“Shame is internalized when one is abandoned. Abandonment is the precise term to describe how one loses one’s authentic self and ceases to exist psychologically.”
― John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You
The voice of shame asks the question “what is wrong with me?” It sounds like an inner mean girl or villain campaigning for worthlessness.
The difference between shame, helpful guilt and unhelpful guilt
Shame is a painful social emotion that creates the experience of believing something is inherently wrong with our character. Shame gives voice to the notion that there is something fundamentally wrong with us creating a deep felt sense of unworthiness and inadequacy. “Helpful guilt is a feeling of psychological discomfort about something we’ve done that is objectively wrong” (NICAMB, 2022). In many cases helpful guilt is adaptive, motivating us to course correct, heal and adhere to a set of realistic moral standards that feel true to us. “Unhelpful guilt is a feeling of psychological discomfort about something we’ve done against our irrationally high standards” (NICAMB, 2022). Helpful guilt alerts you when you find yourself making choices that betray a set of appropriate standards and values that are meaningful to you, an example of this is feeling guilty if you lie or cheat. Unhelpful guilt may show up when you make a human error, like forgetting someone’s name or to not tipping your waiter what you normally would if you’re in a rush. The most notable difference between guilt and shame is this: shame is an emotion that attacks our soul’s innocence and character whereas guilt is an emotion centered around monitoring our behavior.
The Impact of early childhood trauma
All humans experience shame at some point in their lives. Childhood neglect, trauma, abuse and secrecy create fertile ground for shame to become toxic. As children we internalize ruptures and painful events as our fault. We are egocentric beings, meaning we don’t have the ability to see outside of ourselves, we look to our caregivers to meet our basic needs and provide us with love, safety and belonging; they become god-like figures in our young minds. When disruption, abuse, neglect or chaos occurs at home we are often faced with two questions: Is there something flawed with them or is there something wrong with me? We often choose self-blame in the face of shame as it creates the illusion there is something we can do or fix internally to mitigate a painful situation. Self blame becomes self protection and a means of avoiding feelings of powerlessness, loss of control and deep grief.
If we felt deep shame as children, as adults it is likely that we experience an internal voice that is rooted in criticism or blame; that same voice that attempts to make sense of uncontrollable situations.
What is the function of shame and how does it show up?
The function of shame is primal and evolutionary attempting to keep us safe from being rejected from our tribe or community. Shame attempts to protect through internal rejection from the idea “if I reject myself, it will hurt less when others reject me” shame thrives in darkness and attempts to keep various parts of us hidden from the world. Additionally, shame works to keep us socially acceptable and appropriate. When left unchecked, shame is passed down for generations.
Common manifestations of shame include: avoidance, compulsive comparison, feelings of numbness or emptiness, people pleasing, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, low self esteem, eating disorders, addiction, physical pain and somatic symptoms.
The antidote to shame
Shame is a primitive emotion and “empathy creates a hostile environment for shame–it can’t survive” (Brown, 2007). Suffering from deep rooted shame feels incredibly isolating and in order to survive we might do anything we can to bury it, perpetuating patterns of self judgement and avoidance resulting in even more shame. The antidote to shame is curiosity and connection. Connection creates momentum towards coming home to our authentic selves, creating feelings of love, safety and trust that allow us to move towards our fullest expression. Healthy connection occurs when safely allow ourselves to be witnessed and reclaim parts ourselves that were once abandoned or rejected. We begin to be curious towards ourselves and others asking intentional questions to create warmth and familiarity before making a judgement. When we begin to experience a loving, connected and curious relationship with ourselves are less likely to fill up on judgement, numbing and isolation.
Practices for Healing Shame
Addressing root causes of shame with a trusted therapist is one of the most supportive approaches you can take. Because shame often grows in isolation entering into a relational experience can create a safe space to lovingly dismantle the grip of shame in your life and create a new framework while being witnessed and held.
Self Compassion & Curiosity
In the same way you might stand up to mistreatment in your community or outside of you, you can stand up to the voice of shame within. Once we identify the voice of we can explore it, questioning if you would ever talk to a loved one in the way the voice of shame talks to you. You can be curious about the shame, asking what it’s attempting to do and exploring if there is a more generative way of meeting that need. Additionally, utilize curiosity to become aware of what triggers feelings of shame, what it feels like in your body and familiarize yourself with your needs.
Own your Cringe
We all have quirks, I’d argue our quirks make us beautiful, human and truly special. When we sense our quirks might be witnessed we can freeze up, judge ourselves and search for ways to feel safe in order to avoid rejection. Practice embracing your cringe by self-disclosing and surveying a few safe people about something you feel ashamed of, notice their reaction, ask them if they have ever experienced anything similar. When we own our cringe and are met with empathy we can allow it to become an endearing key to feeling free from the need to hide or manage a self proclaimed “ick.”
Embrace your heart
Explore what your shame is revealing about you that is beautiful. In many cases shame illuminates how deeply you care, how sensitive and loving you are, how much you value and long for connection and belonging. Shame often flares up to protect from feeling vulnerable. Embracing your heart requires you to take on the idea that you can open your heart safely and honor your sensitivity, granting permission to be vulnerable. This is a slow and intentional process that requires courage.
Create a relationship with your inner loving parent.
You might be hesitant to release shame, wondering how you’ll stay in check or maybe you fear that you’ll become unhinged and careless if you aren’t adhering to the voice of shame. When we liberate ourselves from shame we do so knowing that we’re imperfect human beings who will make mistakes and have missteps. The healing occurs when we course correct or parent ourselves with the voice of a love rather than a voice of fear. For example, if you make a mistake at work instead of listening to a voice that says “you’re so inadequate how did you mess that up” you might want to practice accessing your inner loving parent who says something like “you made a human mistake, what do you need to learn so you feel more equipped to handle this next time.” The voice of the inner loving parent is growth oriented and has your best interest at heart. The voice of shame is often young and vulnerable rooted in a fixed mindset of fear and lack.
Remember this, the intensity of your shame reveals your depth and capacity to love, not how defective or inadequate you are. Once we shed light on shame we learn how to work with the emotion, it no longer becomes a monster that we have to tame or work hard to hide, instead it becomes a part that we get to be curious about and lovingly disarm from a place of empathy and sovereignty.
NICABM: How to Work with Shame, 2022.
“Shame Resilience Theory: Advice from Brene Brown” Positive Psychology, 2017.
Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing your Inner Child, John Bradshaw, 1992.
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