Shame - a human experience
The other day whilst eating out, in a moment where my company had gone to use the bathroom, I became interested in the conversation taking place between the table sat in front. I overheard one of the individuals assert "she should be ashamed of herself!". This unexpectedly led to me feeling unsettled, almost uncomfortable in my skin, momentarily feeling gripped by this - isn’t this just how shame works?
In this article, I aim to discuss some purposes of shame, its internal processes, and interpersonal dynamics.
There is a socialising aspect of shame, where it adapts us to the expectations of our family of origin and our society. For example, Eskimo communities traditionally lived in extremely cold, snow and ice-bound environments, and members would gather around their young children to point, laugh, and tease when the child’s foot first slipped through the ice. In effect, Eskimo communities shamed their children as a means of teaching them how to physically survive in their environment. In some cultures, including the Indian culture I belong to, shame is used as a means of social control, i.e. to avoid bringing about 'dishonour' in the eyes of the self and the community.
The unhealthy aspect of shame is when it involves us concluding that we are flawed; unlovable; unworthy of belonging. It is those times we have believed 'something’s wrong with me' - not 'I made a bad decision', but 'I am a bad person'. Our figures of speech, such as "I was so ashamed, I just wanted to die" reflect the force akin to life and death that shame can have.
It has been suggested that the process of shame is a defensive combination of sadness and fear, and involves a denial of anger. The sadness is about not being accepted as we are; the fear is about being abandoned because of who we are; our anger possibly denied to maintain a sense of connection with others. If we were shamed a lot as a child, either through overt abuse or criticism, then as an adult we are more prone to rubber-band back to that child part of us. That part which believes we are somehow deserving of our shame continues to grow in our secrecy and silence.
Shame can manifest in behaviours such as our withdrawing (running along a continuum of gestures such as placing our hand over our mouth as if to retract a comment made, to depression), 'attacking' the other (i.e. trying to induce shame in another to get out of our own shame), avoidance (such as by excessively using alcohol or drugs), and attacking ourselves. Psychotherapist Bréne Brown refers to 'shame shields' - identifying shields of 'moving away', 'moving toward', and 'moving against' - where she invites us to consider how the weight of the shield we are using is inadvertently dragging us further into our shame.
In ending, there is no quick 'fix' to healing the painful wounds of long-standing shame, and we are unlikely to avoid ever experiencing shame. Through my personal and professional experiences with shame, I have come to understand the antidotes to shame are speaking about it and being met with empathy. So let’s put down our defences, or heavy 'shields', and reach out to each other.
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