Shame: It Isn't What You Think It Is

Shame.  It’s a relational emotion (meaning one that develops as a result of interactions between two people) that comes on line when where we’re about 18 months old.  No baby is ever born feeling bad about herself because she is incapable of feeling shame.  Shame can be described as ingesting whole cloth the negative reactions of loved ones.  Unlike guilt, which is an emotion that we feel when we've harmed someone, shame is experienced as who we are. A little bit of shame in appropriately small doses is a common and adaptive occurrence.  For instance, a parent tells a child in front of her friend to clean up her mess.  The child feels a little embarrassed and responds by doing as requested.  The mother praises the child for her compliance and all is well.  Unfortunately, the scene is not always so benign.  As children we learn to see ourselves based on the mirror that our parents reflect back to us. They teach us who we are and, most importantly, whether or not we are worthy.  If the parent feels unworthy him or herself, then that message of less than will likely pass down to the child often even without the parent’s awareness.  In its more extreme forms, shame mutates from an appropriate regulator of behavior to a one of the most painful emotions that humans experience.

Children are so vulnerable for such a long time.  They depend on the big people in their lives to literally keep them alive and safe, putting food on their plate and clothes on their back. Without much power or control, children often depend on the survival strategies of compliance and submission.  This is especially true if the parents are emotionally or physically abusive or abusing substances.  But children are even more often shamed by ordinary, ongoing put-downs and parental blaming and yelling. 

Counter-intuitive to our knee-jerk perspective, the shame a child feels, while painful, is often highly adaptive.  Just think about it for a moment.  What happens when you feel shame? Do you get bigger or smaller? Do you speak up more or shrink back into silence? Do you feel more confident or less?  Now, you are probably still wondering how this relates to a survival strategy, so hang in there for a moment.  Think about what happens when you get smaller, quieter and less confident.  Have you become less threatening to the other person?  Are you flying under the radar and doing damage control, reducing the likelihood of being abused or belittled by the other person?  Compliance is a fantastic strategy for a relatively powerless child to survive to the next day.  And that is all that really matters when one is in survival mode.

 Let’s do an experiment.  Sit in a chair in a relaxed position.  Go ahead, no one is looking. Bow your head and get small.  Stay in that position for a moment and notice how you feel.  Are you closer to feeling powerful or powerless?  Are you feeling shame? Now slowly and gently unfurl your spine at little at a time. How is that?  Do you notice any difference? Pull your shoulders towards your ears then let go, with your upper back down but relaxed.  Now how do you feel?  I’m guessing you feel better than before.

So how does this all relate to shame?  Shame is a body experience as much as it is an emotion.  We automatically go into the shame position (think of a chastised dog) whenever we feel shame.  When we are powerless as children, our bodies go into shame as a damage control strategy.  Now here’s the hardest part about shame.  Shame is just an emotion but we often don’t experience it that way.  Instead, we experience it as who we are.  Think about that for a moment.  When shame comes on line and takes over, we are the shame, and we have always been the shame.  It doesn’t get more painful than that. And if we’ve been shamed from childhood constantly or if we’ve been traumatized in any way, shame will kick in and tell us it was our fault or that we aren’t any good or we are less than others.  Now, this strategy of feeling bad about ourselves wouldn’t work if we didn’t really buy into the belief.  If our body didn’t conform to the position of shame.  So we do and it does. And at least as children or trauma survivors (or both), we’ve maximized limiting damage of the external harm with the unfortunately steep price of not feeling worthy and/or feeling everything is our fault.  But we have survived to live another day.  And that is a true victory!

Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t work as well for us once we’re older and not in danger anymore.  The danger may have passed but the body experience and the feelings and beliefs do not.  Trauma can be described as the past being misplaced whole cloth onto the present.  That is what shame is once we’re grownups.  Shame also helps us avoid a terrible reality about an abusive childhood or any trauma.  We are not in control of ourselves or our safety.  It is easier to blame ourselves thinking we are the problem, than realize that we truly aren’t (or weren’t) safe, and that the problem lies with the other person who lacks the ability (for whatever reason) to make us feel valued and protected.

I’m no stranger to shame myself.  Intergenerational trauma passed from one generation to next certainly had reverberations in my own family’s life when I was a child.  I remember thinking when I was young that others were just better than me.  I couldn’t explain why but I certainly felt it deeply.  It just was.  And yet, now I know this was not true. The price that I paid for shame’s help was not being as happy as I might have been, but survival always comes first and foremost.  To this day, a younger part of myself will occasionally get triggered and forgets that the shame is just a survival strategy or adaptation to being powerless in an unsafe environment; it isn’t the truth.  The good news is that once you know shame’s m.o., you can help your younger self remember this.  You can take that younger shame part under your wing, and become unblended with it and move back into your wise adult self. 

For anyone who has experienced chronic shame, you know this is not an especially easy thing to do and no small matter either.  It can make the difference in whether or not we find happiness in relationships.  Or finding contentment and peace in our perfectly imperfect lives.

If you struggle with shame, I invite you to engage your wise self to notice how shame functions in your life.  Start seeing shame not as who you are but as a strategy from the past that helped you to survive.  This may be difficult or impossible to accomplish on your own.  I encourage you to talk to trusting others about it or even seek a support group or therapist if need be.  If you are currently not safe (domestic violence etc.), you need to get safe first and foremost.  Only then can you start to see shame for what it really is.