What is shame? 

No client ever comes to therapy and asks to look at their shame or to heal their shame. Mostly we just don’t know it’s there, it’s mysterious, hidden & goes under the radar. Brene Brown talks about it as secretive, silent and judging. It’s an embodied experience. It’s that sick horrible feeling we feel in the pit of our stomachs. It feels like we’ve done something wrong. Shame is talked about in the same realm as guilt and embarrassment, although it’s not the same, it’s an emotion like no other. 

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging

Brene Brown

Shame lives in our bodies 

Shame is an embodied experience, meaning it lives in our bodies. We can carry it around with us. It hides deep down in the pit of our stomach. It thrives being down there in the dark. One client recently refereed to it as sneaky. 

How normal is shame? 

Shame is very normal. We are all likely to feel a level of shame at some point in our lives, it’s a universal human emotion & an ordinary experience. We may also feel shame or ashamed if we have done something ‘wrong’. When I am referring to shame here, I am referring to the type of shame that we typically experienced in childhood or younger years, although it might also come from an experience later in life, the judgment from others that we then took on and introjected within or by ourselves about ourselves that is shrouded in the belief we are not worthy.

I think about shame a lot & I think about shame a lot with clients, I regularly offer out the possibility of shame being present, I offer to look through the shame lens, to sense check for shame. The reason being because it’s so prevalent, it lurks underneath a lot of experiences. And most new clients have never thought about the possibility of feeling shame or have been aware of it before. I know I didn’t think about it anywhere near as much until I attended a workshop on shame, referred to below. 

Where does shame come from?

Juliet Grayson & William Ayot in their shame series; a series of online workshops about shame, talk about twenty sources of shame. This being a non-exhaustive list of how & where shame may have started & come from. Attending these workshops really opened up my thinking about shame. It is when I realised how common it is, how difficult it can be to detect and how it can come from so many different sources & experiences.

  • Shame Through Silent Response – May interpret this as ‘I don’t matter.’ Within this a parent may avoid their shame & may project it on to their child. 
  • Family Secrets & Inherited Shame – Can pass through generations. Can feel puzzled & may be subtle. Could be babies born out of wed-lock for example 
  • Family Banter  – Taking fun too far 
  • Labels – May be in the family or workplace. Being known as the ‘……’ one. These can stay for life. 
  • Intentional Shaming – Used to control or put down. Can feel like a paradox. Easy to do to children. And we may react later in life. 
  • Invasion of Your Privacy or Crossing A Boundary – Such as a parent reading a child’s diary 
  • Something Went Wrong & You Were Partly Responsible – i.e; divorce 
  • Social Shame – Seeming to have failed or done something wrong in a social group 
  • High Expectations & Failure – Over-ambitious expectations put on a person. Can also be what we put on ourselves & what we expect other’s expectations to be on us.
  • Being Excluded – Perhaps shunned from a religious group or not included in sport or friendship groups 
  • Shamed For Doing Wrong – This might be about moving from toxic shame to healthy guilt (awareness or wrong, move to responsibility, make amends, forgive self) 
  • ‘Pass It On’ Shaming – The hot potato that can be passed down. If a parent believes they are ‘less than’ & smacks a child. Can happen in the workplace 
  • Shaming Through Events That Were Not Your Fault – This could be adoption, parents dying when child is young, parents separation, (how partner behaves). Sense of should have done more or not done enough & being own fault. 
  • Shamed By The Way Your Partner Behaves (similar to above)
  • Shamed For Being Different – a sense of not being accepted for who we are & that we don’t fit in & aren’t ‘normal’ or ‘good enough’.
  • Shame of The False Self – Before we are 2 years old it becomes clear your parents didn’t want you as your ‘whole’ self. We then figure out a way to be the type of child our parents want & we create a false self. 
  • External Referencing – Other peoples words & phrases can touch & release our shame. Maybe with fitness/weight/school grades/number of friends/if single/likes on social media 
  • Shame of Self-Censorship – Times when we’ve not spoken out & not spoken our truth. We believe we can’t speak out & ask for what we want & deserve 
  • Shame of Being Struck – Being slapped across the face is to be attacked at the level of identity. Can trigger instant shame.
  • Internalised Shame / Self Shaming – We can shame ourselves easily enough. We can label ourselves in a derogatory way

How can we tell we are experiencing shame?

From personal & client experience when we are experiencing shame we may want to hide, our body might want to get small. We will look away or down. We might feel uncomfortable in our skin, feel itchy or move lots in an uncomfortable manner. We might feel sick & may even make a bleurgh or yuk sound. It can feel retched, disgusting, heavy, scary. It can feel debilitating, consuming, powerful. We are also likely to feel an additional layer of shame & embarrassment for being the one who was ‘excluded’ or  ‘targeted’ or similar. There can be several distressing layers. Since the workshop I have also thought about how shame can appear to be other emotions such as presenting as anxiety, how it can be beneath or part of burn out & panic attacks & how it can feel like depression. 

Can shame be good?

Shame can be good as an important emotional component of leading a prosocial life. In other words, in less-serious situations where damage is repairable, shame, along with guilt, can both make a person feel bad. And this feeling of bad can mean that person is inclined to fix the situation or make amends. It can be a lesson to do something different next time. It is also good to feel shame & good to talk about shame. It absolutely doesn’t feel good, however it is good. It means we are having conversations we haven’t before, we are making sense in a way we haven’t before, we are feeling what we haven’t before. And most importantly to process & heal from shame we need to feel it. 

Feeling shame in therapy

As above, it is good to be able to feel & explore shame in therapy, for it to be witnessed & held in a supportive & safe way. It may also be however that you might feel shame in response to a therapist’s words or actions. If you do I encourage you to share that with your therapist so that you can explore it & get curious about what happened. If you often or sometimes feel shame or feel shamed outside the therapy space with other people then it is likely that will come in to therapy at some point & you will experience your therapist in the same way, which will likely to be through no intention of theirs. 

The difference between guilt & shame 

One framework distinguishes between guilt & shame by saying that; “shame is about the self” while “guilt is about things in the real world—acts or failures to act, events for which one bears responsibility” (Lewis, 1971). Someone who feels guilty regrets some behaviour, while someone who feels shame regrets some aspect of who they are as a person. Lewis claims that shame is directed inwardly at the self, while guilt is directed outwardly at one’s behaviours or actions.

What is the opposite of shame?

I think about shame as the opposite or worthiness. Feeling worthy being on the flip side of the coin. When we feel shame, ashamed, shameful we feel unworthy. We feel unworthy of being loved or for being who we are. We learn about how worthy we feel in our early attachment relationships. 

How do we heal from shame?

Self-compassion and therapy are two ways of healing shame and with therapy should absolutely come the self-compassion part. Self-compassion can also be practiced outside of therapy. Many studies have highlighted just how compassionate people are for friends, family members, other people and not themselves. That critical inner voice is so common, so damming & seems to speak the truth, until challenged. Self-criticism is so prevalent & I see & hear it with the majority of clients I work with. In terms of books for learning about self-compassion I would always recommend Kristen Neff’s book: Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. I do believe the ultimate healing from shame comes from realising it, acknowledging it, linking it to the root & where is started, feeling it & if possible sharing it & having it witnessed. It is when we talk about it & feel it that it can no longer live in the dark or sneak around under the radar.  It will shift & change shape. Shame cannot survive in the light.