I struggle to facilitate conversations about shame. And I’m transparent about that with my clients. This is for a few reasons: shame is difficult to conceptualize. Unlike “coping skills” or “aftercare planning,” shame is nebulous. Open for discourse. Dependent on our unique perspectives and past experiences. Additionally, I’ve yet to master managing shame in my own life.
One may argue that those with anecdotal evidence provide the sincerest form of empathy.
Being vs Doing Something Wrong
In preparation for this post, I googled “shame and…” Apparently, I’m not the only person struggling to conceptualize shame.
Clinically speaking, shame is the feeling of being something wrong as opposed to doing something wrong. Sometimes we confuse shame with embarrassment or guilt. When we feel guilty about an action, we are negatively responding to the action. When we feel shameful, we attach the action to our identity. And we develop negative feelings about ourselves as a result.
Here’s an example:
A few months ago, I wrote an article about screwing up a work presentation. This was a shameful experience for me, I felt ashamed of my performance. I described how shame impacted my self-worth: I engaged in condemning and emotion laden self-talk (You’re pathetic… This is absolutely ridiculous… You look like a child… You’ve ruined everything). I devalued my competence as a professional (You aren’t cut out for this because you’re a fraud… You will never improve… You can’t help others if you’re such a hopeless mess). I didn’t make a stupid mistake, I was stupid.
I viewed/internalized the experience as a reflection of my inherent inadequacy.
In that mindset, we can’t work towards a solution because we don’t believe a solution exists. Shame tells us our feelings are facts, and those facts are fixed and unchanging. And the more we feed a shame narrative, the more we see our mistakes as reinforcing that narrative. The “shame” neural pathway strengthens, widens, becomes easier to drive down than the “self-compassion” dirt road we visit and maintain infrequently.
Ruining Dinner Parties
To better understand shame, I did what I always do when I’m struggling: I asked for the opinions of those I trust and respect. After sharing that I was writing this post, I posed the impossible: How do you conceptualize shame? What comes to mind when you hear the word “shame?” Are there environments or relationships that produce shame more than others? And, how do you manage shame? Shockingly, I was met with some resistance.
“That’s heavy… even for you, Jess.”
“I don’t know if I can even verbalize that.”
“I’m so not going there (laughter)… I don’t even want to think about it!”
Apparently, nothing thwarts a lighthearted dinner party like inviting a therapist.
Distancing oneself from shame…
A common thread in the conversation was an attempt to distance oneself from the event that caused shame. Folks defended their character by describing the event as isolated or absurd (even to those who know their character well). To me, this speaks to the tie between shame and self-worth. And the ramifications of “being” opposed to “doing.”
Events from my childhood have stayed with me. I’ve felt shame as an adult, certainly… but the things that have had the biggest impact on me have all been from when I was a kid.”
– Attorney, childhood friend
Relationships bring out the worst shame for me… If I do or say something hurtful, I relive the moment over and over. Intrusive and inescapable. It feels like a physical and intense pang of self hatred… like being stabbed with a memory.
– Waiter, neighbor
Shame is important… like a compass? When I feel shame, it’s a good indication I’m on the wrong path. There’s this moment of, I made that choice. I’m capable of doing that.
– Musician, ex-partner
My most shameful moments were associated with my divorce and the inability to make my marriage work. I took it as a personal failure.
– Mental Health Professional, family member
Veiling the Dark Parts
Guilt and embarrassment are uncomfortable. But shame is far more existential. It forces us to confront, what kind of person am I?
A common response to shame is secrecy. If our reaction to an action is “I’m a bad person for doing that” or “There is something wrong with me,” our inclination is to hide it. But if Brene Brown has taught me anything, it’s that shame grows in isolation and loses its power in the light.
We’re supposed to practice self-love and acceptance, right? Sit with the feeling of shame, and then put it away? I shove it down and refuse to think about it until I bolt awake in the middle of the night.
Manage? I don’t. I mean… stop thinking about it?
In order to get over it, I’d have to face it. To face it means to come clean. And maybe reconciliation is the answer… maybe that would provide some sort of resolution. For some, that’s religion. Baptism. It renews us, washes away our sins and whatnot. I think that’s why people are so attracted to a spiritual practice… they’ve made mistakes and need a way to feel better. But you can’t undo time.
Privacy. I deal with it in private.
What a conundrum. Shame breeds distorted self-image – breeds isolation. And I’m supposed to talk about this garbage? My deepest, darkest memories and mistakes? Which I intentionally and desperately hide? You’re telling me to disclose that which keeps me awake at night? Thoughts I bury so deep, and believe so vehemently, I can barely address them myself?
Do I have another option?
Pulling Back the Curtain
Sure, the alternative is to keep it in. Relatively easy in the short-term. But a bit of a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul thing. What I’ve found is many of my clients are actually relieved at the opportunity to speak openly and honestly about their shame. Because when they’re supported by a community of recovering peers and treatment professionals, they feel safe enough to do so. Often, a friend’s display of vulnerability encourages and inspires our own. When we take the time to listen to someone’s story, we discover our commonalities. We demonstrate empathy and non-judgement. We practice treating others how we deserve to treat ourselves. And we feel less alone, less isolated, and less inherently broken.
Hide and Seek
For this reason, I’m going to continue stumbling through conversations about shame. I’ll identify when/where shame presents itself in my life, in an effort to better understand it. I will notice what environments or relationships produce shame more than others. When I feel safe, I will try to bring my shame “into the light.” And practice replacing nasty self-talk with self-compassion, thereby building new neural pathways and crafting a healthier narrative for myself.
There’s this story in my family… When my dad was little, he accidentally brought two lunches to school. And there was this kid in his class who never had lunch money. The kid asked for the extra food. My dad threw it in the garbage.
He was just a kid, but he still feels shame about that as an adult. A few years ago, Dad ran into the “kid’. Dad tells him the story, and that he was sorry. The guy didn’t remember.
This one mistake, from years ago, had such an impact on my dad. I think it was the first time he consciously experienced this emotion. It proved he was capable of wrongdoing, and that he may be a bad person as a result. That’s a big moment in a person’s life.