The tell-tale signs of shame
According to leading shame researcher, Brene Brown, shame is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Feelings of shame have been around since human beings first interacted. The Old Testament was written thousands of years ago, yet we understood even back then the fundamental human responses to shame are to hide and direct blame. (See Psychology Today reference.) Whether lashing out at others or lashing out at self, withdrawing and blame takes the edge off the sense of shame. When we withdraw or blame, a story of wrongness is established, a meaning is attributed to events, and the story is replayed. We literally look for compelling evidence of how we are not good enough and shame is right! Or we refuse to look at it at all and shame continues to do its dirty work in secret. We then review our evidence of unworthiness over and over again.
Researchers have found there are three primary responses to shame: moving away, moving toward, and moving against it. In other words, withdrawal, people pleasing or fighting back against those who trigger our shame response. Brene Brown refers to these as “shame shields”.
If you are prone to a mis calibrated sense of shame, you can also find yourself constantly jumping either to self-condemnation or feeling judged by others. When depressed, we blame ourselves for things out of our control or unrelated to our actions. When feeling unappreciated or victimized, we are more vulnerable to self-destructive rumination on imagined grievances, leading to spirals of self-pity and anger.
That’s a whole lot of complexity and emotion that muddies the waters and stops us from seeing the real issue is shame!
Freedom from shame: The three keys
The good news is, shame cannot survive openness, compassion and self soothing.
Brene Brown says,
“if you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
Let’s have a closer look at the three keys:
Key #1 Shame needs to be talked about.
We need to talk with someone trusted about our shame points and be honest about our fears. Over time, this takes the sting out of the secret shame story, and we can rewrite the story. Think of shame as the boogie man in the closet. You are the small child hiding in bed. The more you avoid looking in the closet and fixate on how bad the boogie man is, night after night, the scarier it gets. However, when we turn on the lights and check the closet we find it’s just a pile of clothes. Not the scary monster we imagined. Of course, your particular boogie man still seems scary to you, so you might need a brave companion to help you turn on the light and take a look!
Key #2 Empathy and compassion are crucial to healing
We don’t want to discuss our shame story with just anyone. What we may initially think is helpful can add fuel to our shame. Shame needs to be discussed in an environment of empathy and compassion, in the first instance from the person listening, but, over time, especially ourselves.
This is where therapy is the gold standard for dealing with issues with shame at their core. A good therapist will be able to hold your story with the empathy and compassion it deserves. We also need help to be able to regularly generate self-compassion as it is not a commonly taught skill. Yet a skill it is, and anyone can develop it with the right guidance. (Check our availability if you need a hand with this.)
#3 Mindfulness and self-soothing allow us to respond differently
To be able to soothe and centre yourself is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. When shame is present, take as long as you need to breathe long, slow, smooth breaths and calm yourself. Avoid trying to talk yourself further into the feeling (with justification or blame) or out of the feeling (with minimizing). Don’t put a positive spin on it or try to talk yourself around. Just breathe and encourage yourself to settle. Treat yourself as if you were a vulnerable and upset child. Be gentle and watch the physical sensation shift and dissipate. This may not happen straight away but with practice you will notice that all feelings pass. Our natural clarity exists underneath the strong emotion.
Soothing yourself is a great skill that requires time and patience to achieve. You may need help with this so don’t hesitate to reach out.
The light at the end of the tunnel
You can become free from shame and its impacts with time, patience and assistance. You are not alone. Work through feelings of shame with someone trustworthy who can hold a safe space for you to explore. When shame is tamed you’ll experience increased empathy towards yourself and others, a greater sense of ease within yourself and deeper connections with the people around you. Well worth the effort, so be brave and bring that shame into the light where it can transform.