What is shame?
Shame is one of, if not the hardest emotion for us to experience. It is a feeling that for many is so difficult to acknowledge that it causes us to engage in addictive and unhealthy behaviours in order to drive the feeling as far away from our conscious experience as possible.
In contrast to guilt, which is when we feel bad for doing something that was not in line with our morals and/or caused harm, shame is the feeling that, at our core, there is something defective and wrong about us. Shame can manifest itself as an uneasy feeling, that you will be found out for who you truly are. Some people describe living with the daily presence of shame, as feeling a constant sense that someone might be recording or watching you and will at some point call you out on your deficiencies or shortcomings as a human being. This fear of exposure is commonly known as imposter syndrome.
Shame can leave people riddled with self-doubt and low confidence. How can you trust your intuition or have faith in yourself and in your choices, if deep down you experience yourself as an immoral or flawed person?
What causes shame?
No one is born feeling ashamed of themselves. Shame is an emotional imprint that comes from our learnt experiences, often rooted in childhood. Up to the age of seven, we are like emotional sponges, absorbing the feelings and attitudes of others around us and learning about ourselves through how our primary carers react to us on a daily basis. In addition, we have not yet developed the capacity for self-reflection or other perspective-taking. As a result, we are extremely ‘egocentric’, believing that everything that happens (whether good or bad) is to do with us.
Picture a boy of six who drops his cereal bowl on the floor, causing it to smash, sending milk and his cornflakes flying. He looks to his mother to see her reaction. His mother looks him in the eye and says, "you stupid, stupid boy, everything you touch breaks". The boy has been shamed, his mother has not separated the boy’s worth from his actions, but labelled him as someone who causes destruction wherever he goes. This is a typical example, which an adult looking on might recognise as the mother simply being exhausted and at her wits’ end. However, for the six-year-old, who cannot recognise that his mother’s reaction is more about her lack of sleep or other worries at the time, the impact is deeply personal, and his mother’s words become the ultimate truth. This can give rise to a belief that there is something about him that destroys things and causes pain to others, which can lead to a lifetime of trying to suppress and hide those parts of him while constantly seeking the approval of others. This is the beginning of the little boy looking to earn his worth by abandoning his own emotional needs in relationships, so that he avoids the pain of shame and rejection.
As there is no such thing as a perfect parent or perfect parenting, we will have all had experiences, whether we remember them or not, that have led us to label parts of ourselves as unacceptable and made us fearful at the thought of them being exposed. This is one reason romantic relationships can be such emotional roller coaster rides. In order to establish an emotional connection with someone, we are required to show some vulnerability. However, this can be terrifying to reveal as it risks showing to others part of ourselves we do not trust will be accepted. If we let down our guard with someone and are not offered the love and stability we all crave in return, our childhood wounds are opened up and left gaping. We then use the experience as evidence that we really are as flawed and unlovable as we feared.
How can I be free from shame?
Shame is fuelled by fear. This fear of being ‘found out’, exposed as an imposter or unworthy of love keeps us from living our highest potential. To dispense with shame, we need to undermine the core belief that there is something deeply wrong or unloveable about us. This can be achieved through demonstrating our vulnerability with others who we trust will respond without judgement. Shame can only exist if it remains hidden. This is where therapy can help. By giving voice to what we fear about ourselves, we can learn to develop a compassionate curiosity towards our feelings of shame and alleviate the grip it can have on us.
We need to recognise that, as human beings, we all have the propensity to do things that are not loving or moral, just as much as we have the propensity to demonstrate acts of kindness and generosity. As such, we will all have engaged in behaviours we are not proud of, but it is important to separate our worth from our mistakes and develop a sense of acceptance of the flawed nature of being human.
By developing a more healthy relationship with shame, we can recognise its power to deter us from harming others without letting it fill us with false beliefs of our defectiveness. In this way, we establish a more secure relationship with ourselves and our position in the world.