The shame game
Most of us know what shame feels like but it is quite a difficult animal to define. Dictionaries variously describe it as an uncomfortable feeling of disgrace brought on by the conscious recognition (or belief) of having done wrong or acted wrongly or foolishly.
I became interested in how we might describe our own shame but rather than seek subjective definitions I asked a group of people to define their impressions of the opposite of shame. And by doing so I hoped we might better define shame itself. I received some insightful replies.
My wise and wonderful social media friends (one of whom is a cat) came up with many interesting suggestions: confidence, pride, mindfulness, achievement, self-care, self-respect, delight, joy, glory, happiness, and even grandiosity. The shameless cat did not contribute.
Interestingly, there really doesn't seem to be a direct antonym to the word shame but several more opposites emerged: grace, flair, honour, courage, truth, dignity, holiness, reverence, peace and healing. ‘Honourable’ strikes a chord with me - although I don’t know quite why.
I have heard guilt defined as ‘I’ve done wrong, I made a mistake’ and shame as ‘I am wrong, I am a mistake’ and of shame being ‘disconnection’. So, connection also seems a good antonym to me.
If these definitions or good qualities are desirable, I wonder if they might act as footholds in our efforts to climb out of shame and help us move on.
An old school friend’s abiding memory in relation to shame is that throughout his entire education no credit was ever given for any level of competence in whatever he was being taught. An exam pass was simply that (Phew!) whereas a fail felt almost intentionally shaming. So ‘competence’ also goes on to my list of opposites.
A wise colleague commented that shame appears absent when people have the feeling that they belong, they are ‘enough’ and worthy of loving and of being loved. Perhaps that is the one opposite that covers everything: love.
Healing shame? Counselling can create a safe, non-judgemental space where we can examine and start to change unhelpful beliefs about ourselves; allowing us to comfortably be the fantastically foibled humans that we are. Foibled not flawed.
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About Hugh Trethowan
Hugh is a counsellor specialising in helping individuals and their families - especially those brought up in an alcoholic home. He has many years experience working with different methods of recovery. His counsellor accreditation is with The Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals (FDAP).