Shame can be defined as a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation that arises in relation to the perception of having done something dishonourable immoral or improper (verywellmind.com). Whilst it’s a negative emotion its origins play an important role in our survival as a species. Without shame, we might not feel the need to adhere to cultural norms, follow laws or behave in ways that allow us to connect meaningfully to other humans.
That universal and deeply uncomfortable feeling in the pit of our stomach that often signals shame means different things to different people, however it is probably helpful to break it down a little more:
- Shame = “I am bad” and involves negative feelings about oneself
- Guilt = “I did something bad”
- Humiliation = we feel that we don’t deserve
- Embarrassment = fleeting, often accompanied by awkwardness in the presence of others and deals with societal reaction
The experience of shame is frequently deeply unpleasant – people who are experiencing shame are struck by the overwhelming and strongly-held belief that they are bad. It’s not their feelings or actions that are bad but the essence of the person. And that, can have significant implications for people.
Causes of shame:
There are a variety of potential causes of the different types of shame, some that are transient and others that might have originated in childhood.
In addition, sometimes mental health concerns can create shame in and of themselves. Here are some of the potential causes of shame:
- Childhood trauma or neglect
- Any mental health disorder that involves self-criticism or judgment (eg social anxiety disorder)
- Not living up to overly high standards that you set for yourself
- Feeling as though your flaws or inadequacy will be revealed
- Being the victim of bullying
- Expectations not being met or experiencing failure
- Rejection from others or a weakening of a relationship
Coming from an attachment theory perspective, shame often develops in our first known community – our family of origin and whilst it begins as a two-person experience, it becomes in internalised becoming a destructive one-person experience.
- Overt experience of shame: “you good-for-nothing…”
- Covert experiences of shame: rigid ideologies (religion, military environment etc.) / parental attitudes (family rules) / parent – sibling success
- Chronic shame: persistent, long-standing, recurrent
- Acute shame: short in duration but often severe in nature
In this way, shame is an ineffective mechanism a child utilises in an attempt to preserve attachment. When early attachment is disrupted by abuse, neglect or a parent’s own attachment issues, a child will blame oneself, not the parent which results in internal messages of not being good enough. As Gabor Maté says, attachment will always trump authenticity.
Impact of shame:
Shame can have severe and detrimental effects on people’s lives including:
- Making you feel like you are flawed or there is something wrong with you
- Can lead to social withdrawal
- Can lead to addiction to substances or behaviours (e.g., alcohol, drugs, spending, sex)
- Maybe cause you to become defensive and shame others in return
- May lead you to bullying others if you have been bullied yourself
- May cause you to inflate your ego to hide the belief that you don’t have value (narcissistic personality)
- May lead to physical health problems
- Can be related to depression and sadness
- May leave you feeling empty, lonely, or worn out
- May lead to lowered self-esteem
- May make it harder for you to trust other people
- May make it harder for you to be in therapy or stop feeling as though you are being judged
- May lead to perfectionism or overachievement to try and counteract your feelings of shame
- May cause you to engage in people-pleasing
- May cause you to avoid talking because you are afraid to say the wrong thing
- May cause compulsive or excessive behaviours like strict dieting, overwork, excessive cleaning, or having too high of standards in general.
Tools of shame-resilience:
- Recognising how shame shows up for you
- Becoming aware of your shame triggers
- Practicing compassionate awareness towards self
- Reaching out for empathy (co-regulation)
- Reaching in for self-compassion (self-regulation)
- Naming your shame
If you are stuck in your own shame spiral, and could do with some support to get out iwe have a team of therapists at Thea Baker Wellbeing – please reach out to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org / 03 9077 8194.