Shame is a universal, complex emotion. It is something we all experience. But oftentimes we’re not aware of the hidden ways it operates in us. We may become so fused with our shame — it may loom so large in our psyche — that it unconsciously drives us.
Shame is the belief that we are flawed or defective. But it’s more than just a negative belief.
Shame is something we feel in our body. Someone says something that’s critical: “You’re selfish, you’re too needy, you never listen to me.” There’s a felt sense of heaviness or tightness or a sinking feeling in our stomach as we hear words that diminish our value and worth. The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre reflects the somatic nature of shame, when he described it as that “immediate shudder which runs through me from head to foot.”
Shame is such a painful emotion that our impulse is to avoid feeling it — at all costs. It’s unbearably painful to suspect that there’s something terribly wrong with us. To protect ourselves from noticing when shame is arising, we may go into the fight, flight, freeze response. Shame may be such a danger to our sense of integrity that we immediately run from it — or attack the person we feel shamed by — passing the harness of shame to them to protect ourselves from feeling this debilitating emotion.
In his book, Shame: The Power of Caring, Gershen Kaufman calls this dynamic the interpersonal transfer of shame. We often see this dynamic at work in our political dialogue. Whenever a politician viciously shames another candidate, you can bet that shame is operating in them, which they project onto that person so they can continue denying their own shame.
How Can We Move Forward?
We cannot heal our shame unless we allow ourselves to notice it. Oftentimes, it is due to our fear of being debilitated by shame that we dissociate from it — cutting off our awareness from this painful emotion.
In my therapy practice, I often invite people to gently notice the shame that is living in them. When my clients begin to notice and identify their shame, we work with it so that it may begin to heal.
Being Ashamed of Our Shame
A major obstacles that I often observe is that we’re ashamed of our shame. That is, not only do we have shame in us, but we think something is wrong with them for having shame. I gently point out to my client’s that shame is simply part of the human condition — we all have shame in us and it takes much awareness and courage to recognize it.
Most of us grew up with abundant shaming, whether at home, in school, or on the playground. Unfortunately, most children have not been guided to work with shame in a skillful way. Few parents or teachers have the skill or awareness to help kids develop resilience, so that they can deal with shaming comments or events without going into a shame freeze or attacking the person who shamed them. This may create a lifelong habit of shaming others in order to avoid feeling shame within us.
Recognizing shame and normalizing it is often the first step toward healing it. There’s nothing wrong with us for having shame. It’s natural for our pre-existing storehouse of shame to get triggered in our adult life. The key is to notice it without sinking into it or getting lost in it. We can practice being mindful that shame is arising in us, while affirming that we are not the shame.
As we find a way to allow shame into our awareness without being ashamed of our shame, we take an important step toward accepting ourselves as we are. We begin to gain a healthy distance from our shame — seeing it for what it is — a universal emotion that everyone feels.
We can also see shame for what it isn’t — it doesn’t mean something is wrong with us or that we’re flawed. It simply means that shame got triggered in us, perhaps based on old feelings of shame that need healing, perhaps with the help of a therapists who is skilled in working with shame.
The next time you notice some painful or difficult emotion that gets triggered in you, perhaps from a critical comment or because you did something unwise, check to see if it’s shame that got activated. If so, notice if you’re feeling ashamed of your shame or if you can just make a gentle space for it. Let it be there without criticizing yourself.
Being kind toward yourself may let you gain some distance from the shame, which is the first step toward healing it. Remember that you are not your shame. You are much larger than that.
Resource: Center for Healing Shame