How shame might be the unknown poison affecting your life and how to uproot it.
As I compared social anxiety war stories with my partner one unremarkable afternoon, I casually mentioned the overwhelming feeling of rage that sometimes comes over me when I meet eyes with a stranger in public. My partner was taken aback: “What? I’ve never experienced that.” I was surprised. The dysregulating moments of rage beneath eye contact had always been striking and uncomfortable, yet customary for me. The rage felt protective like a trapped animal ready to bear its claws, while at the same time submissive like trying to hide amongst the foliage. Suddenly, something began to feel intrinsically different about our experiences of social anxiety and I couldn’t put my finger on why.
Later, when I started learning more deeply about shame, I suddenly realized what that difference was. The underlying emotion of my social anxiety was actually, shame. Although shame has some significant crossover with individuals who experience social anxiety¹, not everyone with social anxiety experiences shame and not everyone who experiences shame has social anxiety; the two are unique. Guilt, another emotion that people often associate with shame, has little relationship to social anxiety. Guilt is the feeling that a specific behavior of ours does not align with our values and therefore we feel remorse. While, social anxiety is defined by SAD expert Dr. Hendrickson, as “the fear of being scrutinized, judged, and found lacking in social or performance situations that gets in the way of doing the things you want or need to do.”² There is a socially performative context to the anxiety.
So, what then, is shame? At its core, shame is a rupture of connection. Shame is when we experience painful emotions in isolation. As children, we rely on the emotional attunement of calmer, stronger caregivers to help us make sense of the rush of emotions and sensations that we experience. The mirroring through body language and tone and the naming and validation of emotions that the caregiver provides allows us to feel safe, contained, and slowly lowers our emotional distress. We internalize the belief that the world is good, we are worthy of care, and that connection with others is safe.
On the other hand, if our caregivers fail to respond in an emotionally attuned way, are indifferent or preoccupied, or respond with anger or judgment instead of empathy, then when we feel rushes of emotion, we are alone with the experience and it becomes intolerable. Instead of feeling connected to someone strong and calm, we feel alone. Instead of feeling contained, our emotions make us feel out of control. Instead of our emotional distress slowly lessening, we feel overwhelmed and revert to survival defenses. We internalize the belief that we must be at fault for not getting our need met. We don’t yet have the tools to regulate the emotion so instead, we internalize a belief of “I am inherently bad. I am unworthy. I am defective. I am unlovable.” If this is repeated often enough, anytime we experience strong feelings or desire connection, our shame will be activated.
It’s important to note that all caregivers are going to be unavailable or make mistakes at some time or another, this is not an expectation for perfection. Shame can and will come up whether we have loving caregivers or not, the difference is whether there is a strong, calming presence to help regulate and modulate the emotion of shame when it does arise. Shame becomes chronic when there is no recovery period or no period of reconnection.
Furthermore, shaming does not have to look like overt shaming or verbal abuse. In fact, most of the time it is often a more subtle mix of emotional misattunement, unresponsiveness, and/or intrusion. A mere mismatch of emotions can be experienced as shame. For example, if an exuberant and excited child is running up to tell their parent about something that interests them and the parent is distracted and responds in irritation or indifference, that small moment can be a rupture. Hilary Jacobs Hendel writes, “Shame is our physical and psychological response to primal rejection. When we are rejected, core emotions like anger and sadness arise as well. Anger as the initial protest and then sadness for the loss of the connection between our Self and the one who caused us shame.”³ Again, these ruptures are natural in all families, but if they become repeating patterns or the moment is particularly intense and rejecting, then these memories become encoded in the subconscious of the child. They learn that they must hide or shut down their excitement, their anger, their sadness, their mistakes, their needs, whatever it is that they have learned gets in the way of staying in connection with their parent. Beliefs that get passed down through families and are learned from both verbal and nonverbal cues, such as that expressing emotion makes you weak, feeling anger makes you a bad person, or feeling pride makes you arrogant can also cause a child to internalize shame.
It is safer for the child to shut down the parts of them that offend than to risk losing connection or love from their caregiver. Therefore, a key function of shame is to shut us down and go inward to protect ourselves; to hide and conceal what we have been wired to believe is unwanted. The physiological aspect of the internal rage I described earlier is because shame is a biological response to threat. It is full-body hiding with averted gaze, flushed face, and slumped frame to make ourselves small and unobtrusive. Shame is also a refusal to speak our innermost thoughts, feelings, or needs in order to protect ourselves from further rejection.
One of the dangers of shame is that it covers up our underlying core feelings, such as anger and sadness. When we are unable to feel or connect to our core emotions, they become trapped inside us and show up as physical or mental illness. Shame blocks us from connection to others as well as connection to our own feelings and needs. Shame becomes embedded in the subconscious where it drives behavior without us realizing the far-reaching impact it’s having on our lives. Shame can be underlying or exacerbating other issues such as addiction, depression, bullying, or social anxiety. That is why as adults we might not even recognize we are still experiencing shame, instead shame might show up for us as feelings of disconnection, aloneness, and emptiness. Shame can also feel like searing humiliation or can cause us to explode into an uncontrollable rage. Shame can show up as the defenses we use to try to control the shame such as perfectionism (“performances of perfection are necessary even if failure is inevitable”), procrastination, avoidance, numbing through substances, or criticizing or ridiculing others (a form of protective projection by attempting to give away the shame by evoking it in others).
