Shame is “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging” - Brenè Brown.
Nobody wants to discuss shame and that unwillingness to talk about it provides the perfect environment for it to flourish. Shame thrives in secrecy and silence. Shame is the one emotion that can not be dealt with alone and it’s the one that we are least willing to talk about.
Shame tells us we are not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, useful enough. It tells us that we are not doing enough and that what we do is not good enough. It tells us that we are not worthy of love, friendship, or even kindness. Shame says “I am not worth it”, “I am a mistake”, “I am broken”. Shame will creep into every corner and crevice of our lives and shape the way we feel about ourselves, how we think about ourselves, the ways we think and feel about about other people, and the choices we make; it basically affects everything.
I have never felt that shame is an appropriate emotion. It is normal, even common, but I have never found it to be justified. Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person. This is different than guilt which is the feeling that I did a bad thing. Feeling guilty over things we have done is normal and often appropriate. As human beings, we sometimes do things that we regret (especially when dealing with the effects of things such as addiction and trauma). Feeling guilty about these things is a sign we have a conscience. I’m not saying feeling guilty is good, just that sometimes that it’s unfortunately appropriate to our actions.
Shame is different. Shame is a universal emotion; it’s even been found to be present in infants. The only people that don’t feel some shame are those lacking the emotional complicity for empathy, so essentially sociopaths. So if you feel shame, you pretty much by definition are not a bad person. “Bad people” don’t feel shame over the things they do. That’s what I mean when I say shame not an appropriate emotion, even if it is normal. To feel shame means that you have empathy and are therefore not a “bad person”.
There is a high correlation between shame and addiction, trauma, depression, violence, suicide, and eating disorders. If you have struggled with any of these things you are probability also struggling with shame. If we don’t address the shame around these issues, we are likely to make little progress in dealing with them.
So what do we do about shame? We have to get past the silence and secrecy. Repeating what I said earlier, shame is the one emotion that cannot be dealt with alone. If we are going to deal with shame, we need to involve other people. Our secrets really do keep us sick. Talking honestly to those that care about us is a good place to start, but shame often makes that difficult. For many, seeking out support groups and professional counseling may be an easier way to start. Whatever path you choose, breaking the destructive patterns of silence and secrecy are key to dealing with shame and living a happy, healthy life.
For more information on shame I recommend the work of Brenè Brown upon which much of this article was based. She has a great TedTalk video on shame: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame