Take Pride: Freedom from Shame & Humiliation

“You must learn to tolerate the humiliation of taking your child out in public. Try to ignore the stares and insensitive comments of the people around you.” 

Girl Chasing ButterflyI don’t remember where I read these words—I vaguely recall a dingy red pamphlet, given to me by a well-meaning social worker—but I know exactly when. It was February 11, 1988, three months before my son, Adam, was born, one day after an amniocentesis revealed he had Down syndrome. I’d refused what would have been a very late-term therapeutic abortion but not because the diagnosis didn’t bother me. I felt trapped in a bizarre nightmare. In 24 hours, I’d gone from daydreaming about my perfect baby to bracing myself for “stares and insensitive comments.” 

My first reaction to that pamphlet was to throw up. Things went downhill from there. I already loved my unborn son, but I had no idea how to “tolerate the humiliation” of being his mother. Avoiding humiliation was practically my religion. I was a slavish overachiever, desperate to succeed, to please, to fit in. Now, it seemed, I would be obviously and publicly shamed in the all-important role of mother. 

I didn’t realize that I’d just been handed the key to freedom from the humiliation—and the fear of humiliation—that had always governed me. I was about to learn that my level of shame was always under my own control, that I would endure exactly as much humiliation as I consented to feel, and that instead of tolerating this awful feeling, I could simply dispense with it. All of this is equally true for you. 

Phobias, Paralysis, and Poison

In her book Fear and Other Uninvited Guests, psychologist Harriet Lerner points out that of all the forces that shape human behavior, fear of humiliation is among the most powerful. The most common fear is not of illness or accident, but public speaking; soldiers will march into certain doom rather than be branded cowards. Many clients tell me they prefer lives of quiet desperation to the possible embarrassment of trying and failing to realize their heart’s desire. 

Humiliation’s power can keep people from violating basic social boundaries. But like tear gas, it has only one effect: incapacitation. Try this little experiment. Say out loud the words “I’m so ashamed of myself,” and notice how your mind and body react. You’ll probably feel enervated, paralyzed, as though you’ve donned a lead straitjacket. These sensations don’t just stop you from doing anything wrong; they stop you from doing anything, period. 

To see the effect of this, consider an area of your life in which you feel frustrated and stuck: relationships, work, personal goals, maybe all of the above. Are you doing absolutely everything possible to get what you want in these areas? If not, why not? Why not demand that promotion, resist your critical mother, write your novel? If fear of humiliation is your problem, your answer will probably be something like: “If I do that, people may gossip about me/hate me/laugh at me/judge me.” Or “That’s unheard-of in my family/neighborhood/religion/company.” Or maybe, simply,?”That would make me look greedy/stupid/fat/selfish/wimpy/ wrong.” 

These phrases, and any other variation on the “what people might think” theme, are shame mantras. Obeying them prevents all kinds of experiences—but not, it turns out, humiliation. In fact, the more we obey our fear of shame, the more our frame of mind guarantees we’ll feel humiliated.

Choosing Freedom

To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can cause us to feel humiliation or shame without our consent. Conversely, withdrawing our consent can end shame-based pain and paralysis immediately. That’s because the real cause of humiliation isn’t being judged or attacked by others, it’s living in any way that conflicts with your real values. 

For example, there are cultures in which women are terrifically ashamed if they don’t have wooden plates in their lips or metal rings elongating their necks. You probably aren’t wearing either accessory, but this doesn’t make you feel humiliated—and probably wouldn’t even if you were to visit one of these societies—because you don’t adhere to those standards of beauty. 

On the other hand, many American women feel deeply humiliated if they have more fat than a ballpoint pen, even though some cultures idealize a hefty figure. Standards of beauty are arbitrary. Body shame exists only to the extent that our physiques don’t match our own beliefs about how we should look. Change the belief “I should be ashamed” to, say, “I should be kind” and humiliation disappears, leaving us empowered rather than paralyzed. 

