5 Tools for Dealing with Shame

As you know, shame is one of my favorite things to write about, since I have so much of it on daily basis. I’m pretty sure I’ve had shame all of my life, but it wasn’t until I started to taking improv classes in my late teens that I started to really start to feel it.

Unfortunately I didn’t know what it was until 25 years later.

The most common form of shame that most of us are all familiar with is when we do a show, an audition, or even a class and we do something that is embarrassing. For example, maybe we’re in a play or scene study class and we forget a line or a whole section of a scene. In improv, it could be that we felt we didn’t do as well as we thought we should have on a particular night. Or in an audition, we got nervous and it didn’t go as well as it had when we practiced it at home in front of the mirror.

When we go to that place of shame, we often think if we quit, we won’t ever have to feel that emotion any more. That is a bold face lie that our shame tells us.

Shame is a hump we can all get over. I know, because I have felt it often, but luckily, I have learned some tools along the way that help lessen those horrible feelings of shame and make it go away more quickly.

Here are five tools I have picked up along the way that I have found helpful with dealing with shame:

  1. Name It
    One of the best ways to overcome a bought of shame is to name it. Call it what it is: shame. It is a feeling as intense as they come, but remember, it’s just a feeling. It won’t kill you, although the stories it will tell you, like “I’m not good enough. I fucked up, therefore I should die,” might. These messages will take you down fast unless you can tell some trusted friends that you are feeling shame because of XYZ that happened in your show, class or audition. Be prepared you may feel post-shame shame for admitting something shameful to your friend. It will dissipate, and I have found that it much less painful then keeping the original shame all to myself.
  2. Don’t Medicate it
    You cannot drink shame away. You cannot drug it away. You cannot overeat it away. You think by doing any of these things you will avoid feeling it, but it won’t work. Just because you get some temporary relief from your shame doesn’t mean the shame has gone away. It’ll just come back later, like when you wake up the next day, and with a vengeance.
  3. Remember That It’s Part Your Process
    One of the best ways to overcome a shame attack is to recognize that shame is part of the creative process, especially if you are taking risks and getting outside of your comfort zone. I have felt shame after a bad show and have also felt shame when I am taking chances and my career is getting bigger. I used to tell myself that if I was going to be really successful in the arts I needed to never have fear and never feel shame. I know today that is impossible. Instead, I accept that shame is going to come up when I am growing.
  4. Focus on what you did right
    Even in the worst shows, you are learning. Before you take the baseball bat out to start beating yourself with it, focus on the things you did right. If you are having a hard time doing that, focus on your past successes, that good show or scene you did a couple weeks ago. I guarantee that when you can train yourself to start looking for the good, the shame you feel will lessen.
  5. Get Professional Help
    Without therapy and my many recovery programs that I go to on a weekly basis, I would not be able to get out of bed, let alone write, perform and teach. I cannot tell you how many times I have brought the shame I was feeling about something in a show to my group therapy and gotten a tremendous amount of help with it. By talking about it with someone outside of improv, I am often able to gain some perspective and not be so hard on myself.This holiday season, give yourself the gift of good improv! Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune Up on Dec. 30. Only $79 if you register by Dec. 14!
1 reply
  1. Jim Smetana
    Jim Smetana says:

    Everything you say is true and also funny as hell e.g. post-shame shame. You are a true improv guru and someday people will talk about you the way they now talk about Del. Well, maybe except for the part about answering the front door naked. Merry Christmas to you and fa


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