You and I have one life to live. But few of us step into manifesting the full expression of who we were designed to be. Why? Because of the fear that being seen and heard for who we really are will result in rejection; not because of what we have or haven’t done, but rejection of our very personhood. You see, it’s one thing to feel as though you’ve not done enough. But it’s a greater tragedy to feel as though you aren’t enough.
Allow me to paint a picture.
Imagine entering the latter season of your life, looking back and wondering, Who am I? How did I end up here– Filled to the brim with regret over rarely (if ever) allowing the real you to show itself to the world around you, what now remains is a life void of passion; void of uniqueness that was reserved for you to experience and give away. And that uniqueness was a gift custom-tailored for the world to receive; a gift that will remain wrapped.
In simple yet precise words, poet, author and playwright Oscar Wilde drives the point home: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
Most people are other people. In other words, in an effort to mask destructive vices of fear, insecurity and perfectionism, many of us wear a costume threaded by shame that veils who we are in favor of who we are supposed to be. And when shame is deeply rooted in our lives, we unknowingly become actors in the theater of life. As such, we drift away from the authenticity and uniqueness for which we were created, and in turn, perform for the acceptance and validation that should inherently be present in our lives.
Frankly, I don’t believe anyone asserts themselves to be someone they’re not. But self-protection and the motivation to avoid pain fuel our souls with the notion that doing so is the only way to stay alive. That’s why we wear costumes. That’s why we become actors in the theater of life. Because being our unique, flawed (but still in process) selves in full view to the world around us is too great a risk; a risk of rejection that we feel far outweighs the reward of connection.
The Performance-Acceptance Trap
Often, our unwillingness to bear ourselves fully is because our worth and value are tied to our good performance as a spouse or significant other, son or daughter, employee, parent, coach, or corporate executive. In other words, if we perform well, we are accepted. But if we perform poorly, we are unworthy of acceptance and connection. Worse, because of a root of shame, if we make a mistake, consequently, we believe we are a mistake. So, in order to mitigate the pain of rejection, many of us resort to shame’s sidekick: self-protection.
The Costume of Self-Protection
In a lot of cases, when we aren’t secure in our identity—our worth and value outside the measure of our performance—we consign ourselves to the part of the brain where self-protection and self-promotion sabotage our ability to create and innovate. As such, we tend to perform in order to receive definition of our worth and value. Conversely, people who know who they are and believe they are fundamentally worthy of validation and belonging perform from an overflow of their healthy identity.
Another adverse effect of self-protection is isolation. When we isolate ourselves, bad people are kept far away from having access to our hearts. But the trouble is that in the same posture of defense, good, value-adding, safe people are kept out, too. The sad result of this reactionary behavior is that as we grow older and live with the costume on as though it belonged there the whole time, our true selves become much less distinguishable, and our inauthentic lives become the norm.\
Related: 8 Tips for Being Authentic
The Mechanics of Shame
Let’s make this personal. The mechanics of shame, though insidious, are quite predictable. Think back on an event or experience in which you made a mistake, dropped the ball so to speak, let someone down, failed to deliver on a project or didn’t even show up. How soon after the experience occurred did feelings of shame and unworthiness break down the door to your heart?
Typically, once shame makes its home in our hearts, we tend to cover ourselves for fear of exposure. That’s where the costume of self-protection comes into play. It’s the science of fight or flight. Once we cover ourselves, it isn’t long before we hide. And when we hide, we disconnect and isolate ourselves from those who will not only provide us with valuable feedback, but also validation of our identity and worth. The treacherous result of isolation and disconnection is a greater sense of shame, increased self-protection, hiddenness, and even deeper disconnection and isolation. And even though we are, according to shame researcher Dr. Brené Brown, “hardwired for love, connection and belonging,” self-protection as a result of shame has been our knee-jerk reaction since the beginning of humanity. Sadly, though, this cycle will not be broken without deliberate action to manage our inner world.
Wrangling the Inner World
If we don’t manage our inner world (our thought life, our emotional, mental and spiritual health), it will eventually manage us. And because of our mindset about our standing and disposition in life, we will live through the “lens” of whatever we establish as truth in our belief system and in our thought life. In other words, if a situation in life causes us to believe we are uniquely and fatally flawed, a victim of adversity, and incapable of recovery, our nonverbal communication and paradigm about our disposition in life will be outworked through the very lens of being uniquely and fatally flawed; at the core; just because of who we are. And that, my friend, is no way to live. So how do we break this cycle?
Breaking the Cycle of Shame
Breaking the cycle of shame is definitely not a decision made in one day. Instead, the tenacity and determination to break the cycle of shame in our lives will inevitably be a decision made every day. And the first step in ripping the costume of shame and self-protection off of our hearts and minds is vulnerability. Fundamentally, vulnerability interrupts the cycle of shame by coming into the light of safe people with statements such as, “I need help,” “I’m feeling weak,” “I beg your forgiveness,” “Please help.” Not only do these statements extend a lifeline of help our way, they build a bridge of trust with those who will help us rediscover our true identity.
The second component of finding freedom from shame is found in self-awareness. We all need a healthy amount of self-awareness in our everyday lives and in our personal and professional pursuits. Put simply, without self-awareness, we are tricking ourselves into living out life through the perception of reality instead of reality. Conversely, when we’re not tricking ourselves, we are putting ourselves in a position to grow and ultimately succeed.
How do you become self-aware? One of the most effective and honest ways to do so is by inviting feedback into your life. Honest feedback. Really honest feedback.
Self-awareness is an honest understanding of your personal habits, strengths, areas in which you need growth, your way of perceiving life, as well as an awareness of your emotional default in the circumstances of life. Simply put, the more you know about yourself, the better you are at adapting to change, growing steadily and measuring your personal growth. Another way of saying the same thing is, the more you know about your own habits and proclivities, the easier it is to improve on those habits and position yourself for success. How do you become self-aware? One of the most effective and honest ways to do so is by inviting feedback into your life. Honest feedback. Really honest feedback. But you’ll never gain the feedback you need without first becoming vulnerable enough to ask for it.
A third but critical step in breaking the cycle of shame in your life is by pursuing transformation in your heart, which occurs by confronting limiting beliefs you’ve built about yourself and your life experiences thus far. Freedom is not found by changing your mind; it’s found in changing your mindset—as I wrote earlier, the lens through which you see yourself, see others and see life itself. And that change doesn’t happen on an intellectual level. Lasting change occurs in your fundamental belief system. Memories of the past contribute to how we view ourselves and subsequently shape the paradigm about our worth and our ability to project our best selves to the world around us. Taking regular initiative to make peace with an imperfect past is critically important to moving through pain and shame and into a healthy identity based upon worthiness and validation.
Only One Question Remains
Ultimately, displacing shame and disrobing from the costumes of self-protection and self-promotion are founded upon your answer to one question: “Who do you think you are?” Read with one inflection, the question is a taunt; a tool used to chide and keep you locked in a prison of self-doubt, shame, inactivity and insecurity. Read with another inflection, the question is an invitation to step into the worth, value and purpose for which you were created to make a difference in the lives of those who matter most in your life.
How will you answer?
Christopher Cook is a leadership coach and business consultant to both Fortune 1000 and nonprofit organizations. Additionally, he is the host of “Win Today with Christopher Cook,” a popular weekly podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and other outlets. Through his work at WINTODAY.tv and as a contributor for SUCCESS magazine, he serves as a guide to help people design their road map to wholeness from the inside out.