Humiliation Elimination

Align Your Actions With Your Convictions 

If your behavior violates your own moral standards, humiliation is a natural consequence. There are two strategies for avoiding this. Strategy number one is obvious: Don’t do anything you think is wrong or fail to do anything you consider morally necessary. I’m guessing you’re a well-meaning person who’s trying to follow the rules, but if you’re having persistent trouble “being good” or if your shame is triggered because of what you are rather than what you do, adopt strategy number two: Stop trying to change your behavior; instead, rethink your beliefs. 

I first understood the power of this shift after my son’s diagnosis. Although I desperately feared the humiliation of having an “imperfect” child, something in me resisted giving him up. So, unable to bring my actions into line with my beliefs, I gradually brought my beliefs into line with my actions. I began questioning the assumption that people with Down Syndrome are imperfect. Like anyone else, they are perfectly themselves, as nature made them. Maybe the real defect lay in the belief that such loving and lovable people were defective. 

This way of thinking felt strange to me but very right. As soon as I tried it on, I felt my humiliation begin to evaporate. I’ve since heard many clients describe this feeling after flipping a belief on its head. Many have spent years paralyzed by the thought, I feel so humiliated. There must be something wrong with me. Things begin to move the moment they try thinking, I feel so humiliated. Maybe there’s something wrong with my beliefs. (Note: Humiliation won’t disappear unless your new attitude is genuinely okay for you. Merely excusing behavior you feel in your heart to be wrong only increases shame.)

Rejecting humiliation in this way can transform you from a psychological paralytic to a powerful force for positive change. Like Huck Finn wrestling with social training that said he should be ashamed at hiding a runaway slave, then rejecting his belief in slavery, you may discover that your new truth feels “righter” than society’s preconceptions. 

Open Up 

Once your beliefs are congruent with your actions, the next step toward banishing humiliation is openness. Starting with a person who feels safe and nonjudgmental, raise the very conversational topics you’ve always avoided out of embarrassment. Talk, write, shout, laugh, or cry out loud about whatever humiliates you most. 

If this sounds crazy, think about how Princess Diana was embraced by the public for opening up about her eating disorder, her depression, her affairs. On the other hand, public figures who lied to avoid humiliation (Pete Rose, former president Clinton) ended up being more shamed than if they’d been honest from the get-go.

Once you’ve confided in your safe person, begin broadening your circle. Discuss your taboo issue with friends, colleagues, even the world at large. Take this at your own pace, and treat yourself kindly if you get a response that formerly might have mired you in shame. Remember that you are acting as morally as you know how, and that you therefore have no reason to feel humiliated. Then talk to someone else about how awful it felt to be judged. The more open you are, the more others will support you. 

Be Proud 

Know this: If you are following your own moral rules, the very things you’re ashamed of are likely the things about which you can feel most proud. Say you’ve battled obesity, mental illness, addiction, or abuse: Take pride in the extraordinary courage you’ve shown by surviving and working toward health. If others make you feel ashamed for what you are—your heritage, your sense of what is true for you—you’ll find that expressing pride in those same qualities is the road to inner peace. 

This works in silly situations as well as lofty ones. Remember when Rev. Jerry Falwell accused Teletubby Tinky Winky of same-sex orientation? Falwell pointed out that Tinky was purple (gay), had a triangle-shaped antenna on his head (gay), and carried a purse (gay, gay, gay). Instead of counterattacking, a number of people nominated Tinky Winky for grand marshal of the San Francisco gay pride parade, turning a potential shame fest into a jolly celebration. (Tinky Winky didn’t win the vote, but you get the point.) 

I got a similar gift from the potential humiliation of having a son with an extra chromosome. Sure, strangers have recoiled, doctors and associates have bluntly told me that keeping him was stupid. Long ago I stopped feeling humiliated by such nonsense. I am proud of everything about Adam, who at 22 is one of the finest people I know. I’ve written about him, traveled the world with him, stood with him before crowds gathered to celebrate his difference. What’s sometimes hard to contain is not the humiliation but the pride and joy of taking my child out in public. 

