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The Struggle Of Shame: How To Pull Through

September 5, 2019

It’s hard to find someone who knows more about shame than Brené Brown. She’s dedicated her career to studying this topic, along with its close relatives: courage, vulnerability, and empathy. Her work has blown up the Internet, bestsellers lists, and (more recently) Netflix, and she has been trending for years now because she tackles complex issues in relatable ways. So, we figured it’s time to spread some of her ideas (with some others sprinkled in) through our Unstuck blog! Gear up for some Shame 101.

IT’S ALL ABOUT FEAR

Shame plays off our natural hardwiring for connection. It has us mistakenly believe our flaws make us undeserving of acceptance and belonging, therefore driving us to feel not just alone, but helplessly isolated.

And when we feel helpless, we often become reactive, seeking any kind of reprieve from such pain. We end up acting out in desperate ways that don’t feel like the real us. Ways that can add fuel to the shame fire.

Simply put, when we feel shame, we feel awful. The good news? Most research suggests that shame is a universal experience (though different things feel shameful to different people). In other words, we’re ironically kind of all together in our feelings of unworthiness and fear of disconnection.

IS IT SHAME, OR SOMETHING ELSE?

Language matters. It helps us to better understand and represent our authentic selves, which promotes… you guessed it, connection! Because talking about shame helps us move through it and grow from the experience, it’s important that we develop a vocabulary around it.

Shame is different from guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation.

Embarrassment is the most tolerable of these feelings because it is common, often fleeting, and sometimes even funny.

Guilt and shame are most often confused because they both involve self-evaluation. While guilt is about our behaviour (“I did something bad”), shame is about who we are (“I am bad”). Guilt allows us to acknowledge ourselves as human, prone to making mistakes that we can learn from and correct. We can more easily stay connected to others.

Shame is much more sinister. When we label ourselves wholly as “a liar” or “a cheat” or “no good”, we are more likely to quietly keep doing self-destructive things that feed into that label.

Humiliation and shame differ in how deserving people think they are of their experience. For example, if it seems unfair or off-base for someone to publicly call us “stupid” or “gross”, we are likely to feel humiliation. In this situation, we are also likely to tell someone else about what happened and get the support we need. If however, we buy into the label, we are likely to feel shame and push others away. Repeated humiliation, especially by a respected or powerful other, can unfortunately evolve into shame without the right buffers in place.

SURELY, I CAN AVOID IT…

Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to permanently rid ourselves of the potential for such intense pain? As with other emotions, shame is an experience that is simply part of our natural human existence. In a weird way, it adds colour and depth to our lives. Sorry to say, preventing it ain’t gonna happen.

Why not? It goes back to our natural hardwiring for connection. At our cores, we want to feel valued, accepted, worthy, and affirmed. As long as we desire closeness with others, the fear of being disconnected exists.

BUT I DON’T LIKE PEOPLE ANYHOW!

I can hear some of you responding to that last statement with variations of, “Well, I don’t really like other people…” or “I actually enjoy my alone time!” This may be true, but as human beings, we have an innate drive towards connection. Gabor Maté (2003) has highlighted that infants who are fed, but never held, can actually stress themselves to death from crying out for connection. And from an evolutionary standpoint, one human connecting with another is the key act that ensures the survival of our species (Maté, 2003).

Negative experiences, or even just the absence of positive ones, can lead to a mistrust in or dislike of others. However, that doesn’t overwrite our instinctive need for belonging. A desire to turn off this need (i.e. go against our human nature) may be a sign that there’s some healing to do. Therapy may be just the thing to help with that 🙂

OKAY, SO I CAN’T PREVENT SHAME FOREVER. HOW CAN I MOVE THROUGH IT?

Blocking something out doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For instance, I can convince myself that red and blue lights flashing on the road behind me are for someone else, but if I just keep on driving, I’ll be facing tougher consequences for trying to evade the police.

Furthermore, numbing and distracting ourselves from feeling shame is exactly what it needs to intensify. “If you put shame in a petri dish and cover it with judgment, silence and secrecy, it grows out of control until it consumes everything in sight” (Brown, 2008, p. 32).

So, here we have this emotion that makes us want to run, but doing so makes it worse. Shame isn’t something we want to talk about, yet that’s exactly what we need to do to move through it and grow from the experience. Dousing shame with empathy stops the downward spiral.

HELPFUL INTENTIONS

Although some emotions are more uncomfortable to experience than others, no emotion is morally “good” nor “bad” to experience. Shame, like all emotions, has helpful intentions. It’s trying to be a messenger of sorts. If we block it out, we could lose some valuable information about ourselves and our circumstances that could otherwise help us grow. Therapy can help you tap into those messages.

CURRENT PROBLEMS AS PAST SOLUTIONS

Often, a given issue that brings somebody in for therapy was once their solution to a different problem earlier on in life. We are, by nature, very adaptive beings. This means that we don’t typically do something unless we’ve learned through experience that it was, in some way, helpful to us.

A solution can evolve into its own set of problems however, when it’s being used out of context, years later. Take the computer font Comic Sans MS, for example. Super cool when used for informal purposes in the 90s, but use it on your resumé in 2019… well, you might miss out on an interview. We have to update our mental, emotional, and relational practices across time and different situations to continue flourishing in life.

So, how might all of this relate to shame? Psychologist Jim Knipe (2015) has some insights:

SHAME AS AN EARLY PROTECTOR

Shame can sometimes be a symptom of trauma. As unwanted as shame can be, it might not feel as horrible as realizing someone we relied upon or respected was hurting or neglecting us.

We often feel the need to blame ourselves for such mistreatment from trusted or powerful others, especially as kids. Children whose needs aren’t being met may have unconscious thoughts that sound something like: “‘What happened has to be my fault! It can’t be Mommy’s or Daddy’s fault. It must be that I’m a bad kid with good parents. It can’t be that I am a good child with bad parents- with parents who don’t care about me.’” (Knipe, 2015, p. 185). Caregivers as being uncaring is far too frightening for most children to even fathom.

As exemplified in the case above, shame is a defense when it’s used to protect our positive image of others (often parents) in quiet desperation. We might prefer shame over acknowledging the overwhelming truth of our powerlessness of a situation, especially when younger. It can let us maintain an illusion of having had control, when we really had none. But shame can quickly spiral us downwards as we take on the unrealistic task of trying to be perfect to “ensure” that others will treat us better. The former solution then becomes its own problem.

TAKING SHAME OUT OF THE DRIVER’S SEAT

Therapy is a wonderful antidote to shame, as it provides a safe space in which you can courageously open up. It helps remove the secrecy that gives shame its power and douses it with necessary empathy instead. At Unstuck, we also use EMDR to help give new meanings to your experiences with shame, and to restore a healthier relationship with yourself.

Interested in connecting with one of our therapists? Call, click, or come in to book your 50-minute face-to-face risk-free consultation today!

Shayla Drewicki R. Psych

References

Brown, B. (2008). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy, and power. New York: Gotham Books.

Knipe, J. (2015). EMDR toolbox: Theory and treatment of complex PTSD and dissociation. New York, NY, US: Springer Publishing Co.

Maté, G. (2003). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Toronto: A.A.