Shame – a universal emotion
Everyone can feel they have made a mistake but when you feel that you are a mistake, you are experiencing shame.
It is a pervasive and destructive emotion that can be triggered for many different reasons. If you have grown up in a family steeped in shame, you are likely to internalise it. There are well-documented links between shame and alcoholism, sexual abuse and eating disorders.
However, people can also feel ashamed of positive experiences like success and achievement. If you were scapegoated as a child and told you would never do well, success can evoke a shameful sense of imposter syndrome – an ‘I’m going to be found out’ belief.
The list of what can prompt shame is endless: age, gender, ethnicity, weight, parenthood, relationship status and mental health to name a few things. Not living up to others’ expectations is another painful source of shame and can stay with people throughout their lives. Even if we have developed our own world views and beliefs and stand on our own two feet, at some level we will have internalised the views of those who brought us up. If these are at odds with the way we are living our lives, we are unlikely to be completely at ease.
While social media is a positive way to connect with others, it can also be a big source of shame if people start to compare and despair when looking at lifestyles, achievements, and body shapes. I know a lot of people who have come off social media because they find it too painful to see one or all of the following; successful relationships, smiling babies, wonderful holidays or hectic social lives.
Looking at such images can leave people feeling less than and not good enough. The fact these images don’t tell the whole story does not stop viewers comparing themselves unfavourably to others, especially if they feel they are outside or apart from what appears to be the norm.
Researcher Brenée Brown defines shame as ‘the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.’
Looking at images of people who appear to belong, when you feel that you don’t, can be excruciating and almost an act of self-harm.
However, not everyone sees shame as all bad. Psychologist Christiane Sanderson believes there are two faces of shame which consist of healthy shame promoting connection and prosocial behaviour, and toxic shame which severs connection and destroys social bonds. She believes that these two faces represent the extreme ends of a shame spectrum with healthy, adaptive shame at one end and chronic or destructive shame at the other end.
The idea is that a degree of shame can keep our behaviour and morals in check and be good for our relationships, while too much of it can leave us alienated and with low self-esteem.
Counselling and shame
But how can counselling help people overcome chronic and destructive feelings of shame? Although many people experience these feelings, they do not find it easy to talk about them, as admitting to shame can leave people feeling exposed and flawed. It is easier to talk about more socially acceptable feelings like embarrassment or guilt.
Understanding that shame is a universal feeling is immensely helpful, because viewing it as a normal human emotion makes it more acceptable. Knowing that others also feel this way breaks a sense of isolation and can make it easier to open up and start talking about these complex emotions. People also need to be heard in a non-judgemental way when talking about these feelings.
Brenée Brown sees empathy and compassion as the antidote to shame. Enabling people to express their vulnerability is definitely key to helping them overcome chronic shame. In some cases, the underlying causes of shame, including addiction and sexual abuse, will take time to come to terms with, and an important part of the work is developing self-compassion.
Making sense of how our early experiences and environment have shaped us is essential for this process. Only then can people start to accept themselves as they are rather than feeling less than for not being what others want them to be.
Counselling can offer a place to develop an awareness of how the expectations of others, together with environment, have affected us and how we relate in the present. Increased self-awareness together with a growing self-compassion can lead to new, more resilient patterns of relating and kindness towards ourselves.