Information by: T J Price, Psy D

Shame is so very powerful, yet has flown under the radar for too long.  Thinking back on my training and experience, I realize that I learned nothing about Shame in college or graduate school.  I don’t remember learning anything about it until the last ten years.   In my first decade and a half of working with people as a psychologist, I only remember one person who brought it up as a concern.  People have not wanted to talk about it.  It was not talked about, it was not recognized, and therefore, it was not treated adequately.

People like Brene Brown have been studying Shame and we now have adequate information and treatment to help people stuck with, or living in, Shame.  She has found that most everyone experiences Shame at some point.    Note:  People who do not feel empathy (an outward focused emotion) cannot feel shame.

Shame is not Guilt, Humiliation, or Embarrassment.  And the differences are vitally important.   Part of how we can help people heal and move on beyond and without Shame is specific education.  Research tells us that true emotional literacy is very important, it’s much more than semantics.

Guilt is the remorse, the feeling bad about a choice and a behavior we engaged in, or failed to do.  Guilt can help us change and behave better.  The self-talk we engage in can help us figure out what we are feeling.   Guilt self-talk would be something like, “I did something bad.”

Humiliation is the feeling we experience when we are caught doing something negative or bad & we feel we did not deserve what someone then did to us.  That type of self-talk would be, “I did not deserve that.”

Embarrassment is that fairly temporary feeling when someone witnesses something we do that is not flattering or is out of character for us.  We do not feel all alone, we know other people have done similar things and it is temporary.  Self-talk could be, “Oops, I wish I had not done that,” or, “Did someone really see that?”

A lot of people in our society believe Shame will help us do better and be better.  Some parents actively try to Shame a child to try to make them be better or do the “right thing”.  Research tells us that it just does not work.  Shame is the very negative, deep, self-loathing to the core, usually in reaction to an act, or failure to act (not simply guilt over an action) that we believe is terrible, unforgiveable, making us despicable, evil, worth less than everyone else, and/or unlovable.  Part of what Shame does is, it acts to keep us from talking about things that we think would be terrible to admit.  And, it is contagious; when we hear other people talk about it, we often feel our own Shame more strongly.  We are innately social animals, which has important ramifications.  We fear that if other people find out about what we did, or did not do, they will reject us – that we will be outcasts.  Basically, Shame came about to keep us from being ejected from the family/social group (herd – we are mammals, after all).  It is based in fear of rejection and disconnection.  It is directly related to survival.  Centuries ago, if we were ejected from the clan, we would almost certainly die, and we feel it to the core.  However, now Shame ends up being a self-constructed prison or torture chamber.  It can become solidified, like armor, and harden a person’s emotions.  In ongoing Shame, strong neural pathways activate, wire together, and there is no flexibility with which to rewire the brain.  The self-talk of Shame can be, “I’m so stupid or terrible, I don’t deserve . . .”  In a way, Shame is the opposite of anxiety.  With anxiety, people worry and focus on the negative possible futures, with the Central Nervous System (CNS) overactivated.  Shame, on the other hand, is a shutting down of the CNS: people shut down, recoil, numb out, withdraw, hide.

Shame has been called The Great Disconnector.  It keeps a person separate from others.  It’s not just a thought, not just a passing feeling.  People develop, what can be called, Shame Shields, to try to go on living. When we keep secrets about our Shame, we are not physically rejected from our social group, but we end up psychologically disconnecting and distancing ourselves from others.  Low self-esteem results.  It becomes solidified as a powerful aspect of a person’s self-identity.  The bodily memory, or what is sometimes called the “Fear Body”, will bring back the Shame over & over again.   Research also shows that Shame breeds Shame, and often, violence.  Shame and the belief of not being good enough keep energy at a low level and keep reactivating old neural networks, which tends to keep a person from learning from mistakes.  Not only that, but Shame is incompatible with empathy.  When we are awash in Shame, we are incapable of empathy and empathic connection.

Fortunately, many people have been studying Shame and there are many treatment approaches that can be used to weaken and heal Shame, so the “good at the core” person can leave Shame behind and live a life they can value – and feel connected to people, and life, again.  It seems that truly good people feel Shame the strongest.

One powerful healing factor is naming and understanding Shame.  The science of Interpersonal Neuro-Biology has found that there is healing power in being able to recognize and name the negative emotion – experts in that field encourage us to “Name it to Tame it.”

A second healing approach is for the person carrying the Shame to finally reveal it to someone, and that person does not recoil, reject, or judge, but connects and helps the person feel understood and accepted – healing results!

A third approach is to have the person tell their story and help them understand that they created that story.  That their internal construction of the story is just that, it is not necessarily true on an objective, universal dimension (an approach called Dis-identification).

There are other approaches that can help, also.  If you or someone you know is struggling with Shame, it does not have to be a life sentence.  If the above ideas do not help, seek out someone who has training and experience, someone you believe you can trust.  This work is just another type of healing – and because you are human, you deserve it.

Copyright:  Tj Price, 2020