The same process can work for you. Are you ashamed about your body, your history, your loves, your longings? If you know in your heart that these things are right for you, stop trying to fix, change, expel, or squash them. Share them. Take them out in public every darn chance you get. Now say it out loud: “I’m so proud of myself.” The rush of strength and expansiveness that comes from declaring this honestly is the antidote to paralysis and the beginning of many wonderful adventures. And each time you choose that instead of shame, you really should be proud. 

Is life just one damn thing after another?

by Pamela Slim

My cellphone rang yesterday.

“I can’t believe I’m calling you,” a woman I will call “Beatrice” said. “I don’t know where else to turn.”

“I read Martha’s North Star book a few years ago and, while pursuing a dream job on account of a man, actually made tremendous progress in my career. I have since received national awards for my work. I never thought it would be possible to get paid for work I love, but I made it happen.”

“Now my romantic life is a disaster. Today was a breaking point. I was in the Disney store with my daughter and saw an ad for a cheesy movie about a robot who finds love on another planet. I thought “Even a freaking robot finds love. Why can’t I?” and I started sobbing. My 25-year old daughter looked at me like I had lost my mind. I have been divorced for years and have gotten to a point where I am devastatingly lonely. I don’t even know where to begin to fix it. Can you help?”

This situation, while extremely painful for Beatrice, is a very common occurrence.

How is it that you can be really together in one area of your life and a wreck in another? Why can one area of your life skyrocket (career, love life, finances) and the other tank (health, relationship with kids, level of grunge in ring on bathtub)? Is it just a big conspiracy to keep you from being happy?

I think it is actually a kind and gentle way that life lets you chip away at improving different parts of yourself at different times. In the complex web of your brain, heart and spirit, all parts of your life are not always in similar states of health and harmony. This is why you see cases of:

  • The blockbuster actor going to prison for 3 years for tax evasion
  • The successful governor cavorting with prostitutes
  • The supportive husband and excellent father sticking with a dead-end, miserable job

We all become ready for change for different reasons. For Beatrice, her “Disney meltdown” was a cry for help. She realized that if she did not attend to this long-neglected part of her life, she was going to lose her mind. I have witnessed or experienced the following catalysts for major life change:

  • A father finally making a career change after learning that while he was working 200 miles away, his 3-year old son was crying for him in the middle of the night. Realizing how much he missed growing up with his own father, who had died in the Korean War, he got chills realizing he was not present in the lives of his children. So he quit his high-paying job the next day, and started a career working from home.
  • My own health crisis spurred by a toxic relationship. It took me getting severe pneumonia to finally take action to leave a poisoned relationship. Lying in bed, wheezing, with a strong fever and not even enough energy to reach the remote control that was one foot away, I realized it was time to change my life. I picked up the phone and told my best friend for the first time how bad things really were.
  • A successful young career woman radically changed her work and lifestyle after the untimely death of her mother. A now thriving entrepreneur who travels the world for a living told me that what finally moved her to quit her “secure” corporate job was the death of her mother. Suddenly, it became clear how fleeting life was, and she realized she was in charge of her own destiny.

Whatever spurs you to change, once you are ready, what do you do?

Martha’s Finding Your Own North Star is the robust road map for doing this work, and clearly lays out a methodology for how and what to do. Her new book Steering by Starlight expands and deepens this work. But if you don’t have a lot of time to read, here are a few shortcuts, drawing from some previous posts on this blog:

