Shame: How it Affects us, and How to Overcome it

Over the weekend I went out of town to attend my 2-year-old niece’s birthday party. She was adorable, and I enjoyed spending time with my family, but the drive through LA can be brutal. On my way home, a man on a motorcycle whizzed by me and then flipped me off. I have no idea what I could have done to make him angry. I had been driving in the same lane at the same speed for miles.

Despite the knowledge that I hadn’t done anything wrong, I felt hot shame flush through my body, and I recognized the sensation as one that I’ve experienced frequently lately. It seems like every time I turn around these days, someone is suggesting that there is something wrong with me.

Whenever I make a comment online, dozens of perfect strangers attempt to shame me by calling me stupid in myriad ways. Partly, I think that people shame others in order to dispel some of their own frustration, but I also think that they do it believing that the shame will teach the other person a lesson.

I’ve seen parents shame their children for the same reason. Children who get bad grades or fail to do their chores properly are often shamed by their parents, who believe that the shame will get their children to behave better in the future.

Unfortunately, these parents’ efforts are misguided. Shame can’t teach anyone anything. Scans of human brains show that the learning centers shut down on shame. No information is getting in until the shamed person’s brain calms down. If the goal is teaching, it is much better and more effective to speak kindly to people, and help them to understand and practice. A relaxed brain is a learning brain.

Brene Brown, the renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, defines shame as the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” This sense of unworthiness is profoundly damaging to the human psyche. The more that people receive the message that they are unworthy of love, the more that they believe it. Much of my work as a therapist is helping people to undo the programming of shame.

While shame usually begins as damaging messages of unworthiness from the people around us, over time we tend to internalize the shame and begin shaming ourselves. We believe that we need the shame to motivate ourselves–to keep ourselves from becoming lazy couch potatoes.

However, the research shows that shame doesn’t actually motivate people. The more that we shame ourselves, the more depressed we become, which leads to lower levels of motivation, not higher. Giving ourselves kindness and compassion is a much better way to gain motivation.

If you’re thinking that you don’t have shame, think again. Shame is universal. The only people that don’t feel it are psychopaths. The more that we act like shame doesn’t exist, the more it grows. Speaking honestly with each other about the experience of shame is the only way to overcome it.

Brene Brown talks about shame being like a Gremlin. In the 1980s movie, Gremlins, the little green monsters that wreak havoc are only killed in the end by the sun. Shame is the same. It is only by exposing it to the light that it can be defeated.

I’m not suggesting that you start telling everyone you meet about your shame experiences. Doing that would likely just create more experiences to be ashamed of. Instead, share your shame with people who have earned the right to hear your stories, and have the emotional strength to bear the weight of your pain.

These are people who have stuck with you through good times and bad times, and have shown that they can be trusted with your secrets and your pain. If you can’t think of anyone like that in your life, I would suggest that you find a therapist who is trained to hear your shame stories and can help you shed necessary light on your pain.

There’s an important difference between shame and guilt that I’d like to discuss. While shame is the terrible feeling of being unworthy of love and belonging, which is harmful and leads to painful experiences of disconnection, guilt is the knowing that you have done something wrong that you need to make right somehow.

Shame is the sense of “I am bad,” and guilt is the sense of “I did something bad.” Unlike shame, guilt can help people to rebuild connections. When people realize that they have hurt others, they can apologize and seek forgiveness.

If you regularly speak to yourself in the language of shame, I would encourage you to begin practicing self-compassion. If you’re constantly shaming yourself, your nervous system is constantly in fight or flight mode, which is extremely damaging to your body and your nervous system. In this self-protective state, you will have difficulty learning new things, and your body will likely become depressed in order to deal with all of the stress.

Self-compassion is a wonderful way to begin the process of coming out of a self-shaming mind state. There are three components to self compassion: 1) mindfulness, 2) self-kindness, and 3) common humanity.

The mindfulness part is about paying attention to your experience and noticing your self-critical and shaming thoughts. The self-kindness part is really about telling yourself that both you and your feelings are OK. And the common humanity part is reminding yourself that the experience of pain and shame are what make us the same as others, not different.

A self-compassion statement might look something like this: “Wow, I’m feeling a lot of shame right now. It’s OK to feel that way. Many people would feel shame in this situation.” You can create a self-compassion statement that works for you as long as it has all three components. It doesn’t take a lot of time to use the statement, and it can dramatically shift the experience of shame, and reduce your stress.

Despite the messages that you may have received over the course of your lifetime, you are worthy of love and belonging. You don’t have to do anything to become worthy. You are already worthy simply because you are a human being. Babies know that they are worthy of love, and so do the people around them. It seems strange to me that people think that at some unknown point in human development this inherent worthiness goes away. It doesn’t. All people are worthy of love and belonging, including you.

For more information on shame, please look into the work of Brene Brown. She’s one of my sheroes, and I highly recommend her book Daring Greatly. She also has two great TED Talks: “The Power of Vulnerability,” and “Listening to Shame.”

For more information on self-compassion, I recommend the work of Kristin Neff, who has a wonderful TED Talk called “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion.”

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