Shame is often so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine breaking it down into components to change it. This article will take you through the formation and experience of shame and help you, the reader, work step-by-step to transform the pain of shame into the comfort of connection.
Origins of shame
Shame often arises when we believe that an aspect of who we are, how we appear, or what we do will lead to social rejection. Isolation runs contrary to our innate human need for connection. The self-conscious feeling of shame helps us keep an active radar of any potential risk of losing our socially contingent resources: belonging, intimacy, support, food, shelter, etc. It works as a regulating tool for anti-social behavior.
Shame focuses on our worthiness of love and belonging, often brought by binary measures of being either a “good” or “bad” person. This is different from guilt, remorse, or regret: which are directed towards correcting behavior while maintaining healthy self-esteem. Psychotherapist and author Terrence Real describes that, “When you feel remorseful, your attention is on the people you hurt and their feelings. You’re moved to do whatever you can to make amends, to repair things.” (Real, 2017) Guilt, regret, and remorse tend to allow for more self-complexity by allowing us to be “good” people who are still, at times, capable of causing pain in others and towards ourselves. They allow us to take responsibility for our actions in a way that promotes self-growth and relational maintenance. Shame can also be distinguished from embarrassment and humiliation, which can feel like a passing moment of unwanted social attention towards something unfavorable about us or that happened to us, while also knowing that it does not define who we are.
Shame is neither inherently bad nor a feeling we can omit from our human experience. Instead, shame is a good indication that we are designed with our best interest for survival. Real (2017) describes that appropriate shame leads towards proactive remorse, which repairs our relationships. He adds that with “… a mature state of appropriate shame… we feel proportionately ashamed for our bad behavior and yet still manage to hold onto our essential worth as an imperfect human being.”
As children, we are even more likely to interpret another’s actions as personal to who we are; children tend to see the world through an egocentric lens due to their location in cognitive development. Psychologist Erik Erikson’s identified that during the Guilt Versus Initiative Stage of social-emotional development, from three to six years of age, children are increasing their autonomy and independence while also receiving more control and correction. Rule-based responses from adults “establishes basic moral or even moralistic orientation” (Erikson & Erikson, 1998), by helping children learn pro-social behaviors. Guilt helps deter them from behaving in isolating or harmful ways towards others. They might also experience shame by believing that adults’ correction and consequences are a result of the child being a “bad” person. Guidance through clarification on the intention of the rules and validation of the children's’ positive traits (including that it is healthy and acceptable to experience guilt) can help support them in this stage of identity and social development.
When to take caution
Shame becomes toxic when it begins to perpetuate the isolation we fear, by responding to the shameful experience with a “self-preoccupation” (Real, 2017). When we begin to linger in shame and identify with the thoughts and feelings it produces, we are adding to a narrative about ourselves that promotes a story of being alone and unwanted. If we believe that “we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (Brown, 2012), it may result in creating barriers to identifying and receiving care and inclusion- even if others are directly providing it to us. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy: we are choosing to collect and respond to specific evidence, proving a belief that we fear to be true, thus manifesting it into reality.
Shame can often be a feeling we omit from communicating to others, since we would rather hide from them the possibility of us being unworthy of belonging. When shame is hidden it can often fester. The experience of trauma and its subsequent symptom of shame can also produce paralysis (van der Kolk, 2000) which diminishes our sense of agency and motivation to talk about the pain we have experienced. Instead, we might behave towards others with aggression, defensiveness, or we withdraw, in order to avoid or beat them in our own game of deciding if we are a “bad” person, unworthy of connection. We can also displace our shame, particularly when it feels too painful to carry, by projecting a sense of unworthiness onto another. This behavior can also produce self-fulling beliefs about shame, since it can result in others distancing themselves from us and can create narcissism, which diminishes compassion: an essential ingredient for fostering human connection.
Reducing toxic shame
Famed humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers proposed that, “When I accept myself as I am, then I can change.” (Rogers, 1961) Shame cannot be erased and is best accepted as a reality of being human. The destructive effects of toxic shame can be reduced by talking through the thoughts and feelings that accompany it. Real (2017) sees this process as “working on letting go of contempt, letting go of control, experience empathy and true remorse.” We can do this by recognizing the vulnerabilities we carry that increase relational sensitivity and slowing down the application of our protective strategies to allow ourselves time to identify why they feel needed. We can also mitigate potential shame by identifying and assessing the validity of assumptions about social and self-created expectations. This can also include the expectations we place on ourselves due to family and cultural loyalties. An example of reducing and redirecting shame is shown through the following questions:
What is the belief I am telling myself about who I am?
“I am a failure because my marriage ended.”
What evidence do I have to support that belief?
“Some friends stopped speaking to me, others have turned down dates because of my “relationship baggage”*, and my grandparents said that they are disappointed in me.”
*here lies a relational vulnerability which could lead to reactivity, particular in the face of potential rejection while dating
What evidence do I have to challenge that belief?
“Some friends do still speak to me, that date last night went pretty well, and I was still able to enjoy dinner with family despite my grandparents’ feelings.”
What rules am I using to measure that belief?
“People my age should be married, in my culture marriages are supposed to last ‘till death do us part’, I base some of my personal success off of being married.”
How is the belief affecting me?
“Telling myself that I have failed makes it difficult to experience self-compassion.”
How can changing the belief serve me?
“It will be important for me to practice liking myself in order to believe that others can like me, too. It is possible for my marriage to have ended and that I am still someone worthy of receiving love from myself and others. There are a multitude of ways to live a meaningful life and foster belonging in this world.”
Along with having our own radars for rejection, we can also build awareness for others’ relational fears, as well. Shame can be contagious when we internalize others’ projection of believed low self-worth or fear of isolation. Noticing others’ relational reactivity and supporting them in exploring it further can help build a sense of connection that soothes and redirects the shame cycle. Often times, protective strategies are used to mask and shield the most human parts of who we are. Relating to others from our shared search for belonging and intimacy can help diminish the perpetuating patterns of shame while validating the need for connection. Some examples of redirecting shame are:
“I feel offended when you call me harsh names and can also tell that you are upset when say them. Can you tell me, using other words, what is bothering you so I can better support you?”
“I feel frustrated when you become defensive because it makes it difficult for me to hear what you really need. How I can better understand what your concerns are right now?”
“I feel sad when I sense you pulling away, because I really value you in my life. I want you to continue being a part of it. Let’s talk about ways to feel more connected.”
A belief within therapy is that when we name our emotions we can tame them. Shame and the isolation it fears are often brought by immense physical and psychological pain. Recognizing in ourselves and others the thoughts and sensations that indicate we are experiencing shame can help transform shame into the connection we ultimately long for.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. London, UK: Penguin.\
Erikson, E. H. and Erikson, J. M. (1998) The Life Cycle Completed (Extended Version). New York City, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., pp. 93.
Real, T. (2017) The Awful Truth: Most men are just not raised to be intimate. www.terrencereal.com
Roger, C. R. (1961) On Becoming a Person: Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp. 17.
van der Kolk, B. (2000) Posttraumatic stress disorder and the nature of trauma. Dialogues Clinical Neuroscience. 2000 Mar; 2(1): 7–22.