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Part I: What is Shame and Why is it a Problem?

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

This is a two-part series with a focus on shame. In the first part we will become familiar with shame and its impacts. In part two we will focus on ways to manage the inevitable experiences of shame.

Shame defined:

Shame is a self-conscious emotion, which means it arises when we imagine how others perceive us. Other examples of self-conscious emotions are embarrassment, jealousy, humiliation, and pride. Brené Brown defines shame as a feeling that elicits in us a sense that we are unworthy of love and belonging. Ultimately this means that our whole self, not just an attribute or a behavior, is fundamentally flawed.

Shame is a unique emotion because it is often associated with negative cognitive appraisals of the self. Negative cognitive appraisals are critical thoughts directed towards ourselves, such as “I’m a failure,” “I’m inadequate,” I’m disgusting,” “I’m bad,” or “I’m not ______ enough.” Take a moment and consider if you ever have thoughts like these. This can help be a clue that you are feeling shame.

Shame also has powerful and oftentimes debilitating physiological symptoms. Each person has unique physiological symptoms associated with shame, however some common ones are chest tightness, a sensation of heaviness, heart-sink, sweating, tight shoulders, and flushed face. What are your shame symptoms?

The problems with shame:

Typically our immediate reaction to shame is to hide, withdraw or escape. This is even demonstrated in some of the verbal cues people give when they are experiencing shame, e.g., hiding their faces, lowering their eyes, and/or shrinking their bodies. This also manifests in more destructive ways, as people may begin to withdraw from relationships, work, and other meaningful domains of their lives.

Another common way individuals avoid the discomfort associated with shame is to numb. This looks different for everyone, whether it’s through substances, food, TV, oversleeping, shopping, work, social media, etc. This response to shame is dangerous because it often elicits a shame cycle; e.g., I feel shame, I will overeat to numb that shame, and then more shame is triggered by the numbing behavior.

Anger and blame are other common ways individuals defend themselves from shame. Instead of focusing on what we fear is wrong with us, we offload that shame by attacking others. As you can imagine, this response is detrimental to interpersonal relationships. As we push others away with our anger, our shame only strengthens.

In-the-moment shame vs. shame-proneness:

Shame is universal and we are all bound to experience in-the-moment shame. This type of shame is a reaction to specific situations in which we are aware that we violated social norms. Typically, we can move through these shame experiences through support from self-soothing or safe interpersonal relationships.

In contrast, generalized proneness to shame persists through life. A shame-prone person consistently experiences shame across a number of different areas of their life. Shame-proneness tends to develop in early childhood due to a child feeling like they are rejected in their primary relationships. This builds a relational template in which the child grows to expect rejection in relationships and believes themselves to be fundamentally flawed and therefore unworthy of love. Shame-proneness involves consistent self-blame, an anticipation that other people will reject them, and/or a general negative self-concept. Shame-proneness is something that should be worked through in a safe therapeutic relationship.

What’s next:

It’s clear that shame is powerfully disruptive and can oftentimes lead to additional painful emotions and behaviors. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series in which I will discuss ways to become more resilient to shame. In the meantime, practice the first step in shame resilience which is simply recognizing when you’re experiencing shame. This self-awareness thwarts the common and often detrimental responses to shame so that we can respond from a place of compassion and integrity.

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