“But shame is like a wound that is never exposed and therefore never heals.” ~Andreas Eschbach
Shame. Everybody has it. Nobody wants to talk about it. The less we talk about it, the more power it has over us.
Shame goes to the core of a person and makes them feel there is something inherently wrong with them.
I remember when I was a young girl, I struggled so much with feeling I was ‘less than’ others.
There were many nights when I would say prayers to help change me. I didn’t like my freckles. I was so embarrassed by my body. I hated the fact that I had a lisp. My skin was either pale as a ghost or the color of a tomato. I would get blotchy when I was the center of attention. This list could truly go on and on. What I was really experiencing was a strong sense of shame.
Shame is often the trademark in hurting families, and almost always part of the underlying matrix of psychological conditions.
It may start with someone not owning their own feelings and making it about someone else. I was such a sensitive kid. I would get made fun of for having emotions, and this eventually led to my own struggles with insecurity that surfaced as depression and anxiety.
In our society, shame and guilt are often intertwined. However, these two emotions are quite different.
Guilt’s focus is on behavior. It’s about what we do. When we experience guilt, we have gone against our own code of ethics.
Guilt tells me that I am not doing what has been expected of me. This emotion usually serves as being an internal conscience. It helps me to not act on harmful impulses. The great thing about guilt is our values get reaffirmed. There is a possibility of repair. We can learn and grow.
Shame’s focus is on the self. It’s not that I did something bad, but that I am bad. It gives us the sense that we do not measure up to others. We are defective. We are damaged goods.
A person cannot grow while they are in a space of shame, and they cannot shame others to change. This concept is like saying “you are worthless and incapable of change, but change anyway.”
When we’re in shame, we don’t see the bigger picture. We feel alone, exposed, and deeply flawed.
Oftentimes, we will respond to shame by moving away from it, moving toward it, or moving against it. Moving away from it means to withdraw, hide, and/or stay silent. Moving toward would be appeasing and/or pleasing others. Moving against suggests we try to gain power over others. We use shame to fight shame.
As human beings, we are wired for connection. We come into the world needing connection in order to survive. When we are in shame we unravel our ability to connect. Our first reaction to shame is to hide.
This may mean we work all the time, attach to someone in an unhealthy relationship, or withdraw from our community. More so, we may have difficulty with healthy levels of self-esteem. We may fluctuate between arrogance, grandiosity, and low self-worth. As a result of this dynamic, we are either one up or one down in a relationship. Relationships lack substance, honesty and meaning.
According to the research of Brené Brown, shame needs three things to survive: silence, secrecy, and judgment.
Shame thrives on being undetected. The only thing shame cannot possibly survive is empathy.
We have to find courage to talk about shame. When we dig past the surface, we find that shame is what drives our fear of rejection, to not take risks, to hate our bodies, and to worry about the judgment of others.
We are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors or to attack others. When we are honest about our struggles, we are less likely to get stuck in the black tar of shame. Shame cannot hold on when we name it.
So, how do we become aware of shame? And, what can we do about it?
Well, we first have to name shame when we are feeling it.
When I make statements like “I am an embarrassment” or “I am such a failure,” what I’m really feeling is shame. When I attack my being, I need to recognize the shame and reframe the belief. “I am not an embarrassment, I just did an embarrassing thing.”
The next step is to develop more awareness about when I am experiencing shame.
We have to become mindful of our triggers to shame. Our feelings, beliefs, and actions are motivated by these triggers whether we acknowledge them or not. So, when we are feeling shame, we want to interrupt it with more positive thought patterns.
Ego repair comes next.
We have to track and replace that negative internal dialogue, and put ourselves around positive and meaningful influences. It’s important at this stage to practice loving-kindness to ourselves and others. A great practical tool is talking to and treating yourself the way you would someone you love dearly. You would never call someone worthless, right? So, why do that to yourself?
Name and return shame.
I was picked on a lot as a kid for being overweight. I experienced shame in my gut and in my chest. I would often feel sick to my stomach. Eventually, I developed beliefs that I was “worthless and unlovable.” These came from an ample amount of being hurt by my peers.
As I grew into an adult, I lost a good amount of weight, but still held onto those beliefs. Of course, I learned that weight has nothing to do with worth and love. I was able to name where that shame came from, and put it back on my peers who hurt me out of their own ignorance, pain, or confusion.
If we are unable to put shame back in its place, we will continue to attract people and situations that validate those negative beliefs and recreate shame in our lives.
Avoid negative situations and build positive supports.
It is crucial to place yourself around healthy and loving people. When I am active in my shame, I often want to cocoon. During these times of isolation, I feel more alone and shameful. If I am able to simply communicate what is happening with me to someone who loves me, the power of my shame diminishes.
In order to understand where we are and where we want to go, we have to have self-acceptance about who we are. Shame can make for discomfort in relationships with others. If we could work on developing a loving relationship with ourselves, our ability to be intimate and authentic increases.
It is vital that we learn to separate shame from the person.
We need to understand that shame is an emotion. The concern, though, is many people have turned shame from an emotion to a state of being. We want to be able to transform it back into a feeling. All of our emotions have functions. Shame, similar to other feelings, is attempting to protect us from some sort of threat. However, it often is a misperceived threat.
We cannot become resistant to shame, but we can develop resilience to it.
We have to help one another know we are not alone in our experiences and in our feelings. It is helpful to have corrective, validating, and emotional experiences with someone we love. We have to understand that part of our shared humanity is having parts of ourselves we are scared to show, but we have to be brave enough to show them anyway.
About Lauren Impraim
Lauren is a therapist specializing in co-occurring disorders. She helps people process their shame and their pain, aids in stopping self-defeating patterns, and helps others build resilience and hope. You can find her on Psychology Today here.