Your cheeks burn and your body tingles.
There’s a drunken butterfly performing cartwheels in your stomach.
You did something which in your head, looms so large, so awful, so terrible, that the shame is all-encompassing.
You’re convinced that if anyone ever found out, the mortification and disgrace would be too much for you to bear.
Because they’d finally know the truth about you.
What Is Shame?
Shame is a horrible emotion: painful and debilitating. The social scientist and author Dr. Brene Brown believes that “shame is epidemic in our culture:” a universal and primitive emotion which is highly correlated with broken behaviour such as suicide, bullying, depression and anxiety.
Many people equate it with guilt, but in fact these two emotions are very different.
Guilt is an emotion where you believe your behaviour or your actions have not met an idealised standard.
“I’m sorry, I made a mistake.”
Shame is an emotion where you believe your self’s being has not met an idealised standard.
“I’m sorry, I am a mistake.”
This is a critical distinction. In guilt, we can separate our actions from the core of ourselves. Guilt is negatively correlated with the broken behaviours described above.
But with shame, it’s who we are, our core identity, that is ‘wrong’ – and ultimately unloveable.
Why Do We Feel Shame?
Triggers of shame seem to be different for men and women. For women, there are a multitude of ways shame is triggered, everything from slut-shaming (criticising a woman for violating traditional ideas about expectations of sexual behaviours) to mom-shaming (where we don’t live up to being a perfect mother). Society’s double standards around women mean they’re supposed to be sexual and not-sexual: a great parent and also a great employee; and slender and beautiful whilst also not seeming to care about their appearance.
For men, Brown suggests there is one core shame trigger, and that is feeling weak – not being tough enough, wealthy enough or smart enough.
Either way, we can feel shame in any area of our life, from relationships to work, and shame is triggered by this comparison of who we think we are, with who we think we ought to be.
When we feel shame, thinking about it is like pressing on a bruise. We shy away from it because it’s agonising to even remember. What would others think if they found out? If they realise how worthless we are? The very idea that others might realise who we really are makes us feel anxious and agitated, our stomach in knots and our chest tight.
Shame is a difficult thing to handle because one of its biggest features is that you don’t want to tell anyone.
It’s your biggest, darkest secret – the one you never want to come to light.
It’s the thing you know about yourself that reveals your true, terrible, useless, worst self, and if everyone finally finds out about it, or understands who you really are, they’ll judge you as harshly as you judge yourself.
In a world where we value connection and acceptance, the consequences of revealing our shame – ostracisation and social rejection – could be catastrophic.
But Brown says that its these very characteristics – secrecy, silence and judgement – which are exactly what cause shame to thrive.
So what can we do to reduce our shame?
Shame is so pervasive that it can be hard to eradicate. Understanding how to get over shame isn’t easy.
Strategies that you can use include:
- Those designed to manage perfectionism (9 strategies here)
- Those created to reduce impostor syndrome (5 strategies here)
- Techniques to develop self-compassion and self-kindness (tips here)
- Sending messages to our subconscious by working on self-care (16 free interviews with experts here)
- Expressive writing – research suggests when we translate a secret into language by writing it down, we’re able to heal physically and emotionally
Brown talks about ‘shame resilience’, noting that complete ‘resistance’ isn’t possible. In her book Daring Greatly, she says:
We all have shame. We all have good and bad, dark and light, inside of us. But if we don’t come to terms with our shame, our struggles, we start believing that there’s something wrong with us – that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough – and even worse, we start acting on those beliefs. If we want to be fully engaged, to be connected, we have to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, we need to develop resilience to shame.
Brown describes shame-resilience as the ability to say:
This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame.
Brown suggests three techniques for dealing with shame when it arises.
1. Practise courage and reach out.
Rather than withdrawing, being aggressive or even trying to appease others involved, focus on connection. Share your experience with someone who has earned the right to hear it – someone who loves you, not despite your vulnerabilities, but because of them.
2. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to someone you really love.
Be your own best friend and talk to yourself with love and respect. “It’s ok. It happens to everyone. You’re human.”
3. Own the story.
Don’t bury it and let it fester or define you. Be accountable for what is true, but reality-check the messages and expectations in the story you’re telling yourself. Take action and choose what happens next.
Brown believes that when we reach out, we find the antidote to shame: empathy. When we speak to others who treat us with empathy, shame disappears as we realise we’re not alone, and that our experience is just another part of what makes us human.
I have a very personal reason for writing this week’s post on shame.
Last week, something happened in my life which felt shameful enough that I didn’t want to talk about it to anyone. It created painful feelings in me and attacked my core beliefs about who I am and who I want to be. Even mentioning it here, without any detail, makes me feel hot inside.
But re-reading Brown’s book, and researching the topic and strategies that we can use to manage shame has been useful.
Journalling on it and talking about it to others immediately released a little of the pressure valve. It took a little of the heat out of it. Put it into some perspective.
(The person who proof-read this article for me, who knew about the ‘incident’, said the way I’ve described it above sounds like I robbed a bank (I didn’t!). She said to reassure you all it’s more like I accidentally walked out of a store without paying for a pint of milk, which I then immediately ran back in and paid for (I didn’t do that either!). But…inside me, it *feels* like the bank situation.)
It has reminded me that if we try at anything, if we put our heart and soul into our efforts, if we produce, or are creative, or stick our head above the parapet – or if we just live life – we will mess up sometimes.
There will be failures, mistakes, errors. We will get it wrong. This is all part of being human.
And if we bundle up who we are – as well as our self-esteem and self-worth – with these failures and mistakes, we’ll stop trying.
Stop showing up.
And that’s not the kind of person I want to be.
So I’ll practise what I preach, and use the strategies above to manage the shame I feel. I’m going to journal on it, talk to friends about it, and make an action plan to deal with it.
Because the only real way to fail?
To stop trying.