As I prepared to work on this article, I tried to think about a time when I experienced shame that I could comfortably share to set the stage. Unsurprisingly, that prompted me to avoid working on the article for days… I was suddenly too hungry, tired, or distracted to write. It finally became clear to me that I didn’t want to share my major shame memories! No offense to you, dear reader, but I feared your judgment and did not want to sit with my least favorite emotion.
In the time leading up to today, though, it occurred to me that I experience some shame almost daily. It might be related to what I just snacked on (Doritos), the most recent mistake I made with a client (missing a critical cue), or a parenting mistake (staring at my phone when my child needed help with something only to become angry when they then broke the thing they needed help with). When I’m feeling shame, even momentarily, I want to disappear. Shame is common for me; whenever I experience it, I’m convinced I am alone and irredeemable. And that I need to keep my feelings (and the related experience) to myself because risking sharing the parts of myself that I feel ashamed about would mean an even more profound aloneness. My work as a therapist has helped me better understand my shame, comprehend its impact on me, and mitigate its effects.
What is shame?
Shame is one of the most universal emotions that no one wants to talk about. Unlike guilt, which is usually centered around feeling bad about one’s actions, shame can make us feel bad about ourselves. Guilt is the feeling that you did something wrong or bad, while shame is the feeling that you are wrong or bad. Shame is generally defined as a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation that arises from the perception of having done something wrong, but it can often extend far beyond that.
Sometimes shame is a momentary experience that occurs in response to an event. “State shame” is currently existing in a state of shame, temporarily experiencing shame as a result of some circumstance. Another type of shame involves a long-term experience, referred to as “trait shame.” Trait shame acts like a personality trait we carry with us wherever we go. For example, people with a history of trauma and C-PTSD (Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) will often experience shame in this way. To make sense of their traumatic experiences, they may turn their anger and hurt inward on themselves, morphing into a near-constant state of internalized shame.
Why do we feel shame?
Shame is a self-conscious emotion; it involves an awareness of our own thoughts and feelings and an awareness of how others might perceive us. Researchers believe that shame serves as a social signal that indicates to others that we recognize our mistakes and are willing to make amends. They also theorized that it could motivate us to change our behavior to conform to social norms and avoid future shame.
In this traditional understanding of shame, we take social cues to know what we should feel ashamed of and internalize those messages. We’ve all heard the phrases, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” or “They should be ashamed!” The idea is that shame, or one’s ability to feel shame, is used as a form of social control. Society agrees upon a general consensus about what behaviors are shameful, and the experience of shame or being shamed is meant to discourage those acts. As social beings, humans are prone to do whatever we can to avoid being ostracized and singled out, so we get in line.
However, if we think of shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection,” as Brené Brown states in her latest work, Atlas of the Heart, then shame becomes so much more than a form of social control.
While Brené Brown recognizes shame as rooted in our fear of disconnection and rejection from others, her research also supports other influences. According to Brené Brown, shame is often learned in childhood and is influenced by our family and upbringing. If we grew up in an environment where vulnerability is not encouraged, or mistakes are met with criticism or punishment, we might be more prone to experiencing shame. Our personal beliefs and values can also drive shame. If we hold beliefs that conflict with our actions or engage in behavior that violates our values, we may feel shame as a result. And when we experience trauma, we may feel a sense of shame or self-blame for what has happened to us, even if we are not at fault.
What can be a source of shame?
People can feel shame about virtually anything, but the most common sources of shame are actions that our society suggests gives us value or dictates that we are worthy of acceptance. In the US, this list includes career trajectory, finances, body image and weight, academic success, and romantic prospects. These subjects are all just aspects of a person’s life, not who they are, but for those living in shame, the feelings of worthlessness or innate “badness” associated with not meeting societal expectations in those realms can be hard to see past.
Considering what our patriarchal, hetero-normative, white supremacist, and capitalist society values, any aspect of identity that doesn’t fit the prescribed mold can also be a source of shame.
Where does shame come from?
It’s almost impossible to disentangle shame and relationships because shame is often the result of relational trauma (being scolded by a teacher, being teased or bullied in school, being rejected by a romantic prospect). As such, it stands to reason that many people’s first experience with shame can be traced back to the bonds they formed with their early attachment figure(s).
According to attachment theory, the bonds a child forms with their primary caregiver(s) can be incredibly formative and shape how they build relationships throughout the rest of their lives. These early attachment bonds are also integral to developing an individual’s self-image, so when a child is exposed to early attachment disruptions like abuse and neglect, they are also experiencing an emotional trauma that can impact their ability to form a healthy sense of self. Children don’t have the cognitive functioning skills to understand what they’re experiencing is trauma or to know that it’s not a reflection of them. But this doesn’t make it any less distressing. Far too often, children find their answer in self-blame. They begin to believe that they must be bad and something is wrong with them if the person who is meant to care for them is hurting them instead. For many, this is the origin of shame; without realizing it, we carry that early attachment shame with us throughout the rest of our lives.
The shame associated with a breakup, being ridiculed by a teacher or boss, or being excluded by a friend group may be related to these early shame experiences. If not, they can still be deeply painful and influential.
How do I know if what I’m feeling is shame?
A study by the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California found that the amount of shame an individual feels varies based on the size of their pregenual anterior cingulate cortex. This thumb-sized area of the brain has long been found to hold our capacity for embarrassment and other self-conscious emotions like shame. In this way, shame is a biological process to which very few of us are immune.
When we feel ashamed, our bodies can experience several physiological responses. These responses can be similar to the ones we experience when we feel anxious or stressed. When we feel ashamed, our heart rate may increase as our body prepares for a fight-or-flight response. And as a result of the increased heart rate and stress response, we may begin to sweat. Feeling ashamed can also cause us to blush or feel a sudden warmth in our face or neck. Some people may experience a feeling of tightness or discomfort in their chest when they feel ashamed. Some people also report nausea or a “pit” in their stomach when they feel ashamed. And finally, feeling ashamed can cause us to tense our muscles, particularly in the face, neck, and shoulders. For many, the internal experience they relate to these physical sensations is the overwhelming desire to disappear.
According to the CPTSD Foundation, shame causes the brain to react as though it were in physical danger. This activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze. People often try to cover their faces or physically withdraw when responding to shame through the flight response. Conversely, the fight response causes people to react aggressively toward the source of their shame. And it is through the freeze response to shame that we come to believe something is wrong with us and we are unworthy of social connection.
How does shame impact our mental health?
Shame is a common contributing factor to many mental health struggles. Those who suffer from depression regularly engage in negative self-talk, which can quickly veer into shame. The social stigma associated with mental health concerns can also cause some to experience shame as they struggle with feeling like they are flawed and going to be rejected. This causes many to hide their mental health concerns which can, unfortunately, prevent people from getting the care they need.
Shame also factors into many people’s experience of anxiety as it can feed into their fears about how those around them see them. And again, because shame is such an internalized emotion, these feelings of being judged by one’s peers are usually unfounded and prompted by something that only the person experiencing shame has noticed.
When one lives in shame for a significant time, it is also not uncommon to struggle with suicidal ideation. Experiencing shame daily can be so all-consuming and bring about such deep feelings of hopelessness that it may seem like there’s no way out but to die by suicide. Shame already makes you want to disappear. For some, death may be how they imagine actually doing that, to be free from shame.
How do we try to deal with shame?
Many of us have tried to cope with shame, only to develop methods that may exacerbate shame instead of lessen it. Analysis suggests a strong relationship between perfectionism and shame. In one study of people diagnosed with anorexia, researchers found that the participants tried to alleviate their feelings of shame by striving for perfectionism, but that failing then caused them more shame, creating a negative cycle. Perfectionism is a self-protective mechanism, but it establishes impossible expectations, ultimately perfectly poising one to feel ashamed.
Trying to avoid situations or people that trigger shame can be another attempt at managing shame. While distancing yourself from or not engaging with people who purposefully shame you makes all the sense in the world, trying to avoid any possibility of social interactions can have adverse effects. This method of coping with shame can lead to isolation and social withdrawal.
People may also try to self-soothe or escape shame through substances, food, and/or sexual experiences. While these may temporarily relieve feelings of shame, they can also exacerbate shame.
Deflection or blaming others is yet another attempt to manage shame, which can ultimately backfire. Some people may deflect their shame onto others by criticizing or blaming them, which can damage relationships and perpetuate a cycle of shame.
How can we rethink our relationship with shame and practice shame resilience?
Given that shame is such a pervasive and uncomfortable emotion, it can be tough to fight feelings of shame when they arise. There are, however, a few tools that can help us to recognize and more effectively navigate feelings of shame.
Pay attention to your shame: Our instinct is to hide from it, which can have the unintended consequence of exacerbating the shame we experience. Paying attention to what triggers feelings of shame, how it manifests physically, and how it impacts our self-talk are all integral components of how we combat shame. Recognizing shame for what it is can also help with the following tips.
Talk about your shame: Shame thrives in silence, so speaking and sharing about what we’re ashamed of is one of the most effective methods to help limit its power. Brené Brown beautifully stated, “Shame is a social construct; it’s how I see myself through your eyes. So it requires a social balm, which is empathy, normalizing, knowing I’m not alone, reality checking the messages.” Talking with others about your experience of shame and receiving care and empathy in return can shrink and dissipate shame.
Offer yourself compassion: Becoming aware of and purposeful with your self-talk can also offer the opportunity to spur or dampen shame. Speaking to yourself with kindness and understanding while forgiving what you perceive as failures and inadequacies can mitigate the impact of shame.
Seek support for your shame: The most complicated component of how we experience shame is our natural instinct to want to hide, and hide from, the things we are ashamed of. As a result, many people unnecessarily suffer through shame in silence and secrecy. Shame thrives because it can convince you that you’re alone, but being vulnerable and trying to address shame may feel impossible if you haven’t had the practice of doing so. Ideally, safe friends and loved ones can offer empathy, which is the best way to challenge shame. However, if it feels too difficult to discuss your feelings of shame with others or if you’ve yet to identify people who feel safe, a supportive therapist can also be instrumental in starting the process of addressing and defying shame.
Shame is a complex and damaging emotion that can make you feel alone on an island (or makes you avoid writing an article for days). There’s so much more to say about it, but I hope this article helps you better understand it and helps you feel more equipped to respond when it rears its ugly head. If you need help managing shame, please don’t hesitate to reach out. It’s a beast we know well, and we would be honored to help you care for yourself by weakening its hold while holding you up.