There are few emotions more difficult to tolerate than shame..the warm flush that curses through your body, the feeling of wanting to sink through the earth and disappear. We have all felt it. So what is the origin of our shame? More importantly, what can we do to move through our shame experiences with a sense of integrity and wholeness? To answer this question, I turn to the groundbreaking research of Dr. Brene Brown, a social work PHD at the University Of Texas, who has done extensive research on the topic of Shame Resiilience.
Dr. Brown argues that the experience of shame is fundamentally a feeling of profound “unworthiness”. Those who are most vulnerable to shame feel essentially “unlovable” at the core. The inner dialog of a person feeling deep shame consists of statements such as, “I am stupid”, “I am bad”, or classically, “I hate myself.” The focus of a shame experience is on the deeply flawed self.
It is easy to see how the origin of shame is in childhood. Imagine a child being repeatedly “shamed” by influential adults who tell him directly that he is stupid, or bad,. The culture itself can also be “shaming”. Consider, for example the messages that little girls get about having the perfect “thin” body. Those who don’t have this body, learn to be ashamed of the body they do have. Shame can also be created in a family with impossibly perfectionistic standards. The children in such a family may be exceptionally high achieving, but they may also be carrying a painful burden of secret shame at never being “good enough”. As Dr. Brown points out “Perfectionism is the incubator for shame”.
So, what can be done about our shame experiences? Dr. Brown explains that these experiences won’t go away, but we can learn to move through them with greater ease and comfort. We can become more resilient. Here are the steps:
- Recognize when you are feeling shame. If possible, remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. Get some distance as you remind yourself that “This is shame”. “I am feeling shame”. Try to identify the trigger. It may be obvious, or it may not.
- When you have distance, tell the story of what happened and how you felt to a trusted friend. Take your shame out of hiding, and bring it into the light . This will reduce its power over you. It will also bring in the empathy that will soothe you and allow you to feel less “alone”. As you tell your story you may discover that something you have felt “shame” over is really just a matter of some behavior that you feel guilty about. You may have treated a friend badly, for example, or accidentally hit “send” to the wrong person on an email. These are examples of your “behavior”, as opposed to the whole of “you”. Moving from shame to guilt is a good thing because you can atone for guilt…not so for shame.
- Become aware of all the “self shaming” inner dialog you engage in throughout the day, all of the times others shame you, and all the times you are shaming others. All of it has to stop if you want to stop the “shame spiral”. The reality is that shame begets shame so that if you are “shamed” you may have learned to escape from your shame by shaming others. All of it has to stop.
So…I invite you to come out from behind your shame, and feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Tell your story to someone you can trust. The truth is, you will be loved because of all of your imperfections, not in spite of them.