I imagine the title of this post, can easily transport you to a time where you have felt that painful flush of shame… so what is shame, what’s it about and why do we experience it?
Shame triggers the fundamental belief in us that we are worthless. Think about a time when you have experienced that hot flush of shame, and notice what you were thinking and experiencing. Often people feel suddenly very visible and vulnerable (everyone is going to see me turning beetroot red), you may feel you should be ashamed, and experience feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and that you are not deserving of more. Sounds horrible doesn’t it? And because it feels so horrible, its not generally an experience we are very self compassionate about.
Shame can be seen as a form of self loathing, or self attack, and it harms our very perception of who we are, it feels like who we are. People experience shame for many reasons, and difficult childhood experiences, relationships and trauma, all contribute to how we experience ourselves in relationship with others, and also how we experience our shame gremlins. When feeling shamed, you may feel ashamed of your emotions, ashamed of being assertive or ‘seen’, or ashamed to have needs, wants and views of your own. Because you’re not important or good enough right? (Yes, you are, but more on that later).
So, when you’re experiencing those things we just explored, not surprisingly, it has a significant impact on how you are in the world. Shame is relational. It impacts your relationship with yourself, and with others around you. Shame gets in the way of you knowing and holding your own boundaries. It can lead to experiencing difficulties in caring for yourself, difficulties in asking for what you need, and with asking for your boundaries to be respected by others. Notice how the pervasive nature of shame impacts you in relationship with other people – this is not surprising when its origins are often found in those difficult early relationships and attachments with others.
It’s important to acknowledge that shame can also be common amongst minority and disadvantaged communities, for example communities of black and indigenous people of colour, disabled or differently abled communities, and the LGBTQIA+ community. Cultural beliefs and behaviours can also play a part in our shame stories; in some cultures there is a strong emphasis on ‘good behaviour’ (as is defined by that particular culture). Compliance with expectations may be achieved by shaming any behaviours which are outside of cultural norms, or using fear to achieve acceptable behaviour. Shame ultimately facilitates compliance.. being seen and not heard.
Overwhelmed parents and caregivers may also use shame and anger to keep children under some kind of socially acceptable control. This isn’t unusual or surprising when you explore the context. Parents or caregivers who were shamed as children themselves, often become parents/caregivers who are anxious about their own children behaving well, and not shamefully. Their own parental blueprint from growing up, leads to the use of shame in their own parenting, to reduce what they perceive as unacceptable behaviour and thus increasing acceptance and reducing anxiety. So, whilst shame feels horrible and icky, it can be consciously or unconsciously utilised to establish socially and culturally acceptable behaviours, which leads to people ‘fitting in’ more and thus potentially reducing exclusion or isolation.
Of course, one of the difficulties with this, is that children don’t understand that parents and caregivers get overwhelmed; that they are humans with limitations, and financial constraints. They just experience the world, and their parent’s behaviours, in their emotions and their bodies. If shame and anger are used to manage children’s behaviours, and this is accompanied by pervasive abuse or neglect, then children will experience an increasing sense of shame, and accompanying negative belief systems. It’s really important that children are able to hold their parents as ‘okay’, because developmentally, emotionally and physically, they are reliant on them to have their needs met. When those needs aren’t met, it’s safer for the child to believe that this is because they have done something wrong, or that they are not good enough – because this means they can try harder, do better; change their parents or caregivers behaviours. So for children who have grown up in households where their needs have been unable to be met within those important attachment relationships, they can be left with an enduring sense of not being good enough, and those internal shame gremlins will keep knocking on the door. As adults, the young traumatised internal parts of the self, may still believe that they are not good enough to be cared about, or fed, clothed, loved, etc.
When a child experiences fear, it is often internalised shame which will help them to respond in a way which reduces the risk of punishment. This can lead to a real burden of shame, when growing up with parents or caregivers who feel scary or shaming. The child who experiences always having to be quiet, being told they are stupid, or idiotic, in the way, or that their feelings, thoughts and behaviours are unimportant, may show up as withdrawn, with poor eye contact, holding their bodies in small defensive ways, or as angry (to cover over the shame gremlins) or emotionally shut down and disconnected.
That all sounds a bit miserable doesn’t it… and Im wondering if you’re reading this, what comes up for you. If you need to, take a moment to pause and reflect on your own experiences of shame, and how this has impacted you, or protected you. Remember, that although those shame gremlins feel horrible, they have helped you to get by in the world, to fit in with social norms, and maybe to stay safe.
How do we help people, when shame feels like the very essence of who we are? Brene Brown, a well known shame researcher, identifies how shame gives us a fundamental belief that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. It keeps us disconnected, fearful, and prevents us from being compassionate towards those parts of our selves which are hurting. This is very different to our experiences of guilt, which can be adaptive and helpful – guilt is holding something we’ve done or failed to do, up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
Shame is a signal to shut up. We feel it physiologically in our bodies. Our throat closes, we avoid direct eye contact, and will unconsciously adopt a more submissive and non threatening body posture. These are all adaptive responses when we need to be compliant and submissive, because on some level, either in or out of awareness, we are feeling unsafe. However, if compliance and submission feels life threatening, it can evoke a different response for example a fight or flight response. Cultural and societal influences, and gender stereotyping in our developing years has lead to women generally responding more submissively when feeling shamed, whereas men may respond with an angry fight response – it can feel less safe for them to be vulnerable due to those societal and cultural expectations growing up (toughen up, don’t cry, don’t be a wuss etc). What do you notice you experience when you feel shame, or experience being shamed? What messages do you give yourself about your response? Are they kind and compassionate, or self critical? I invite you to think about your own shame gremlins in the context of your experiences, and then to really consider the following two assumptions…
“Im worthless, and stupid, and its my fault…”
It was an ingenious way of surviving difficult stuff, and its kept me safe….
You are important. You matter. Your needs are important, and you are allowed to have boundaries, and to ask for them to be respected. When you notice those shame gremlins popping their heads up, I invite you to try pausing for a moment and observing with a compassionate part of yourself. Notice what you are experiencing, how you feel, and what thoughts come up… what’s triggered your shame gremlins into feeling like they need to come and protect you. What do you need in that moment to help you feel safe?
Shame dies when stories are told in safe spaces…