How to Transform Shame over the Holidays

There’s a subtle or not so subtle expectation of what is supposed to be happening this time of year: images of a loving family gathered around a tree or fireplace, expensive presents, lots of food to eat, the image of love and connection through the generations as people smile at each other. Whether on TV or a holiday card or images on the internet, there is a warm feeling of connection to these images. Whatever each family tradition or circumstance, if there is difference, sometimes even there is shame. And there can be shame between our imagined family on TV or little house on the prairie memories and the remembered unavoidable misattunements, and even horrors in some families, of what showed up growing up.

It’s helpful this time of year to bring in some somatic, cognitive, and imaginal coping skills as well as basic reminders to talk to yourself in a kind way. The inner critic can take hold and not let go if it is expressing the difference between those images and what you are actually longing for.

One thing to do is to ground yourself. Take some breaths and feel your body in this time and this place.

Remind yourself that there is something important and sacred about the holiday time. This is a time when we can pause for replenishment. It’s important to be able to talk to yourself in a kind way: This can counter-shame a negative commentary between what you wished were happening this season and what is actually true. 

There are people who have lost their homes in both northern and southern California. It is very unfortunate that there are displaced people all over the world. 

This year, a new female client who had heard our presentation on the Sounds True Self-Acceptance Summit came in for some sessions. She had decided that she was not going to go home this year. She was reminded in our sessions of feeling tormented every year around holiday time when feelings of fear and shame came up around her yearly holiday visit to her family on the east coast. She marveled in our conversations about how different she was from how her family remembered her, and she decided not to visit them this year. Then suddenly in her most recent session she came in and said, “I DO WANT TO FLY HOME AFTER ALL!!!” in a surprisingly strong and clear voice. I joined her, in this sudden excitement when there had just been a kind of deadness, mirroring her hand movements. We each synchronistically put hand quotes around the word “home” and then noticed that we both did this and laughed. A couple times we both repeated “home” with the quotation marks, increasing the volume with a questioning sound as I mirrored her. I played for a few moments with the sound of the word “home” and the question in my tone. A lot of our discussion in past sessions was on the home she had built for herself in California and the career she had built in San Francisco. She spoke of her childhood experience trying so hard to be what her parents wanted that she would actually feel sick to her stomach. 

“But I realize that I’m not that person now!” she said. “You feel powerless as a child, but now I realize I’m not that person! And I don’t need them to give me what I needed when I was a child. All of a sudden I don’t need that anymore. I am a different person. And I choose me! I realize my mother did her best out of love. And it wasn’t what I needed, and that was her best. As a child I always kept watching, trying to understand what to do to not cause them to rage at me or each other. I kept watching.” 

“You kept watching,” I said, repeating and mirroring and being witness to her experience. 

“Why can’t I figure it out correctly? Am I not smart enough?” she said in a much younger voice. Her inner child part was alive now in the session.

I said gently to her, “You were trying your best watching for clues to figure out what they were doing so you could fix things.” 

“Yes” she said. “I would sacrifice—give up part of myself.”

“There is a way you would shame yourself and give up a part of yourself. But you had shame because you were shamed,” I said to her.

“And now I don’t want to do that anymore,” she said. “I want to have a life!”

I asked her to breathe in and feel where the sensation was in her body when she said that. We worked very gently and slowly by melting her shame freeze. By breathing slowly and having her listen quietly. I asked her to work with her experience of shame in the moment. I spoke in a kind, reassuring voice. “I am your witness. You are not alone anymore with the tremendous shame.”

Eventually she said, “I want to put down the shame, I don’t need it anymore.”

I told her, “Maybe there was a way you would hide under the shame. It would protect you. I say it wasn’t your fault. And maybe you can open your life to something different now.”

I asked, “What’s it like to feel heard and understood?” 

“I’m not so alone,” she said slowly.

I was guiding her to feel the feeling and to speak to me at the same time. We were looking for her act hunger, a longing in her viscera that wanted to be loved and recognized and not squish herself smaller any longer.

“And how can you remember to protect yourself when you go home?” I asked. 

“I’m not going to accept bad behavior. I am a different person. I may get mad at them. I’m not going to keep up the front anymore. And I’m not going to put myself down. In the past they took their adult responsibility too far and put me down because I was different. They’d say, ‘What’s wrong with you!?’ And I can say to myself, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me!’ That’s their stuff.” 

So this client who was not wanting to visit her family had a change of heart between sessions. So at this session she came in deciding that she did want to visit her family after all, not from the shamed shrinking place but with some healthy pride and more her true self. 

Here are some lessons from the session I want to share with you, the reader. And please know that everyone is very different. Please find the one or two exercises that work for you and know that the others work for someone else. Please use your own judgment. These can be powerful practices!

Separating Past and Present
Allow yourself to feel the present in this moment and imagine the past over there across the room. “I’m in the present now, and I imagine the past in the past.” Turn and look at something that you are proud of or happy about.

Imagining a Hopeful Future
If this holiday is gloomy for you right now, imagine Annie’s singing voice: “The sun will come out tomorrow!” and you can even listen to her sing in the play “Annie” on YouTube.

Somatic Resourcing
Close your eyes and breathe. Take a few deep breaths. Imagine breathing in light on the in breath, hold your breath for 5 counts, and breathe out darkness on the out breath for 5 counts. Keep breathing in light on the in breath, and darkness out on the out breath. You can do this for 5 or 10 breaths, whatever feels right. Do a body scan and notice the difference… OR imagine breathing in darkness for 5 breaths, transform it to light in your heart, and breathe out light for 5 breaths. Continue this for 5 or 10 breaths, do a body scan and notice what feels different. This is the time of year when there is incredible power in darkness. And tell yourself, “It is always darkest before the dawn.”

You can rock in a rocking chair and hold yourself, saying, “It’s going to be okay.”

Counter-shame yourself when you hear yourself putting yourself down with comparisons. Increase your role repertoire. Counter the shame with something positive that will be happening in the future.

Find what does give you pleasure and focus on that. Let yourself enjoy something that you can appreciate.

Reach out to your family or partner or someone you appreciate and really appreciate them!

And if nothing else works: “This too shall pass.”

Wishing everyone a peaceful and loving experience this holiday season!


© 2017  Sheila Rubin
Photo by Sheila Rubin