It seems unbelievable that people might be able to work through longstanding emotional baggage quickly and easily. However, in some circumstances it’s possible to break free of long-term shame and/or anxiety with some small cognitive-behavioral shifts. Try these suggestions to see how.
1. Be honest, open and upfront about unwarranted sources of shame.
Let’s run through an example of this principle. I’m an extreme night owl. I love the quiet and stillness of the night I used to feel embarrassed about the fact I get up late. I’d be tempted to make excuses about why I wasn’t available in the morning. Now, I’m honest and upfront with friends and colleagues about the hours I keep. If I absolutely need to get up early for something important of course I do, but I let people know I stay up late and get up late.
When you have an atypical habit like this, there’s a balance involved in not expecting other people to bend to your needs more than you bend to their’s. I can say “My preference is afternoon appointments but I can do morning if need be.” Or, “I’d need to get up much earlier than I usually do in order to meet you that early, but if that’s the only time you have available, I can.”
How this helps: Feelings follow actions. Therefore when you act less ashamed you’ll also feel less ashamed. Also, other people generally appreciate you being honest and upfront with them, provided you’re not a diva about it!
2. Decide what you’re not going to allow to get to you.
Research indicates that around 50% of our relationships can be classified as ambivalent or mixed emotion relationships, meaning those relationships are a source of both positive and negative emotions for us. Our partners and family members often know our emotional buttons and how to push them. Think about what your family tease you over that really gets to you, or what your partner brings up when they’re hurt and want to hurt you back. For example, if your family make critical comments about your appearance choices or your partner brings up a mistake you made years ago.
How this helps: We get into cycles of mutual antagonism with people we’re close to. By deciding what you’re not going to let bother you, you drop the fight and reduce other people’s ability to manipulate your emotions.
Simply deciding not to get upset isn’t going to completely solve the problem. You’ll likely still get somewhat upset but less intensely.
3. Give up on a goal.
If you like learning new things and challenging yourself, you probably have a laundry list of goals you’d like to achieve, such as running a marathon, learning another language, or getting six pack abs. It can be demoralizing to have these goals float around in the background of your mind, but you never put sustained effort into achieving them. Likewise, you might start pursuing your goal periodically but your effort fades after a few days.
Try radical giving up of goals that would take hundreds of hours of effort, where realistically you have other goals, responsibilities, and needs (such as for relaxation) that are your higher priorities. Try saying to yourself “I’m not going to pursue the goal of….. now or in the near future.” You can even write a list for your wall of goals you’re not going to work on.
How this helps: Radical giving up stops you feeling like a failure due to un-pursued goals. By giving up on goals that don’t realistically warrant the time and effort you’d need to commit, you can have laser focus on the goals that are currently worth the effort required.
4. Decide what you’re not responssible for.
People who have anxiety are typically also prone to excess responsibility taking. This can manifest as feeling responsible for helping other people avoid making bad decisions. If you fall into this trap, actively identify what you’re not responsible for, such as you’re not responsible for the financial choices your parents make, fixing your partner’s depression, or changing your schedule to accommodate a friend who frequently needs to change plans last minute.
How this helps: This tip is useful for helping you see that you’re taking excessive responsibility when otherwise you might not recognize it. Excessive responsibility taking can lead to behaviors like frequent nagging. By dropping this tendency, it can help establish better boundaries in your relationships.
Secondly, worrying about others can also sometimes be a way of avoiding what you need to work on for yourself. By releasing some of your concern for others, you may become less avoidant about improving your own behavior, and have more energy for doing so.
5. Actively forgive yourself for past mistakes.
What past mistakes do you ruminate about? What decisions do you regret? Think about the types of painful memories and regrets that tend to be triggered when you’re pushing yourself to get outside of your comfort zone.
Sometime that you’re alone, simply say out loud to yourself “I forgive myself for…..” Use whatever compassionate self-talk feels like an appropriate balance between kindness and appropriate responsibility taking. For example, “I forgive myself for spending money on….. It wasn’t a smart decision. Everyone makes a mixture of good and bad decisions and this wasn’t an ideal choice. I’m going to forgive myself and move on so I don’t feel paralyzed in making future decisions.”
How this helps: Getting bogged down in shame and rumination tends to be very counter productive. For example, you made a bad investing choice in your 20s and now you’re in your 30s and too scared to start retirement investing due to your past mistake. Forgiving yourself for past mistakes and shedding that emotional baggage can help you make more objective decisions now.
Making subtle changes to your thinking and behavior can have a bigger accumulated impact in your life than you might expect. People often overestimate what’s needed to make significant cognitive-behavioral shifts. Give these suggestions a try and experiment for yourself.
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