Not too long ago, I received an email from a new friend. We had just finished spending five days together with some colleagues from the “yoga service” world, working on a book about the best yoga practices for sexual trauma survivors. His email was thoughtful and gentle, but I had made a comment over the weekend that just didn’t sit right with him, and he wanted to let me know. He offered me some useful reading on a subject that he admittedly has much more knowledge on. He offered himself for continued conversation and signed off with love. Without a beat, shame set in.

Brené Brown calls it a “warm wash.” For me, it’s a punch in the gut. It’s a sick feeling in the centre of my solar plexus and a hint of nausea followed by a tidal wave of racing thoughts – which ranges from composing a panicky reply and explaining in great detail why what I said is not actually what I meant, to explaining the backstory of the comment in order to give relevant context to what I said, among many more.

Then, self-judgement set in.

You’re such an idiot.
There you go saying the wrong thing – again.
You can never get anything right.
You don’t fit in with this group.
You’re a fraud.
Give up.

But shame is not what you think it is. Yes, it is a merciless barrage of a cocktail of thoughts intended to remind us that there is just something about us that sets us apart … something broken. Something so fundamentally flawed that we question why we ever thought we could fit in, be of value, or be seen for who we truly are.

But, in the moment of descending into a shame spiral after reading my friend’s email, I also knew what this shame was – or, more specifically, who she was.

Yes, shame is my little protector who is no longer necessary, yet around nonetheless. She is an adaptive survival strategy from the far recesses of my childhood. She is the belief formed long ago that I don’t know right from wrong or good from bad. And what is important to know about shame (right along with fear and guilt) is that it (she) is trying to protect me by keeping me safe from the judgements of others – which, in the experience of a young child, feels very dangerous and even life-threatening.

By reminding me that I’m no good, shame heads rejection off at the pass. Because back when this survival strategy formed, it felt safer to tell myself that I was no good than to be vulnerable to the rejection of others.

It is the reason we have trouble feeling confident, pretty, smart, or generally good enough. Because if we do feel good enough,the sting of someone else reminding us that we are not is far more painful than us taking care of it ourselves.

But none of us need our shame adaptation to protect us in our adult lives – or in any moment of our lives really. Because the voices of shame are fuelled by the sensations in our bodies. And the sensations in our bodies are a mechanism of our survival response – alerting us that our life is in danger, which it most certainly not. So, the next time you feel the warm wash of shame, try the following:

1. Call your attention to the sensations you feel in your body.

2. Remind yourself that shame is a survival adaptation from long ago.

3. Take 5 to 10 (or more) deep abdominal breaths.

4.Give yourself plenty of space and time before responding to whatever it was that triggered the shame.

Shame is not something we like to talk about, let alone feel. And, if we ignore or judge the shame we feel, it only ensures that our next shame spiral will feel more excruciating than the last.

However, when we think about shame as a misguided survival strategy formed in our childhood, it becomes easier to admit to and have compassion for. When we understand that development of shame is a part of the fundamental human experience, we can feel connected with one another, not in spite of our feelings of shame, but because of them.