isn’t so much caused by the guilt I feel for rejecting the invitation. It’s often a response to feeling that I’m not doing college “right” or that I “don’t know how to have fun.” It’s a response to my shame-voice telling me, “You’re a loser. You’re doing it wrong. You’re alone. You don’t belong.” That’s a much different story than “I feel guilty for passing on an invitation,” and unless I took the time to evaluate the situation from my perspective, I wouldn’t even recognize why I’m feeling what I’m feeling.

3. Recognize the emotions you’re feeling

This brings me to #3, which is recognizing the emotions I’m feeling in a given situation. This follows pretty naturally from taking my own perspective, because once I understand why I feel shame-triggered, it’s a lot easier to understand what I’m feeling in response to that trigger. Recognizing the guilt, inferiority, and isolation I feel underneath the blanket of shame helps demystify a triggering situation, and reminds me that I am a human being feeling emotions, and that’s okay.

4. Make space for your emotions

Making space for the emotions I feel can appear daunting at first. It’s difficult to make space for your emotions when you’re used to pushing them under the shame blanket and pretending they aren’t there, but giving yourself room to experience your emotions and understand where they’re coming from is one of the best ways to liberate yourself from the negativity of your shame-voice. Giving your emotions space in your mind helps remind you that it’s okay to feel emotions and to respond to the situations you are faced with. It doesn’t mean you are alone and unworthy of the acceptance of those around you. It means you are human, and worthy of connection and empathy.

Talking about shame is uncomfortable. We tend to avoid it altogether, because it’s awkward and messy and saying it out loud might even make us feel a little ashamed. But being open about our humanity and the shame we sometimes feel reminds us that everyone has times when they’re shame-triggered, and everyone has a shame-voice that tries to tell them they are alone. But we are not alone, even if we feel shame in different ways and experience triggers from different sources. Learning to be kind to myself and practice empathy instead of judgment is incredibly challenging, because my shame-voice has taught me for years that I am unworthy of the empathy and connection I seek.

am worthy, and so are you. We are all worthy of the kindness our empathy-voice speaks in our ear, and the more we listen to that one, the quieter our shame-voice becomes.

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