That little voice inside your head tells you:
- “You look like crap in those jeans.”
- “You can’t really trust her.”
- “I knew you couldn’t do it.”
- “You’re all alone.”
- “If he really knew you, he wouldn’t love you.”
Shame doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you’re fat or thin, rich or poor, tall or short: shame is an equal opportunity emotion.
Shame is amazingly destructive. Research has linked it to violence, addiction, depression, sleep problems, eating disorders, bullying and anxiety.
Shame is the silent killer eating at the foundation of your relationship. You don’t want to have sex because you don’t like how you look. You’re a new dad and your partner makes a comment about your parenting and you fly off the handle because you think, deep down, that you’re not doing it right. Your partner questions a decision you made at work, and you’re furious because you think your role as the breadwinner is being attacked.
It’s critical to learn what shame really is, how sneaky it can be, and to create healthy coping skills for when it shows up.
What Exactly is Shame Anyway?
The word shame is derived from a bunch of European words that literally mean “to cover, to veil, to hide.” That literal meaning matches right up with the ways we act when we’re ashamed: we can avoid eye contact, isolate, feel exposed, fight, blame and feel self-conscious.
Dr. Judith Jordan, one of the first to write about this topic in the late 80s, defines shame as “a felt sense of unworthiness to be in connection, a deep sense of unlovability, with the ongoing awareness of how very much one wants to connect with others.”
According to the reigning queen on the subject of shame and vulnerability, Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, shame is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
If You’ve Ever Been Self-Conscious, You’ve Felt Shame
Shame and humiliation, along with guilt and embarrassment, belong to a family of emotions referred to as the self-conscious emotions. They’re called the self-conscious emotions because they make you think about yourself; you become self-conscious.
Other emotions you might not have realized are shame in other clothing are feelings of insecurity, feeling dumb or stupid and just feeling like you can never quite reach the bar.
Thomas Scheff, professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara says that shame is “the most obstructed and hidden emotion, and therefore the most destructive. Emotions are like breathing—they cause trouble only when obstructed.”
What Causes Shame?
More often than not, shame stems from childhood experiences. The issue is that you might not think you have shame because you had a “good childhood.”
Shame, of course, can arise from major trauma such as sexual, emotional or physical abuse and neglect. But shame also comes from the more “innocent” ways our parents or people important to us interacted with us.
Maybe you were a little kid who spilled a glass of juice (as most kids are wont to do) but instead of your parent saying, “Don’t worry, these things happen” maybe you had a parent or sibling say, “You’re such a klutz! What’s wrong with you? You’re always doing stuff like this!”
Shame also comes about because of judgment and criticism (“Give me that, you’re always doing it the wrong way”). Maybe someone dismissed or demeaned your efforts or wins. Maybe you were compared to an older sibling (“You should quit baseball and try something else – you’ll never be as good as your brother”) or another family’s kid (“Why can’t you be more like Sarah?”).
Sometimes shame doesn’t come from your home environment. It could have been a coach who humiliated you in front of your team or a teacher who embarrassed you by pointing out your mistakes to the class.
Relationships and Shame
In their book, The Healing Connection, Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver note that “We become so fearful of engaging others because of past neglects, humiliations, and violations…we begin to keep important parts of our experience out of connection. We do not feel safe enough to more fully represent ourselves in relational encounters… Experiences of shame or humiliation—including experiences of being scorned, ridiculed, belittled, ostracized, or demeaned—can disrupt our ability to initiate and participate in the relationships that help us grow.”
In the end, shaming experiences taught us that, to be safe, we needed to disconnect and separate ourselves from others, especially those closest to us.
Research out of the Stone Center at Wellesley College by Linda Hartling and Jean Baker Miller found three main responses to shame, which they termed “strategies for disconnection”:
- You move away from it (you isolate, don’t talk about it and keep secrets)
- You move toward it (this is where people-pleasing and codependency show up)
- You move against it (you fight back and try to hurt the other person as bad as you hurt)
Brené Brown calls these three responses “Shame Shields.” No matter which one you do (and you might do all three), you’re moving away from your true self and connection with your partner and those you love.
The Difference Between Guilt and Shame
We classically say that guilt is saying, “I did something bad” and shame is saying, “I am bad.” Being “bad” means you see yourself as incapable of changing or doing better. However, the remorse and regret that you likely feel with guilt can motivate you to apologize, stop doing a negative behavior or start making positive changes.
Brené Brown calls guilt “healthy shame.” When we feel guilt, it can actually move us to do something reparative (like apologize) and healthy (create a new behavior). However, when we’re feeling shame, it can paralyze us and keep us locked in unhealthy behaviors.
So, What to Do?
Brené Brown says there are three basic steps to handling emotional setbacks like shame:
- Reckoning: this is where mindfulness and self-awareness come in. In this step you realize you’re having an emotional reaction to something and the idea is to become curious so you can explore it more fully.
- Rumbling: Now that you recognize this emotional reaction, it’s time to pay attention to the narrative or story you’re telling yourself about what just happened. What’s true and what’s not about the dialogue you’re having with yourself in your head? This is all about reality-checking. The goal is to have a new understanding of your thoughts so you can act, not react in situations.
- Revolution: Now that you’re noticing your reaction and the faulty thinking associated with it, it’s time to change how you’re interacting with others.
In addition to Dr. Brown’s three-step process there are some other things you need to think about when it comes to uncovering and overcoming shame:
- Change the Narrative: You’ve got to create an inner dialogue marked with self-compassion, self-acceptance and forgiveness.
- No More Secrets: Shame needs to be taken out of the shadows and shared with at least one trusted person in your life. This is that person who loves you no matter what and is there with no judgment (this might need to be a therapist)
- Learn More: Get your education on about shame. Make sure this isn’t the last thing you read about how to overcome shame.
- Don’t get it twisted: Make sure you understand what you’re feeling. Is it guilt or shame? Is it embarrassment or humiliation?
- Know your triggers! As I mentioned earlier, if there’s something you feel insecure about, it might have its origins in shame. Maybe you had a crappy mom and now you’re worried that you’re not a good mom, so when your partner makes an observation about your parenting, you get defensive and angry. Although there are many triggers, Dr. Brown says that the primary shame trigger for women still remains physical appearance while for men, it’s the fear of being seen as weak.
- Volunteer: As Brown says, “Shame traps us in our thoughts; service puts us into action.” Remember shame isolates but service connects.
I’m going to end with some final words from Brené Brown. She says:
“When we bury the story, we forever stay the subject of the story. If we own the story, we get to narrate the ending.”
Here’s to you owning your story.