If You Want to Improve a Habit, Remove the Shame

Ioana Andrei

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I find myself uttering a silent ‘oh no, not again’ when my body fails to deliver as expected.

It’s not my favorite way to start the day. But it’s a common one. I’ve been struggling to wake up before 9 a.m. without a headache.

I’ve weathered a lot of things over the past year. Injury, fatigue, depression, grief.

But the most difficult one is the thick layer of shame painted on top of my disabilities. It’s not enough to just feel sad. I have to be ashamed of feeling sad.

Perhaps part of it is the way I was raised, part of it is human nature. I don’t know, and it’s not the topic of this article.

What I do know is that shame comes in invisible paint. It’s not straightforward to have it removed, because you simply don’t know when it’s gone.

Shame latches on to imperfections

In the woolen ball that is my mind, one thread can unravel the whole system.

It is a highly particular type of shame. A shame that cries, “why me?” and “I deserve this!” at the very same time.

Can’t wake up at 7 a.m.? Shame.

Another hour spent in bed? Shame.

Managed to journal and meditate, but didn’t do yoga? Shame.

“The hallmark of shame is a constant awareness of our defects.” - How to change your thinking about shame, Hazelden Publishing

If shame has a "mind of its own", then it gets a kick out of giving bad scorecards to whatever activity I attempt to do.

Unlike guilt, shame does not need a trigger event to make its bearer feel down (Scientific American). Likewise, it does not consider whether an imperfect result is due to trauma or illness.

Shame standardizes failures of all shapes and sizes and gives them equal quotas of disapproval — Lenin would be proud.

Shame does not celebrate progress

My 1-year concussion anniversary occurred recently.

My brain has put in some serious healing power. After an uncertain period of post-concussion symptoms, I was eventually able to work full-time again. Take long walks. Understand sentences with multiple verbs.

Yet, I still face triggers.

One last-minute sprint towards a midnight deadline, and I must welcome headache and fatigue with open arms in the morning.

Someone with a big love for weed moves into the building, and I spend the next day talking to my duvet.

It’s been a bumpy journey towards accepting my vulnerability — and I’ve learned two lessons:

  1. Feeling vulnerable generally comes with some degree of shame;
  2. When shame is released, the undesirable condition is a lot easier to heal.

Human connection melts away the shame

Amy Cuddy, the researcher who studied power poses, gave an interview about her decades-old concussion.

She recounts failing to finish her university degree after a head injury. She describes the torment of imposter syndrome when offered a job at Harvard.

While grappling with a healing brain myself, I greedily absorbed every word of Amy’s story.

I wept, realizing how alone I’d been feeling. Finally, someone spoke out about the maddening cluster of symptoms I was experiencing.

It was then that I began to see my invisible illness as a natural reaction to physical trauma. I apologized and forgave myself for my self-infliction.

A drop of shame melted off the iceberg.

Disrupted sleep made me aware of my shame patterns

Pre-injury/lockdown/depression, I would sleep through the night. This, in turn, would perpetuate regular exercise, a balanced diet, and a steady psyche.

An old friend used to jokingly introduce me as “Ioana, who wakes up at 6 am, does yoga, goes for a run, and saves three puppies by the time I get into the shower.”

However, over the past year, interrupted sleep has reigned.

My recovery strategy has included sacrificing my morning hours as an offering to the gods of slumber.

On good days, my eyes flutter open at 8 a.m.

On most days, it’s 9 or 10, with an hour reserved for mindless scrolling.

I am a morning person no more. This adds a lot of shame on my plate, way before I even have breakfast.

As a former high-energy, high-productivity poster girl, a reduction in the number of "doing" hours is a significant loss. Emotionally, this translates to a badge of dishonor, reminding me, "If you keep doing this, you will be a good-for-nothing underachiever."

When this mental narrative takes shape, the priority is to heal the shame before healing the sleep pattern.

An experiment: healing the shame in trichotillomania

I’ve talked before about living with trichotillomania.

Over lockdown, an increasingly anxious and depressive mood took hair pulling to a whole other level. I struggled. Like many trich sufferers, I felt shame when looking in the mirror or when finding myself unable to control it.

Psychology Today’s number one step towards reducing shame is to bring it to light.

My interpretation of this has been to face the shame in full, open nakedness, to demonstrate that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

One glorious summer day, I trimmed my eyebrows to oblivion. Aesthetics became trivial, as shame was taking over my life.

Once my eyebrows were (literally) naked, the shame of pulling and facing the aftermath dissipated.

Four months down the line, though not fully healed from trichotillomania, I am no longer ashamed of the compulsion. If I can unconditionally accept the state of my eyebrows, I believe the stress-fueled pulling will run out of triggers.

“Shame resilience is the ability to say, “This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame.” - Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

Choosing peace over perfectionism has helped me detach from shame

Prioritizing peace of mind over perfectionism is an active choice.

Yes, it would be fab to jump out of bed and directly into a squat at 6 a.m.

Yes, it would be ideal not to have my headaches triggered by obnoxious neighbors.

Yes, I’d be ecstatic if I wrote more, walked more, meditated more, and organized a climate protest.

The human brain is trained to desire increase and success. But what if the thing standing in the way of my happiness is not diminished productivity, but my reaction to it?

Thus, my new process for healing unwanted patterns has taken shape:

Before doing any work on my perceived negative habits, I must first remove the shame.

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My topics of focus include gender equality, mental health and social justice | ioana.a.writes@gmail.com

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