  1. Commit to working on this part of your life. Beatrice’s Disney meltdown moment was powerful enough for her to pick up the phone and reach out for help. She is interested in working with a coach to help her navigate what feels like the shark-filled waters of attracting a loving partner. Your defining moment will be different than anyone else’s, and may not even be voluntary, but it is worth it to step into the Ring of Fire.
  2. Examine your thoughts and feelings on this topic. Beatrice and I spent a short time on the phone, but I could tell that she had some powerful thoughts and feelings about love and relationships that were causing her a lot of suffering. Common limiting beliefs in the area of relationships can be things like:
    -All men are dogs
    -I am not lovable
    -In order to have a strong relationship, I have to give up my own needs
    -I will find love only when I lose 50 pounds/clear up my acne/finally get a nose job
    -Love hurts
  3. Once you zero in on some thoughts or beliefs that cause you suffering, apply the 4 questions from The Work:
  4. 1. Is it true?
    2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?
    3. How do you react when you think that thought?
    4. Who would you be without that thought?


    Turn it around.

    Master Coach Brooke Castillo put together some more tools and information on Self Coaching here.

  5. Leverage the strength you have in one area of your life for others. Beatrice told me that she totally amazed herself with the progress she made in her career. Although the process she used to get there was not ideal (In her words, “I want to make sure that I point out that I wound up with the job of my dreams because I wanted a relationship with the man I worked with. He is one annoying human being and I drove myself to reach far beyond what I ever I had before because I was trying to prove to him I could do it and I wound up proving it to myself in the process. I wasn’t exactly trying to become what I became, it just happened and then I realized 18 years ago that it was secret desire I had harbored all along. I just literally came to the point where I couldn’t keep waiting for him but by that point I was at the top of my field. I’m not sure if you’d want to recommend that method to anyone – however I think it does fall along the lines of what Martha mentions about being so attracted to someone or something that it leads you where you’re supposed to be.”)
    Regardless of how you got there, if you feel ease and strength in one part of your life, use it to remind yourself that you are capable of taking on huge challenges and succeeding.
  6. Create a positive, supportive Everybody to help you along. In Is there a conspiracy by The Man to keep you down? I describe the broad, generalized, highly judgmental “Everyone” that keeps many people from making progress in their life. You know that you need to do some Everybody juggling when your soul screams out “I must make a change in my career!” but your mind says “But everyone will think I have lost my mind if I change my job! When you surround yourself with good thoughts and supportive people, the process of change is much more manageable.
  7. Take turtle steps. Making major life changes (starting a business, looking for a life partner, cleaning up financial chaos) can bring up a tremendous amount of overwhelm and panic. If you try to tackle the whole thing, you will most likely end up on the floor of your bedroom in the fetal position. We are very fond of turtles around the virtual halls of Martha Beck Inc. (hence the photo!) and have seen the power of slow, steady, steps for making significant change. For a cool tool, try a 4-Day Win.

I am honored that Beatrice had enough trust to share her innermost fears with a total stranger (me). And that she agreed to let her own struggle be a point of education and support on this blog for others (you) who face similar challenges in your own life.

An encouraging sign? Beatrice and I are already laughing in our email exchange about the Disney meltdown moment. She was the one that suggested her pseudonym: “Call me Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing!” When you start to laugh at what has felt deeply painful and frightening, you know you are squarely on the path to your own North Star.

Happy travels Beatrice — we are cheering for you.

If you have any advice or encouragement, chime in with your comment!

Do you really HAVE to do anything?

by Pamela Slim

If you have ever watched the Discovery Channel, you have seen the fury of a mother bear defending her cubs from the video lens of an over-eager nature lover. With fangs bared and claws ready to attack, she focuses all of her power and girth at taking down the potential threat.

Such intensity almost matches a creative father who adamantly defends his miserable career as a network administrator since he “has to” pay for his children’s education.

Or a young college student who “has to” answer her overbearing mother’s calls, even in the middle of a date.

Or a mother who “has to” feed her children only organic carrots fertilized with vegetable compost blessed by Tibetan monks.

Or an executive who “has to” work weekends and vacations in order to stay competitive.

The fact is, we don’t have to do anything. We choose to do things with specific consequences. Different choices = different consequences.

This slight distinction has huge implications for your sense of personal power.

But releasing these ingrained “have tos,” also called your “personal religion,” is not easy.

