Lucy* often doubts herself and questions her decisions in life. She is struggling with anxiety and low mood. Often, she finds herself blushing when the attention is directed at her and she wants to hide away. Life feels difficult as Lucy tries to be a “good girl” and do what she expects others to want from her. She often lives in a fear of others not liking her.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable of all feelings, shame, is one that I frequently talk about in the therapy room. It comes with a very harsh and critical opinion of self: “There must be something wrong with me! I am not worthy of love.” Often a person experiences it in various aspects of life and it can become life-limiting, perhaps opportunities in life pass as you feel that you don’t deserve to have a joy that may come with these opportunities. The differentiation with guilt is that it refers to “I must have done something bad” rather than “I must be bad” (shame).
I wanted to write this piece on shame as it is such a painful emotion and hopefully understanding it and its root causes you may start to question whether you need to carry that much shame with you.
Difficult life experiences contribute to the experience of shame
We all have things that we feel ashamed about. Shame is universal. When we are all born, babies growing up in nurturing living conditions have this sense of I can do anything I like and I am lovable. However, quite soon if there is inconsistent attention, neglect or even abuse, the small children, self-centered by nature, attribute their negative experience to themselves. Children think that “if I feel bad, it must mean that I am bad”. This is where the seed of shame is sewn.
If you grew up in a family that would be quick to point your least favourite qualities, your feelings were not accepted and you were not taught that you are not your behaviour. Alternatively, in school, you may have been teased and/or bullied for something, or your personal boundaries were violated by a (childhood) trauma of any kind, then you may have developed a deep sense of toxic shame. This type of shame makes us feel small like we are not good enough to exist and we need to hide from the world.
People react to their toxic shame in different ways. Some may seek to have a temporary relief by lashing out on others, using external matters such as alcohol & drugs, shopping, relationships, food for regulating the uncomfortable emotions linked with toxic shame. Others withdraw and dedicate their life for avoiding any situations that might bring up a sense of shame and living life like in a cave. The inner critic is also shame-based, it may be re-shaming and repeating something that you have experienced in your past.
In any case, shame can stop us from living our life wholeheartedly, experiencing joy and having fulfilling relationships. Therefore, it is important to get in touch with shame and understand it so that it does not hold power over us and stop us from living wholeheartedly.
Why do we experience shame?
From an evolutionary perspective, shame can be seen as a protective mechanism so that we would not do anything to harm our social group. Shame makes us aware of our limitations so that we can then focus our energy on our strengths and this way energy is not wasted (Bradshaw, 2006).
On the other hand, in the Change Triangle shame is seen as an inhibitory emotion that blocks the underlying feelings, such as the need to connect and feel loved (Jacobs Hendel, 2018). Sometimes if a person remains stuck in toxic shame, it can hinder their life in multiple ways and stop them doing things that they feel passionate about and even contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety.
If you have experienced childhood trauma you may feel shame and blame yourself for abuse or neglect e.g. by your caregiver, because it is easier for a child to try to preserve an image of caring caregiver than put the responsibility on the adult who should have been responsible (Bradshaw, 1992). Children are programmed to attach to a caregiver even if their actions were hurtful. In this case, the purpose of shame is a protective function, it protects from having to question the actions of others. “If I carry the shame then I don’t need to deal with the consequences of facing other painful feelings that may arise when getting someone else (e.g. neglecting parent, a perpetrator) take the responsibility for the hurt caused.”
If you want to know even more about shame, Brene Brown, who is an amazing vulnerability researcher, talks about shame and how it impacts our lives. Here is a link to her TEDtalk on Listening to shame. Brene´s work mainly focuses on shame experienced universally and less specifically on toxic shame.
What can you do about shame?
Perhaps the first question you have to ask yourself if how is shame impacting your life? It is important to observe the language you use to speak to yourself and challenge yourself if you engage in self-critical self-talk. You as a human being deserve kindness and compassion. Brene Brown encourages everyone to embrace their vulnerabilities and facing perhaps even befriending their shame. If you find that shame is stopping you from living your life, therapy can help you to understand the meaning of shame and its roots, and reduce the impact of shame in your life. Earlier I wrote a post on reducing the shame of childhood trauma which can help you with steps to building shame resilience (Brene Brown) and self-compassion.
I hope this got you thinking about the role shame might play in your life so that you can start living more wholeheartedly.
John Bradshore (1992) Homecoming : Reclaiming & championing your inner child
Hilary Jacobs Hendel (2018) https://www.hilaryjacobshendel.com/what-is-the-change-triangle-c18dd
Brene Brown The gifts of imperfection and others.