Feeling and internalizing shame doesn’t just come from misattuned or overtly abusive caregivers, it can also arise from feeling different and not a part of societal or cultural standards. Notice how even in feeling different, there is an underlying pervasive sense of aloneness. It is the painful emotion of being apart from that makes this experience so shame-filled. Patricia A. DeYoung⁴ reminds us that “shame thoughts are quintessentially alone thoughts.” When shame is born from believing we are different from “how we should be,” there is always an inherently dominant narrative which is creating these standards. For example, we learn from our peers that success means making money, we learn through schools that if our learning style isn’t listening to lectures and memorization we must be unintelligent, we learn through the media that if we are not thin enough we are unattractive or if we are not tall enough we are not manly or desirable, we learn that not being socially gregarious makes us boring, we learn that not being chronically busy makes us lazy. The list goes on.
Shame also arises in situations where we are objectified or treated as passive objects, such as in experiences of sexual trauma. With sexual assault there is a profound loss of control and safety, which causes the mind to attempt to regain control by internalizing the belief “I am bad. I am disgusting. I am worthless” because if the mind can believe that ‘I deserved the sexual assault’ then it re-instates a type of order and understanding to something that otherwise feels chaotic and senseless. It is a misguided attempt to resolve the question of “Why did this happen to me? Why is the world such a scary and dangerous place?” If we already had shame from before the trauma, then this experience will only solidify and deepen our shame.
I hope you have realized by now that there is a multitude of life experiences which can produce shame. Our experiences and thus where and how shame shows up for us will be unique. Shame depends upon our specific memories and relationships. Yet, there are certain qualities of shame which transcend all manifestations and that is the fact that shame is done to us. We are not born with shame. We learn shame. The quintessential refrain, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” comes to mind.
And secondly, shame is always experienced as an exquisitely painful feeling which we must bear alone and which we believe we deserve. Shame is so dangerous because it feels like reality. When we believe that our unworthiness or unlovability is a reality, we are more likely to hide and protect that dirty secret for all that we have. When we believe that we deserve it, we are less likely to fight it. And yet, this is the devastating illusion that engenders more shame. Because it is only through connection and exposure of that shame that we can ever hope to heal shame.
Our healing requires what scares us the most.
We heal through:
Vulnerability in relationships
It makes sense that being vulnerable and open in relationships is what scares us the most when relationships are where we were originally wounded. Yet, our wounds are the very place where we are also healed. This is why confronting shame takes such courage. Being in connection with others, expressing what scares us the most, and receiving empathy from an understanding listener is what begins to heal our shame. Note how I say an understanding listener and not just any listener. We do not try and heal our shame by going back to the same people who originally shamed us (unless they have done the emotional work to grow). If we have trouble determining what types of people are safe and trustworthy, it is helpful to start this work with a therapist and wait until the person has proved their trustworthiness before we begin to reveal.
Feeling our anger and grief fully
We have to return to the original memories where we were first shamed or first alone and overwhelmed with difficult emotions. Then we have to feel and release the underlying emotions. Shame is not the core emotion of the experience-shame is what came to protect you and block you from the core emotions. How do we feel the underlying emotions? First, we speak to our shame part, we say “I see you. I know you are trying to protect me, but could you step aside for a moment? I can take it from here.” We evoke the original memory in our minds and then we turn our focus to our body and scan slowly up and down for any physical sensations, no matter how subtle. Try not to get distracted by thoughts, keep your attention on the body because that’s where the emotion lives. Stay with it and breathe. If the physical sensation could speak, what would it be trying to say?
Challenging and externalizing shameful narratives
Because a lot of shame is created from the expectations or standards made up by our culture, we must ask ourselves, Who created this narrative or belief? Where did I get this narrative from? For which group of people was this narrative created? Who was specifically excluded from it and why? What benefits does this narrative give the people who created it? Shame is not an objective truth; we have the power to shift our attention and create a new, more empowering narrative. For example, if someone struggled in school does that mean that they are stupid, or does that mean the education system wasn’t set up in a way that prioritized their learning style?
For me, I grew up as half-Black in a school which was predominantly white and upper-class. I never saw my experience of Blackness reflected in the culture or people around me. Because I did not want to bring even more attention to the fact that I was different, I was never able to express my painful feelings out loud and this isolation led to a deep sense of shame. I internalized my Otherness as something bad and inferior, whereas now that I’m an adult, I have the power to question that narrative. Was I bad because I was different or was society coming up short by not providing adequate representation?
Giving ourselves self-compassion
“Talking about shame actually triggers shame.” Because revealing and exposing our shame actually triggers our shame response, we need to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves as we do this work. It is not a race to the finish line. The process can be slow, with many breaks and moments for recovery as long as we continue to move forward. We may need to schedule more time to snuggle our pets, more time to process and journal, and more time to unwind and set the work aside. Remember there are no “shoulds” in this healing because the “shoulds” come from shame. We are working to liberate ourselves from the “shoulds” and pay more attention to what we need.
With shame, eye contact can feel unbearable. Just like it does for me in those moments when I lock eyes with a stranger in public. In those moments I feel like they see right into me and they are seeing my inferiority. My flaws feel exposed and visible on my body, as loud and offensive as a foghorn. Unlike social anxiety, I don’t even have to do anything to feel judged. My very existence feels shameful. My instinct is to hide and do my best to be invisible, but to heal I have to practice being been. Holding eye contact for even a few seconds longer then I’m comfortable with is how I practice being seen. Writing and publishing these posts is a practice of being seen.
As I said, our healing requires us to do what scares us the most and walk towards the places we least want to go. We don’t have to do it alone though- in fact, the process depends upon it. So what is a small step you can take today to reach out and put words to what has always felt inexpressible? Maybe that’s joining a support group, connecting with a therapist, beginning a journal, phoning a friend, saying a need out loud, or looking your partner in the eyes. Whatever it is, just always remember: painful emotions + isolation = shame. Connection is the antidote, and worthiness is our birthright.