Healing Shame (Part 1 of 2)
Shame. Shame is pervasive these days, as are our attempts to banish shame from our existence. We try desperately to rid ourselves of shame and will sometimes to anything for a moment’s respite from that awful, heavy feeling.
Just for a moment, consider what comes up for you when you read this word.
Maybe you’re concerned about someone you love. Maybe you’re curious about your own shame and what to do about it. Maybe you’re even now trying to put out of your mind what you tell yourself when you feel shame so you can read this post.
If so, you’re not alone. Shame sucks. I would know; it’s a part of my story too. And I often get asked about how shame can be healed. It’s a good question, and one I’ve never quite felt I can answer fully in sessions.
While healing is never easy, finding your way out of shame is possible. Before we dive into that topic, though, we need to understand what shame is and how it affects us.
Shame is fundamentally a negative appraisal of the self. No surprise there. It’s often used interchangeably with guilt, but they’re not quite the same thing. Guilt says that something you did wrong (“I did a bad thing”); shame says that you are bad (“I am a bad, unloveable person”).
Modern theories of emotion discuss shame as being embedded in relationships. That is, it’s always a feeling that we experience in the presence of another person. Patricia DeYoung, in her book Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame, defines shame this way: “Shame is the experience of one’s felt sense of self disintegrating in relation to a dysregulating other” (p. 18, 2014, bold added).
Shame and Your (Not-So-) Superego
Think about that for a moment. Let that sink in. That feeling you want to disappear or sink into the floor when you feel ashamed? That’s shame. That “dysregulating other”? That’s whoever has that power to make you wither, to shrink, to make you want to crawl in a hole and escape their words, behaviors, or feelings toward you.
Again, it sucks. Harder still is, when you feel shame, how your superego can rip into your being with words like these:
- “I’m messed up.”
- “I’m a complete fuck-up.”
- “You’re such a loser. Why can’t you stop doing this?”
- “I’m so pathetic.”
- “If anyone really knew me, they’d reject me.”
- “I’m not loveable as I am.”
I’d like to point out that this “dysregulating other” can be oneself. After a while, we internalize that dysregulating other, our superego assuming the role of the harsh, shaming parent we grew up with.
That’s because we learn to regulate or manage our feelings in relationships, especially during the first five years of life, arguably the mind’s most formative years. If those relationships are critical, shaming, or in some other way shitty, well, you know.
Not All Shame Is Bad
I’ve been talking about toxic or chronic shame thus far, the sort of shame that shades our self-image, how we think, feel about, and perceive ourselves. This is often the shame that feels unbearable. Before leaving this topic for now, I want to differentiate this form of shame from other forms of shame, some of which are useful.
Shame has many different forms. For example, we experience mild shame when we’re embarrassed, but the feeling of embarrassment passes. We may feel more intense shame when we feel humiliated. This feeling, too, however, doesn’t last. We can be self-conscious when we try something new, for instance. Even then, we typically don’t continue feeling that way.
These forms of milder shame often alert us to a possible rupture in a relationship or that we might need to put the brakes on something we’re about to do. Shame can cause us to pause and consider our actions and ourselves in relationship to others.
Shame, when felt and even used appropriately, can gently invite us to repair a wrong and find our way back into relationship with others. For instance, if a husband cheats on his partner or violates the marriage contract in some way, shame, when he is able to regulate it successfully, help him initiate steps to make things right.
Given the utility of appropriate shame, then, we mustn’t banish shame altogether. But boy, those struggling with toxic or chronic shame so often suffer in silence under the unbearable weight of their shame.
Healing shame is possible. Let’s talk more about it in the next blog post. If you have any questions or are struggling with shame yourself, I’m always around.
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