What is Shame, and How Does it Affect Us?

Getting Rid of the Toxic Feelings of Shame

I recently opened my inbox and read the headline of a recent decision. A vote was cast, and a decision was made. What followed were several days of emails with people weighing in on the matter. The common theme I noticed was a feeling of grief and isolation. Those who did not agree with the decision felt excluded and deeply saddened, while others were using their hurt to fuel their fight.

When we stop and think about it, it doesn’t really matter what this particular vote was about, or which side we may lean towards. Ultimately, we can relate.

There are inevitably times in life when we are on the ‘losing’ team. And therein lies the problem—in most areas of our culture, someone is winning while someone else is losing—it’s us vs. them. When we approach life from this standpoint, we open the door for an insidious little emotion called shame.

What is Shame?

Shame can take many forms. For some, it’s the gnawing pit in your stomach that you’re wrong and bad because of it. For others, it’s a downward gaze because to make eye contact would be too painful.

Shame is more than an appropriate sense of guilt that pushes us to be better in our relationships. No, shame is that emotion that keeps us stuck and repeating the same old patterns time and time again.

Where Does Shame Come From?

As humans, we are created as relational beings. As soon as we are born, without an instant relationship with a caregiver, we cannot survive. From the start, we are dependent on another to provide for all of our needs.

When this relationship is characterized by a secure person who sees us and appropriately meets our needs, we begin to thrive. Life becomes marked by joyful moments of relational attunement with another.

Shame begins early in life with inevitable ruptures in these relationships—the “don’t touch,” and “look out!” How these messages of safety are conveyed to us dictates what messages are being imprinted in our minds.

Shame is an emotion that keeps us stuck and repeating the same old patterns time and time again.

In the midst of child-like curiosity, if we’re hit with “DON’T TOUCH!” it can throw a toddler into a state of frenzy as they go from innocent joy to emotional chaos in a split second. The strength of the message, especially if experienced routinely, overwhelms the immature operating system of the brain that is in place.

If left to sort through the experience alone, negative feelings and images start to become wired into our understanding of relationships and the world around us. As we grow older and become verbal, these are the feelings and images that go along with the thoughts “I am bad,” “If I try this, I will probably fail,” or “others are scary.”

As we continue to develop, shame can often morph into the background of our mental processes. We are often unaware of its presence and how it is subtly coloring the way we view the world and experience personal relationships.

With time, the things that were once so shameful to us become healed aspects of our lives.

How to Combat Shame

The only way to combat shame is to repair the damage it is doing. We have to address the isolation it causes as well as the lies it perpetuates.

Step One: Identify the Feelings of Shame

The first step in combating shame is to become aware of what it looks like in your personal life. Ask yourself these questions about how shame affects you:

  • What does it feel like?
  • What does it say?
  • How does it behave?
  • What experiences created it?

Step Two: Share Your Feelings with Others

The next step is to share these experiences with another person in the safety of relationship. We need someone to look at our shame and acknowledge it. They do not have to condone it, but they must validate your experience of it.

When we experience our shame in the presence of another, someone who does not turn away from us or leave us as anticipated, it begins to take the power away from shame. Our brains begin to rewire. With time, the things that were once so shameful to us become healed aspects of our lives.

Experience Healing with Watershed Counseling

If you’re reading this and sense the sting of shame in your own life, reach out to someone safe to begin the journey of healing.

If you’re not sure where to begin or who to turn to, I’d love to spend time working with you more fully on this topic and the areas of your life it impacts. Whether you are interested in individual counseling, counseling with a partner, or with your family, Watershed can help. Contact us today to make your first appointment by calling (601) 362-7020 or sending us a message.