Change Becomes You
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Change Becomes You

How Shame Can Stop Us from Believing in Change

Addressing shame needs deep understanding, gentleness, compassion, and empathy.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Shame is one of the most underrated while simultaneously omnipresent and corrosive emotional experiences in life. We may not even be aware that what we are experiencing is related to shame. Shame has many disguises — it may present itself as anxiety, as low mood and depression, as low self-esteem or self-worth, or as loneliness. Shame is frequently the underlying experience for many clients who seek therapy.

The origins of the words ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’

Shame is a deep-seated feeling of evaluating yourself as being somehow bad or wrong and dreading exposure of this very intense negatively associated feeling of impropriety. The etymological roots of the word ‘shame’ go back to notions related to covering up, losing self-esteem, and feeling disgraced. Another interesting root for the word shame is related to the physiological response of having red cheeks.

The origins of guilt go back to the notion of delinquency, of having to or failing to pay a duty or having committed a crime or sinful act.

The intensity of shame

Shame is one of the most challenging feelings we can experience; it tends to go to the very core of our notion of self. When talking about something that you experience as shameful, you are likely to feel very vulnerable and exposed. You are not covering up anymore. Shame usually leads to a desire to hide the part of the self that is perceived to be damaged away from other people. Experiencing chronic feelings of shame is highly correlated with depression, addiction, eating disorders, anger, and suicidality. Shame is frequently an underlying factor in the high presentation of suicidal behaviour in people with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (now called Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder) as it links to feelings of unworthiness or self-contempt. Shame is also a chronic experience for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The secretive nature of sexual abuse, the putting down of the victim, and explicit threats by the perpetrator all contribute to the survivor developing a strong sense of shame. Many childhood experiences that lead to shame are stored in the part of the brain that is not easily accessible to cognitive processing or linguistic expression.

Differences between shame and guilt

In everyday use, shame and guilt are often used synonymous, but they have different underlying drivers. Guilt is more focused on your behaviour in the social domain whereas shame is focused on your sense of self — your way of being in the social domain. An individual who feels guilty can consciously say “what I did was bad, but I am not bad”. Individuals who experience shame on the other hand feel inferior, small, worthless, and exposed to others. You can assuage your guilt by apologizing for getting something wrong, but it is infinitely harder to come to terms with having a sense of somehow being worthless or not being good enough.

While guilt tends to be largely in the conscious realm, shame often is an unconscious feeling and experienced as intensely intolerable. On a physiological level, there may be an element of conscious awareness of shame such as blushing, sweating, or having a racing heart, but often shame gets split off through dissociation. This means that shame goes deeper and deeper underground until it is not experienced anymore. Over a long period of time, individuals may often go to the extreme of not feeling any shame at all, instead displaying narcissistic, arrogant, or overly proud behaviour.

Guilt entails a value judgment appraisal that one has done something wrong in relation to another person. It implies that the guilty person has an awareness of having contributed to an outcome that is perceived to be morally or socially wrong. Guilt can be viewed as an empathic response that helps to regulate our relationships with others; the focus of it is on other people. While shame has a social dimension too in determining what is taboo or not, the gaze is towards our relationship with our self. It is not necessarily connected to other people but more about how we look at ourselves. Arguably guilt is largely to do with the interpersonal realm, while shame tends to be focused on the intrapersonal, i.e. inward rather than outward.

Responses to feeling shame or guilt

Shame and guilt bring on different outward responses. Feelings of shame tend to lead to a wish to cover up and hide away that part of us which is thought of as deeply undesirable. Arguably, sexual shame about the naked body for example leads us to literally cover up with clothing.

Guilt, on the other hand, can lead to restorative action; a wish to make amends and to repair or to atone for one’s sins. Guilt is driven by remorse for having done wrong. Chronic guilt that is not followed by restorative action can also bring about a sense of shame. Frequently it can lead to high levels of anxiety or compulsive behaviour.

Our need for validation

As social creatures, we are dependent on other people for love and care to develop a positive sense of self. Children who can see delight and joy reflected in their primary caretaker’s interactions with them will learn to think of themselves as being valuable and worthy. However, if the reflection is one of disappointment, anger, or even disgust, the child will develop a very strong sense of not being worthy and of shame. Paradoxically, a person who has not been validated by their parents develops a need to be positively affirmed while at the same time experiencing this exposure as highly uncomfortable as it increases the risk of further exposure to shameful feelings.

Social media and shame

The dilemma of wishing to be seen and to express one’s self but also needing to hide the self is often played out in the realm of social media. Posting on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram offers the possibility of being positively reflected and mirrored (being ‘liked’), but can also lead to a profound feeling of shame when the wished-for responses are not forthcoming. Shame is hidden away behind carefully edited profile pictures or a relentlessly positive narrative about one’s life experiences.

Shame in the therapy room

Within the context of therapy, shame is widely present in most client’s narratives. Presentations of anxiety and depression are often at the surface of underlying shameful feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. These feelings can often be further highlighted in the perceived power imbalance between the ‘all-knowing’ therapist and the ‘needing and helpless’ client. While shameful feelings usually require a careful cover-up, in therapy clients are asked to reveal themselves with the therapist’s narrative remaining hidden. Addressing shame needs deep understanding, gentleness, compassion, and empathy. And above all, it requires time and a trusting relationship where the intense emotions correlated to shame can be explored and understood.

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Angela Dierks

Counsellor, Psychotherapist, Couple Therapist, Clinical Supervisor and University Lecturer, London— Weekly , free podcasts: therelationshipmazepodcast.com