Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change. ― Brené Brown
Every day, we get up, and we talk about topics that we are comfortable with. We might chit-chat about a movie we saw over the weekend with a friend or talk about our chances for promotion with our husband. Somehow, we manage to talk about our loves, our hopes, even our failures. What we often don’t talk about is that insidious feeling that sometimes festers inside us, that makes us feel like we are nothing, that colors our very being. What we can’t talk about is a shame.
And since we keep it in darkness, shame curls and hisses inside us. It grows and becomes more prominent. And we cower in an emotional corner, not understanding what exactly we are dealing with, what exactly it is that we are feeling. We haven’t been taught to name shame. So, we know what fear and anger and happiness feel like. But shame? Shame is a different story…
What Does Shame Look Like?
When was the last time you made a mistake? How did you feel about it? It could be that you felt embarrassed, and then, let it go after some time. It could have also been that what you did go against your inner moral code. In that case, you might have felt guilty. You had violated your values – maybe talked rudely to an older person because you were in a hurry or hurt a friend in the name of being honest. And now your conscience, like any other healthy conscience, was making you suffer. Guilt and embarrassment are natural feelings in this kind of situations.
But what if instead of saying, “I made a mistake,” and feeling bad that you had done something wrong, you almost felt like: “I am a mistake.” You might have then thought; “ “I can’t do anything right. I always end up messing things up. What’s wrong with me?” This is what shame looks like.
Helen Block Lewis, one of the first psychologists to talk about shame in depth, made this important distinction between guilt and shame: Guilt is about doing. Shame is about being. So, the experience of guilt is tied to a specific behavior while shame is about what we believe is the truth about us, deep down inside. Shame goads us into believing that we are fundamentally flawed and that no other person could love or respect us. Shame robs us of self-worth and happiness.
And it is hard to recognize it when we are in its throes. Unlike other feelings like fear and anger, shame does not have a crystal-clear, distinctive physical sensations. When you feel shame, you might feel flushed and want to avoid eye contact. Or you might feel like melting into the ground or disappearing off the face of this Earth. Or you might feel weighed down. Everyone experiences shame differently.
Where Does Shame Come From?
In the wonderful, The Dance of Fear, psychologist Harriet Lerner says that “most of the time, our shame emanates from some imagined defect in ourselves.” While this compulsive urge to hide is a very personal feeling, the origins of shame are both social and political.
If you are the mother of a crazy-making teenager, for example, you might feel shame for his or her behavior because you have internalized the cultural belief that a mother is responsible for her child’s behavior. Or if you are a sensitive person living in a culture that denigrates sensitivity, you will absorb the belief that being sensitive is a weakness. And since you can’t help being sensitive, you might come to the conclusion that something is wrong with you. You will see yourself as flawed even when you are just yourself.
As an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) myself, I know what it means to feel “lesser than,” especially when I was working in an office where my traits were not valued. If you are an HSP, you might feel completely out of step in a corporate environment, just like I did. Your primary value is to seek connection while most modern offices are highly competitive.
You might not have realized that you are in the wrong place for you. Most sensitive people need to work in which they can create meaning or help others. So, if you are in an environment where you can’t express these values, you might start questioning yourself instead of questioning whether you are a right fit for that place and vice versa.
It is also important to understand that the weight of the shame that we feel depends on two things: the personal meaning that we give to the issue as well as the larger cultural context.
So, if you grew up in a family that values sensitivity, you won’t feel the same burden of being not good enough as would an HSP who has not found that support, even though both of you live in the same broader culture.
So, what kind of things can someone feel ashamed about? Lerner says, “You can learn to feel shame about anything that is really about you – your shape, your accent, your financial situation, your wrinkles, your size, your illness, your infertility, how you spend your day.”
In short, you can feel ashamed of things you can’t control and things that don’t reflect who you are as a person, like how much money you make.
Perfectly Imperfect: Releasing the Shame That Binds You
Lerner says that we get beyond the shame by talking about it, by telling. We have to out the so-called flaws that we’ve been hiding so that they can no longer control us. We have to talk about the fact that we come from the wrong side of the town or have alcoholism in our family. Lerner gives an example of how women have been shamed for growing older.
We’ve been taught to hide our age or lie about it, and basically, treat it like a dirty secret. What this does give life to the belief that there is something almost unfortunate and shameful about growing older.
“Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many”. — Unknown
When we can claim our age, saying “I am 33,” or “I am 57,” we help cut shame down to size. We create an environment in which women can stand up and own their entire lives, instead of trying to appear younger.
What stops us from doing this?
It is true that sharing our truth can sometimes have negative consequences. We might get stereotyped as a certain kind of person. We might not get a job that we know we deserve. We have to decide whether we are willing to risk and exercise courage.
There are some cases in which we might decide that the risks outweigh the benefits. It would do us no good, for example, to share ourselves with an excessively critical person. Neither should we share our stories when doing so is unsafe or will harm us in some way. But many times, we stop short of owning our stories, even in low-risk situations. What if you were to come out with your age the next time you were at a party? What would happen? Chances are, nothing serious.
Ultimately, it falls to us to decide when to exercise courage and when to be discreet. But speak we must. That’s the only way in which we can break down shame and dissolve it. And we need a compassionate recipient for our story – someone who can offer unconditional acceptance and hear what we are trying to say. We all need to go and search for these safe harbors. And then share what ails us, share what contaminates our spirit, share what brings us down.
In the light of the day, the demons that have been tormenting us will disappear. We will see that what we thought were irreparable flaws are just marks of being human. We will see that we are enough and more than enough – that we have the capacity to both get what we need and start looking for what we want.