To get you started, here are three short exercises:

1. Body Compass:

  • Close your eyes and deeply relax. Vividly recall an exceptionally painful or unhappy experience. Notice how this memory is making you feel, not emotionally, but physically. What bodily sensations or symptoms are connected to the negative event?
  • Name this sensation with a word or phrase.
  • Assign a score to this negative feeling from 1-10, with the worst possible score being a 10.
  • Repeat this process, thinking this time about the very best time of your life. Notice your body symptoms, name the sensation, and assign a score.

Once you have this valuable information about your “body compass,” you can use it to understand how you are really feeling about a situation. When you think a thought or ponder a decision, what do you feel in your body? Is it your “best” or “worst” feeling? What is the score?

2. Think of some things you have had to do lately that made you uncomfortable, sad or angry such as:

  1. I had to lend my brother $250 (again) so he could pay his rent
  2. I had to attend a boring all-day meeting
  3. I had to enter my credit card items in Quickbooks to prepare for my tax filing
  4. I had to attend a dinner party of a neighbor who I don’t particularly like
  5. I had to do my laundry
  6. I had to fire an employee
  7. I had to take my son’s car away after he had an accident
  8. I had to call a client and tell him we were behind on his project
  9. I had to decline a weekend away with the girls since I didn’t have enough money
  10. I had to walk the dog in -20 degree weather

Using your body compass, assign a number from -10 to +10 to each item, based on the way your body reacts to each item.

3. Take the item with the worst score and examine the belief.

Belief: I have to lend money to my brother.

Why?: Because if I don’t, he will get angry and call me selfish.

What will happen if he gets angry? He may stop talking to me.

How will you feel if your brother stops talking to you? Crappy. Unloved.

What do you really want? I want my brother to love me.

Since you can’t control anyone else’s thoughts and emotions, what do you want? I want to feel loved.

What is another way you can feel loved? I can love myself. I can surround myself with people whose love is not contingent on loaning money. And I can love others.

Suddenly, your steadfast belief that you have to lend your brother money loses its power. You learn that you can choose not to lend the money and still feel good. And if you choose to lend the money, you will do so freely and without the expectation of anything in return.

You can apply this framework to any one of the above scenarios and see how it changes your sense of obligation.

Original thought: I have to stay in this job to pay for my kids’ college
Underlying desire: I want my kids to get a good education.
Question: How can I help my kids get a good education?

Original thought: I have to answer all my mother’s calls, no matter my personal situation
Underlying desire
: I want my mother to know I love and respect her.
Question: How can I demonstrate love and respect to my mother while still maintaining my independence and privacy?

Original thought: I have to feed my kids 100% organic food at all times
Underlying desire: I want my kids to be healthy.
Question: How can I help my kids be healthy?

Original thought: I have to do my laundry
Underlying desire: I want to have clean clothes
Question: How can I get my clothes clean?

All this boils down to realizing that you have unlimited choices about how to live your life. When you own your choices, you feel more powerful and are more able to act in your best interest.

Let’s try something: If you catch yourself saying “I have to … ” this week, stop, pinch yourself and say “I choose to …” If you don’t like your choice, make another one! You may be surprised at how free you feel.

Can you share the results of your experiment here in the comments?

Are your thoughts keeping you stuck? Time for some belief busting


by Pamela Slim

The other day, I was talking with my client Laura (not her real name) about her big, audacious business idea.  She had shared lots of background information on the project over email, and it was clear to me she was wildly informed about the idea and extremely competent to implement it.  Then she said:

“I want to talk to some other people who are doing similar projects, but I am not prepared enough to talk to them yet.”

As soon as she said this, I heard a big “SCREECH!” sound in my mind which is an indication that some belief busting is in order.

How do beliefs get in our way?

