Text: Alejandra Misiolek
In this post we are going to talk about shame. Nobody likes to talk about shame because when we feel ashamed, we want to hide and we definitely don´t feel comfortable talking about things that cause as to feel ashamed. However, shame is a very powerful human and social emotion that affects lots of our behaviors.
First of all, let´s define shame.
Feeling shame is feeling emotional pain. It is an emotion that we feel in social situations or in relation to others that means: there is something wrong with me, who I am is inadequate, I am not good enough, not loveable.
As opposed to guilt, which is related to feeling bad about something we did, shame puts our self-esteem in total danger. Shame is a strong reaction because it is a threat to our survival. If we, as children, are not worthy of love, we can be abandoned and not provided for.
Interestingly, our reaction towards shame is very quick, automatic and visceral, where there is little space to think and be aware and which resembles a reaction we have when something traumatic is occurring. Therefore, experiencing shame is traumatic itself and it leaves scars.
How is our shame formed? It is normally formed at the early stages of development by our surrounding; our parents, our teachers and our culture, that both our families and schools are embedded in. It occurs when our vulnerabilities are not respected or taken care of but instead are criticized and pointed out to, both in the explicit process (e.g., “why can´t you just act like normal, like other children?”) or implicitly by significant people around us (e.g. “I am ashamed if I rest because I feel lazy while my parents never stopped working” or “I am ashamed of my body because it is not perfect and my mom was always on diets”). Once these parts of ourselves become our vulnerabilities, we make a lot of effort to hide them so that none can hurt us again. As a result, we develop some shame shields like:
- Numbing – using food, substances or work as a way to disconnect from what we feel (also from feeling ashamed)
- Shutting down parts of ourselves that we don´t want others to see – we stop doing certain things that we enjoyed before for fear of being exposed, we don´t share what we really feel for fear of being laughed at, etc.
- Perfectionism – we try to be perfect so that no one sees our deficits and if perfectionism fails (as it always does – being perfect is impossible) we don´t blame the perfectionism but we blame ourselves and try even harder to be perfect.
These shields are not real solutions, and they are shortcuts that help us short term but in a long run, they make us miserable and paradoxically, only cause that our shame gets bigger.
What are the real ways of not feeling ashamed?
- First, we need to become aware and acknowledge that we are feeling shame. Sometimes it is not easy because we know that we felt shame once we calmed down. But we can practice that and become better at recognizing our own emotions.
- Secondly, according to mindfulness, we need to realize it is an emotion that we are feeling, but it doesn´t define us. In other words, we need to try to separate ourselves enough from what we feel so that we can see it and gain perspective.
- We need to embrace our vulnerability and instead of avoiding it or pleasing others, we need to face it. This counterintuitive reaction is the only direction that helps diminish and not augment shame. We need to call shame “shame” and it needs to come out to light.
- Once we have seen it, it helps if we can identify why we consider that to be shameful. It helps to take more distance and accept it.
- Finally, it would really helpful if we could find someone to share with how we felt and someone who we know can give us empathy and is worthy of being told our story. Choosing carefully is important because empathy is not an easy skill (watch the YouTube video that explains empathy).
Going through shame alone is impossible, shame is a social emotion that happens between people, and it can only be healed in relationships. However, we need to expose ourselves first to share and to feel worthy and loved. Therefore, we need to do the first step.