A middle-aged woman sits in my office. She’s crying and desperately trying to wipe away her tears. She’s in love with a man who also very much loves her back. Unfortunately, his first wife died several years ago and his children are understandably still grieving. She doesn’t feel accepted by them and it hurts. In fact she never really has felt accepted throughout her life, and it has always hurt. All she’s ever wanted was to be part of a happy family. She’s never really had that, never found her place. “Why can’t they just love me” she asks. “What is it about me that people reject so much?” “Maybe I should end the relationship. I know he loves me, but I just feel so horrible when they won’t accept me. If they weren’t in my life then I wouldn’t feel this way”.
A young father also sits in my office weeping. He’s struggling with clinical depression, and significant anxiety issues. He’s had to leave his high profile job because his symptoms prevented him from being able to do his role. He’s selling his house because he needs the extra money while he focuses on getting better……. His family is in crisis. He isn’t able to forgive himself for not being able to work and for causing so much financial strain on his family. He “needs” to get back to work. He “has” to get back to work. He’s already “caused” too much anguish for the family. He can’t “let them down” anymore. But herein lies his dilemma. The pressure he puts on himself to recover and get back to his usual level of functioning is causing further distress. “What if I can’t get better in time?” “What if I fall apart again?” “What if my wife leaves me?” “I’m not a real man, I’m weak…..”
Shame….. It is a powerful emotion and is an underlying factor in so many of my clients’ concerns, and we know that it is one factor which can prevent progress in therapy (and in life in general) if it isn’t dealt with. In fact for many people, psychology client or not, it drives so many of our decisions and emotional experiences. We all experience it, and it is always fairly unpleasant.
Despite how much we despise the emotion of shame, it is a normal human experience, and one that is not always unhelpful, nor a sign of illness or that something is wrong.
Research suggests that shame does have an evolutionary or survival purpose. Think about it like this…… If I have a predator coming towards me, I need to do one of three things- I need to fight it, in the hope that I will win and survive; I need to flee it, in the hope that I’ll get away; or I need to freeze, in the hope that it will think I’m already dead and will leave me alone. This is where the term “fight flight freeze” response comes from in psychology when we talk about the human response to threat. Shame is believed to act in a similar way to our freeze response. When we feel that we might be rejected or punished for something we have done or some aspect of ourselves, shame can make us withdraw or submit, so as not to draw attention to ourselves, and to avoid perceived threat (punishment or rejection from others).
Similarly, shame can help to indicate to us how we should and shouldn’t behave in certain interpersonal situations, which can, over time, strengthen our relationships with others. So, for instance, when you interrupt two colleagues who are in an important conversation and they give you a frustrated look, you might feel shame. This emotion can help you to recognise that your behaviour was not effective, and can help you to choose a different behaviour next time (e.g waiting until their conversation has finished), thus increasing your interpersonal effectiveness. Without shame, we would continue to do the same unhelpful behaviours, and would end up feeling rejected by others with very little understanding of why this is. Hence, shame can be functional, and in many cases, as long as it resolves, it is helpful to listen to it and then act accordingly.
But unfortunately for some of us, shame becomes too easily triggered and is experienced too intensely, and for too long. It can then heavily influence behaviour in unhelpful ways. It’s not surprising that this is the case for many people, considering that shame is often described as one of the most difficult emotions to resolve. So, rather than acknowledging a mistake we have made and adjusting our behaviour accordingly, for some, the feeling of shame lingers and is at the core of most of their experiences. It begins to represent a key part of their sense of self-worth. This often presents as a belief or feeling of not being good enough, being defective, unworthy, or unlovable. As Brene Brown explains in the video link below, there is a big difference between saying “I’m sorry my behaviour was bad” (often described as “guilt”), compared to “I’m sorry I, as a person, am bad” (described as shame).
Because this type of shame is such an intensely negative emotion, we obviously wish not to feel it and so, throughout our lives, we often try our darnedest not to. We develop strategies to push it down, to hide it not only from others but also from ourselves, and to carry out behaviours that mask our shame. Sometimes- we aren’t always acutely aware of our own shame until we are put in a position where we can’t mask it any longer.
