Shame is part of the human condition but it is not widely understood
What if I told you that everyone experiences shame and that shame is a necessary part of being human? What if I told you that there is healthy shame, and there is unhealthy shame?
I'll give you an example of what I mean...
Imagine a parent walking with their child down the foothpath when suddenly the child sees a ball out on the road and runs out to get it. The parent responds by running out after him yelling Jimmy, come back here now! Get off the road. Hurry up!" This parent, understandably, is in fight flight freeze mode and adrenaline is racing through his/her body. The child, understandably, reacts by going into fight flight freeze mode and is experiencing a situation where they are being shamed for doing something that is not acceptable. But it is what happens when the parent and child are back to safety that defines whether this is an experience of healthy shame or unhealthy shame. Ideally, now that both parent and child are back on safe ground, the parent can heal the initial shame by repairing the situation. I love you darling. I'm so pleased you are back with me and safe. I am sorry for yelling at you but I got scared. You can't run out onto the road without looking because a car might come and run you over...let's go and have a hot chocolate and talk about this some more. This sounds pretty healthy, right? Healthy shame offers us knowledge as to how to function in society. I could write a whole book about how we are moulded to meet societal expectations. But obviously we need to control people's behaviour when their, or someone else's, safety is in jeopardy.
But what if the parent, who has brought the child back to safe ground and off the road, isn't able to calm down enough to offer a healthy response to the child and the response is more like You idiot! Why did you do that? You could've been killed! I am so disappointed in you. You are not getting any treats when we get home.'This is unhealthy, right?
But this post isn't about shaming parents for what we sometimes do when we ourselves have shame, or are afraid. This post is about how we all grow up with a sense of shame to some degree or another, and how the degree of shame we experience depends on how we have been treated and how we learn to treat ourselves, and sometimes others. This post is also about how we can begin to learn to respond differently to our, and others, shame. Shame begins with a break in the invisible interpersonal bridge between a parent and child or two parties and is a combination of a primary emotion and a freeze state. In relationship with another person, therefore, it is a lack of attunement that if experienced regularly, and when not followed up with care and an intention to repair the damage, can result in a lack of internal attunement and a sense of It's my fault, I'm adrift in this crazy world that makes no sense. Unhealthy shame creates a break between an internal emotion and a sense of being able to hold and manage that emotion, and this is largely because we feel wrong for having that emotion, whatever it might be.
To elaborate on what happens internally in the face of shame, within our nervous systems we all have a parasympathetic sphere and a sympathetic sphere. The former relates to being in a calm and regulated state, whereas the latter (the sympathetic system) is what kicks in when we are in the face of fear. When the sympathetic system goes into fight, flight or freeze because we get yelled at for running out onto the road, for example, the parasympathetic sphere automatically stops and we have a sense of something being wrong. If we are not calmed down after this experience then our sense of something being wrong results in a sense of being internally wrong which then learns to hide away and manage itself though other behaviour or emotions, like pleasing others, or being shy, sad or angry, or becoming super cautious or vigilent.
To put it more simply, shame is part of the human condition and we are all on a spectrum in terms of how much shame we experience and in what situations we experience it. For some people it can be very entrenched and very painful and it can hide behind other emotions. Shame is a secretive emotion, so secretive that it is not uncommon for people to feel shame about their shame. People can develop shyness out of shame and can then develop shame about being shy. It's a sad and lonely situation. Brene Brown defines shame as "believing we are flawed and unworthy of love and belonging." This sounds intense and painful, right? But we all know it to some extent, unless we have only ever experienced complete acceptance, and unconditional love in all situations.
Overt shame is easier to detect. Overt shame is a general sense, or a sense in certain situations of there is something wrong with me. A healthy example of this is when we hear people saying something like, Oh my God, shame when they act in a way that they don't feel is appropriate. But hopefully soon after this experience they will carry on with life as usual. But overt shame can also be an unhealthy sense of something being wrong with us. Covert shame is harder to detect and often results from developmental trauma. This form of shame is immensely painful and hides behind other emotions, and often anxiety, and depression. Covert shame can be omnipresent for some people. When babies, for whatever reason, are not attuned to well in infancy, they can internalise a fierce sense of shame. This is because babies rely on their caregivers to regulate their automated nervous system and if their primary caregiver or others are not regulated themselves or not sufficiently attuned to their baby, then that baby can internalise that sense of wrongness. What did I do wrong? What is wrong with me? Shame.
I want to emphasise here that this post is not intended to blame or shame by any stretch of the imagination. We all do our best with where we are at and what resources we have available but my wish is that this knowledge will help some people to deal with their own shame or the shame their children may experience. We can all be healed. And at this point I'd like to state that a simple affirmation of "What I do matters, who I am matters" can begin that journey to healing. Write it on the fridge. Say it to yourself whenever you notice shame rearing its ugly head within your body and psyche.
Before I mention how we can respond to our shame and the shame of others in healthy, caring and healing ways I want to briefly explain what shame tends to do. When shame appears within us we tend to either deny it or disassociate. It can manifest as shyness or social anxiety and it can lead us to our addictions. We can attack ourselves by aiming for perfectionism or creating an inner critic that says "I am unworthy" or "I'm bad." Or we can attack others through blame, contempt, rage or violence. Or we can withdraw, which involves pulling in to lick our wounds and possibly isolating, mistrusting and losing faith.
But, there is another way. We can withdraw but rather than isolating and losing faith, we can offer ourselves comfort, and kindness and reassess the situation. Let's say you've had an argument with someone and they tell you that you are overreacting. And then on top of feeling all sorts of emotions including possibly shame, you feel shame for the fact you might be overreacting to the situation in front of you. And of course in this scenario you might also feel unseen by the other person. What are you going to do? Any of the above or something different?
When we are confronted with shame, in the form of feelings in our body and voices in our mind the most important thing we need to do, after acknowledging it, is to offer ourselves self- compassion. Treat yourself just as you'd like to treat that little child. Take a deep breath, give yourself an internal hug (or grab a blanket and wrap it around yourself) and say something positive to yourself like I hear you. You're ok. I love you or You're going into your stuff. It's shame. It's ok. It's still trying to protect you. Then make space between yourself and the shame. This is sometimes easier said than done. Externalise the shame. It is not you. It is shame. Remind yourself, if it helps, that many people all around the world are experiencing this same thing called shame. If the shame feels overwhelming, seek help. Talk to someone. You deserve it. But most importantly focus on developing more and more self-compassion, as this is what is going to heal you the most, and help you transform yourself through your shame. Self-compassion can be as simple as sitting down and focusing on your breath and feeling the sensations in your body, to the degree it feels safe, and telling yourself that you are experiencing shame, but that you are safe, and that it is not your fault.
Then you might make yourself a cup of tea and make space within yourself to take responsibility for what has taken place. You can ask yourself how much your reaction relates to the current situation and how much does it stem from past hurts? You can decide what you are going to do to move forward with your shame in this particular situation, and then going forward into your precious and worthy life?
If you would like counselling or to learn more about this subject please be in touch.