A Simple Exercise to Stop Feeling Shame, Per Albert Ellis

· March 2, 2018

Shame is an emotion activated every time we think we’ve broken a social norm. It fulfills a powerful function of social regulation. For millions of years it has played into acceptance in groups and, as a result, our survival. Shame is still a part of our society, but sometimes it manifests in inappropriate situations.

There are situations that we might call risky because we know it’s very likely we will be embarrassed. Are we going to be rejected by the social group? Probably not, but we think so. We also label this unlikely event as terrible. Since we believe ahead of time that we are going to be rejected, we activate shame. Then shame triggers actions aimed at protecting us from possible rejection.

There are two ways to stop feeling dysfunctional shame: one is to convince ourselves through internal dialogue that we have no evidence pointing to our environment disapproving of us. Even if that were the case, we don’t need the whole world to accept us, either.

The other way is to risk embarrassment and do it voluntarily. This is what cognitive psychologist Albert Ellis designed a series of exercises aimed at. The end goal? Unconditional self-acceptance.

Albert Ellis and shame attack exercises

What Albert Ellis intended with these exercises is for the person who does them to see that their value is immutable. Whoever we are, however we act, our value will always remain the same. Thinking this way lets us live much more freely. We live according to what we need and belief, not depending on our environment accepting or not accepting us.

A woman smiling in acceptance.

If we value ourselves — and also others — just for being in existence, it will be harder to not be ourselves. We won’t need social approval so much, which will make us more authentic people.

In general, we have been taught to feel shame every time we do something that society has labeled as reprehensible. When we experience shame, we’re really telling ourselves we are despicable beings.  We’re saying we’ll never know how to do the right thing and no one will love us. There are an endless number of irrational and bitter things we tell ourselves.

To keep this from happening, Albert Ellis proposes thinking of something that our culture labels ridiculous, but does not contribute to enhancing our image. Do you have something in mind? Once you’ve thought about it, as soon as it’s possible to do it, you have to go ahead and do it right away.

The objective is to expose ourselves to shame and criticism. We want people to look at us strangely and snicker. So what will this do for us? It will prove to us that nothing terrible will happen.

Silly friends wearing wigs using Albert Ellis and his shame attacks.

 

The worst that can happen is that we be rejected from others. But let’s think carefully. Has rejection ever killed anyone? What does it mean if some people do not approve of me as I am? Whose problem is it, mine or theirs?

One exercise Albert Ellis gives as an example is to walk a banana down the street as if it were our pet. Talking to it, petting it, pulling it with a leash…

Another exercise is to stop someone on the street and tell them that you’ve just gotten out of the insane asylum and you’d like to know what year it is. You could also opt for singing your favorite song in the street or going out dressed silly. Whatever you choose, it has to be something that truly activates your shame. The idea is for you to learn to tolerate shame and to put what happens into perspective.

You may surprise yourself…

You’re probably thinking, “I would never do this, I’d look like a crazy person!” And you may be right, but the surprising thing is that not many people do it. We create non-existent catastrophes the more we think about something.

In other words, we start to believe that everyone will reject us, we’ll never get their approval, it’s going to be terrible, being rejected means we’re lower than dirt, etc. However, when we do Albert Ellis’s exercise, we finally realize that all these thinking errors — generalization, dramatizing, selective attention — are leading us to unrealistic conclusions.

A woman holding bananas on her head.

It’s true that some people will look at us badly and maybe even insult us, but if we really look at them we’ll probably see dissatisfaction and sadness in their faces. That is, they already have problems in their life. It has nothing to do with you. However, other people — most of them — will laugh with us. Some will even join our little show and not judge us harshly. We may even make new friends.

Let’s not forget that after all, they’re just people too. They also mess up and make a fool of themselves sometimes. They make mistakes, they fix them, they feel emotions, etc. If they judge you, it will just be their problem, never yours. As long as you don’t hurt anyone, you’re free to act as you please.

Can you think of a good exercise to attack your shame? Do you dare?