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Let’s Talk About Shame

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

Shame is an "intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." -Brené Brown

Why talk about shame? Because it is one of the least discussed emotions, yet one of the most commonly experienced ones. We experience shame in relation to and in addition to emotions of fear, anger, joy, sadness, and disgust. Often, shame trespasses through the back door of our lives and starts taking charge of the situation. But, this does not mean that shame stands for all things unwanted. shame also has a healthy role to play.

But how can ‘shame' be healthy? Well, because it is like any other emotion. We understand and make sense of the world through our feelings, and shame tells us that we are all humans. It tells us that none of us are invulnerable. It gives us permission to learn from our experiences, and the most important of it- it keeps us safe! Shame is designed for our survival as it helps us be a part of a functional society. By acknowledging and being aware that shame is an incredibly common experience, we can do half of the work at reducing the discomfort that shame often brings along with it.

However, shame can also be toxic. And before we move into that terrain, allow me a moment to clarify the difference between a few terms often confused with 'shame'. The first one is 'guilt'. Brené Brown, in her book 'Daring Greatly' mentions that "The majority of shame researchers and clinicians agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between 'I am bad' and 'I did something bad.' Guilt = I did something bad. Shame = I am bad." Guilt is associated with actions, while shame taints your entire identity.

Another term that is commonly confused with shame is that of 'humiliation'. Whether we feel an experience as 'shame' or 'humiliation' depends on the kind of self-talk we have. In an event, if our self-talk tells us that we do not deserve to be treated in the manner we were, we are likely to feel humiliation. However, if we think we deserve that kind of treatment by others, it is likely to be shame. For example, a teacher scolded and labelled a student as a loser at his inability to solve a math problem. If the child at that moment perceived himself to be a loser indeed, that is shame. However, if the child perceives the teacher to be insensitive and believes that he/she does not deserve any of the teacher's insensitivity, that is experienced as humiliation.

Another similar term that could be confusing is the difference between shame and embarrassment. Embarrassment is a fleeting feeling, and when people feel embarrassed, they know that they are not alone.

Now that you understand that the difference between shame and a few other terms, let us get back to how shame can be unhealthy or perhaps even toxic. I mentioned earlier that shame could be healthy as it helps keep us safe. For example, a teenage child being scolded by the parent after getting caught drinking with friends. The feeling that the child experiences is that of shame and helps the child stay away from high-risk behaviours under intoxication in the future. This is a healthy experience of shame. However, if the parent, in addition to scolding, labels the child as the black sheep of the family and treats the child with disgrace, stigma and criticism consistently, it is likely that the child would develop the belief that they are indeed unworthy of love and a 'bad person'. This is toxic shame. As John Bradshaw writes, Toxic shame is "no longer an emotion that signals our limits; it is a state of being, a core identity."

At this point, you might be wondering about how shame can have a toxic presence in your life. In the next paragraphs to follow, I will talk about a few ways that explain how toxic shame might present itself in our lives.

1.Internalized shame: In this kind of shame, we identify with the emotion in a way that becomes a characterological identity of ourselves. The emotion of shame becomes a core part of the character of that person. For example, instead of a person who has failed an exam, we become a "loser".

But why does this happen in the first place?

a. When we identify with someone, we experience the emotions of that person as our own too. Think about the time when your favourite cricket team loses a match. This is an example of internalization of shame. Similarly, if we have parents/significant others who themselves identify with shame, we are likely to do the same.

b. A history of abandonment trauma. If a person has experienced abuse, neglect, or even enmeshment in relationships, the person will likely internalize the feelings of shame. In such cases, people may find themselves feeling guilty for having needs and desires, especially in codependent relationships (where the validation and sense of worth are external). In other cases, shame may come from not being able to identify one's needs or desires altogether.

2. Shame of Isolation: Here, isolation does not only mean from others, but also from ourselves. When we learn as children to selectively express our feelings, we alienate those feelings from ourselves. For example, if we are not allowed to express our anger, we may feel shame when we experience anger. But anger is a helpful feeling, too, as it often indicates a breach of our boundaries. However, if a person is not able to express their anger because they have isolated that part of themselves, then in an event of their boundaries getting breached, it could perpetuate feelings of shame. This isolation of self could also be accompanied by the creation of a 'false' self. The more the 'false' self gains power, the more the authentic self hides itself. Let us try to understand this with the example of perfectionism. Perfectionism that could be a shame response can come from the belief that what we can or cannot do reflects who we are or from their inner voices that they are still not right enough.

Shame also isolates us from others because shame thrives on isolation. By preventing us from reaching out and seeking support, shame gains more power in our lives.

Essentially, unhealthy and/or toxic shame is an alienating experience. It is an alienation of the self from the self. This experience can be explained using the term 'otheration' used by the Spanish philosopher Ortega Y. Gasset to describe dehumanization. He mentions that man is the only being who lives from within, and when humans no longer have a life that reflects their inner lives, they become otherated. Toxic shame determines the emotions that are acceptable of expression and those that are not. This selectivity necessitates the creation of a false self that restrains the authentic expression of one's lived reality.

At this point, I would ask you to take a pause and check with yourself :

  • While reading this article, what were some of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations?

  • What has been your relationship with shame?

  • In case this relationship is something you do not prefer, how would you prefer this relationship instead?

In the next article, I will throw some light on how to deal with the feelings of toxic shame. Stay tuned. :)

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