Shame is often mistaken for guilt, but it is somewhat different; guilt can well lead to shame though. It is quite insidious as it creeps upon us. Like guilt, it can often masquerade as anxiety and lead to stress. Let’s take a look in more depth at it and how it may affect us, as well as how we can free ourselves from the chains of shame.
What is shame?
Shame can be described as a “constellation of effect, cognition, and behaviour related to the belief that one is inadequate, unacceptable, or unlovable.”
Why do we feel it?
It is often about a comparison with others leading to low self-esteem or the result of an attempt to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards.
Its roots may well lie in childhood due to being ‘shamed’ for some now obscure reason, but usually, this was multiple experiences rather than the one-off nature of guilt.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
It can also be culturally based. For example, shame around sex, the body, and appearance is often drummed into us from early in our lives.
So shame is relative to others and to cultural norms and is usually based on experiences in childhood that have left their mark. It can be challenging to identify it as it’s not always rational.
The psychology of shame
psychologist and personality theorist Silvan Tomkins says;
“While terror and distress hurt, they are wounds inflicted from outside which penetrate the smooth surface of the ego, but shame is felt as an inner torment, a sickness of the soul.
It does not matter whether the humiliated one has been shamed by derisive laughter or whether he mocks himself. In either event, he feels himself naked, defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity or worth.”
Shame is the effect of inferiority. No other effect is so central to one’s identity. It can be described as a “constellation of effect, cognition, and behaviour related to the belief that one is inadequate, unacceptable, or unlovable.”
To feel shame is to feel seen in a painfully diminished sense. It is to feel exposed both to one’s own self and to anyone else present. It’s felt like an interruption internally and a rupture both internally and interpersonally.
In the midst of it, attention turns inward, thereby generating the torment of self-consciousness. Sudden and unexpected exposure, coupled with a binding inner scrutiny, characterize the essential nature of the effect of shame.
How does it manifest?
It manifests in different ways. It can be an entirely internal experience, but it leads to very real consequences in our lives. Shame can cause us to feel inferior, defective or damaged. It can make us feel like we are bad, dirty, sinful or unworthy. We may also feel embarrassed, exposed, humiliated or ashamed.
It’s a deeply painful and isolating emotion. It can be incredibly destructive and lead to all sorts of problems making us want to hide away from the world. It can make us feel like we’re not good enough, that we don’t deserve love or respect and that we are somehow flawed.
Shame can also be incredibly overwhelming. It can cause us to numb out and dissociate from our bodies and from our emotions. We may turn to food, drugs, alcohol, sex, work or other compulsive behaviours in an attempt to escape the pain.
It is often at the root of many mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, etc. It can prevent us from reaching our full potential and living happy, fulfilling lives.
So how do we overcome shame? How do we learn to love?
How do we heal shame?
Shame and self-loathing create vicious circles for trauma survivors, too often inhibiting their recovery. The good news is it can be healed, allowing freedom and a new lease of life.
It can help to talk to someone held in high regard. Someone that will genuinely listen. This provides the experience of being seen, heard and felt in a shame-free environment. The shame-free experience allows for the emergence of one’s authentic self and the development of a healthy sense of self-worth.
It helps to redirect focus from within to without, focusing the gaze on a responsive, available, non-judgmental environment and absorbing this healing scene inside.
There are many ways to achieve this kind of healing. Some people find support in therapy or 12 step programs, while others find it through reading self-help books or attending shame resilience workshops. Whatever path you choose, the goal is to find a shame-free space where you can begin to heal the shame that’s been holding you back.
If you’re struggling with it, know that you’re not alone. Millions of people around the world are dealing with shame.
Have you already suffered enough? Now may be the time to take action?
Charles has helped many clients heal the shame that once held them back, allowing them to live a fulfilled life. If you’d like a free 15-minute chat click the button and book a convenient time.