If you read magazines or watch news shows, you should have no problem knowing what to do to improve your life.  Articles and stories abound about things like:

  • How to lose 10 pounds in 2 days while eating chips and salsa
  • 3 steps to turn your potato chip-loving kids into tofu enthusiasts
  • 7 ways to find the mate of your dreams
  • 8 ways to reduce your debt and have financial freedom
  • And my personal favorite that has been covered by Cosmopolitan Magazine at least 5,000 times in the last 40 years:  5 ways to make your man deliriously happy in bed!

The fact is, we know what to do and how to do it.  So why don’t we?

Because of unhealthy and unhelpful beliefs.

Using my earlier example, my client wants to get her business off the ground.  She knows that in order to do it in the most efficient way possible, she needs to learn from others who have already walked that road.  But her belief “I am not prepared enough to talk to other business owners” is getting in her way.

To help shake loose this unhelpful thought, I used the four questions from Byron Katie’s pioneering book called Loving What Is:  Four questions that can change your life

As Katie says in her book:

“The Work is simply four questions that, when applied to a specific problem, enable you to see what is troubling you in an entirely different light. It’s not the problem that causes our suffering; it’s our thinking about the problem. Contrary to popular belief, trying to let go of a painful thought never works; instead, once we have done The Work the thought lets go of us.  At that point, we can truly love what is, just as it is.”

The Four Questions from “The Work.”

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it is true?
  3. How do you react when you think that thought?
  4. Who would you be without that thought?and

Turn it around.

Here is how my client and I used it.  I added my commentary in parentheses under each question:

Me:  You said that you were not prepared to talk to other business owners about your idea.  Is it true?

Laura: No, it is not true.
(When asked directly, she immediately realized that this belief was not true.)

Me:  So you can see specific reasons it may not be true?

Laura:  Yes.
(If someone is not as clear as Laura when asked the first question, I might clarify this second question with an  example like “Is there any possibility that this is not true?”  Usually this is enough to shake up some of the belief)

MeHow do you feel when you think the thought “I am not prepared to talk to other business owners about my idea?”

Laura:  I feel my energy level dip.  Lack of confidence creeps in.  I get overwhelmed.

MeWho would you be without that thought?

Laura:  I would be strong and confident.  I would not be afraid to talk to anyone.

Me:  OK, so if we wanted to take your original statement and turn it around to its opposite, what might it be?

Laura:  I am prepared to talk to anyone about my project.

MeIs this belief as true or more true as your original statement?

Laura:  It is more true.

Me:  What about, “Other business leaders are prepared to talk to me?” I asked.

Laura:  “Yes!” Laura said.  “I’m asking them for guidance–I just have to learn.”

“People like teaching others who seem fascinated in their stories,” I put in.  “I think you’ll find they like talking to you even more than you enjoy listening to them.”

(I could hear over the phone that Laura was more relaxed and upbeat about the thought of talking to new partners after walking through the 4 questions.  Most importantly, the thought “I am not prepared enough to talk to other business owners” was not holding her back from action which is the special talent of unhealthy and unhelpful beliefs.)

Is it really as simple as that?

Well, yes and no.

When you approach The Work with an open mind and really tap into your own truth, you will find that the most negative beliefs about yourself are rarely grounded in reality.  Replacing these thoughts with positive, action-oriented and empowering thoughts will at the least make you a happier person and at the most allow you to experience mind-altering progress in all aspects of your life.

The Work lives in the Ring of Fire that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  It literally burns up beliefs that hold you back and replaces them with lighter energy and forward momentum.

But it will only work if you approach it with an open mind and a clear heart.

Try it yourself with sneaky thoughts that creep in your head like:

  • I will never get out of debt
  • My kids will never eat healthy food and will blow up like Violet Beauregarde, the blueberry girl from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • My troubled past makes me unlovable
  • I am not experienced enough to start my own business
  • These 20 lbs of baby weight will be permanently attached to my thighs until I draw my last breath

I would love to hear how The Work works for you!  Try it and report back in the comments section.  It is best if you can do it in partnership with a trusted friend or coach.

Happy belief busting!