For example, the lady above who feels unlovable at her very core. Perhaps she has many friends, and in the past, many lovers. Perhaps at times, for fleeting moments, she even believes that people really do love and accept her. She thinks that by having many people in her life, it might make her more acceptable, more desirable, and perhaps even more lovable. But still, she keeps these relationships fairly superficial and tries not to rely too heavily on others. She learns to never upset anyone, to never put her needs as a priority, and to never really open up. You see, allowing herself to do any of these things would be allowing herself to be vulnerable and to show her “flaws”… and in her mind….. being flawed is the very thing that makes her unlovable. As such, she has learned behaviours which function to minimise or mask her experience of shame.
The gentleman who lost his job. When it comes down to it, for most of his life he has never really felt quite good enough. At school, he tried so hard to be accepted but never really felt that he was, and he rarely felt that his grades were good enough. At home, he never felt that his parents really were proud of who he was. So, his whole life he has striven to achieve highly in all areas of his life. He aims to perfect things (see my last blog on the perfectionism poison). He’s worked his way up the ranks and to an outsider- he’s successful, he’s got it all together and he’s confident. It really isn’t apparent to others that deep down he feels unworthy and that he’s a failure. At times, when he was doing well, even he forgot that he believed those negative things about himself. He has developed so many coping behaviours which inhibit his shame, and make it almost unidentifiable to others, and sometimes to himself.
So, if we can develop strategies to inhibit shame, why is this not the best way to deal with it? If we can push it down and limit our experience of shame, doesn’t it make sense to do that? The unfortunate thing about doing this, is that the very behaviours we use to avoid shame, often end up leaving us more distressed and more ashamed. For instance, the gentleman above- he has always tried to do things 110% to avoid feeling the shame of “being a failure”- but unfortunately, these behaviours have left him feeling burnt-out, exhausted, and depressed. Furthermore, now that he can no longer reach the standards he has always set for himself, his shame is worse than it ever was.
The lady who feels unlovable- yes she feels wonderful by having many people in her life. But by not allowing herself to be vulnerable and open, she lacks authentic connections with these people and therefore never really feels like she has people who are truly close to her. By not opening up to others, they really don’t understand who she is as a person and what her needs are, and therefore they are unable to meet them. This ultimately leaves her feeling unlovable, with high levels of shame.
This gives rise to the catch 22 of shame- we don’t want to feel shame, and in fact the very experience of shame can indeed be distressing and damaging to our sense of self and our relationships with others. But if we try to inhibit shame, we end up making the situation worse. So where does this leave us? People who practice yoga or mindfulness regularly will be familiar with the saying “lean into the discomfort,” and this couldn’t be more accurate when we talk about the best solution for shame. The way to resolve shame is to practice self-compassion, and to talk about it in an environment that provides compassion, acceptance and non-judgement. It is only when we can forgive ourselves for our flaws, make room for them, accept them and celebrate them, that we are truly able to let go of our shame. Talking about your experiences of shame with others, and this being received with openness and complete acceptance when you are allowing youself to be your most vulnerable, is the best way to resolve shame. The gentleman I discussed earlier felt so much relief when he finally did talk to his wife openly about his mental illness and his feelings of inadequacy and failure. He found that this discussion was met with love, acceptance and unconditional support, which enabled him to be kinder to himself and forgive himself for needing time off.
Thankfully, a lot of people do have others in their lives that they can talk to about their shame, and be accepted and supported. However, some people don’t, and others are not yet ready to open up to the people closest to them. Psychological therapy can provide a trusting and safe environment for people to discuss the circumstances and aspects of self for which they feel ashamed. Psychologists can help people to recognise the importance and utility of self-compassion and acceptance, and of allowing themselves to be who they are without judgement. Leaning into the discomfort of our shame, and fully making space for it, is really the only way to truly resolve it.
As mentioned earlier, Brene Brown is a researcher in the shame and vulnerability field, and does some amazing work. She has a great book called “Daring Greatly” which focuses on the importance of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Below is a link to a talk she has done on the importance of shame and self-compassion. I highly recommend listening to it.
If you think that Shame could underlie some of your own emotional difficulties, try opening up to the supportive people in your life, or chat to your doctor and you might benefit from talking to a psychologist.