Shame - the hidden emotion

If you've even made it past the title, you may still think that this topic doesn’t apply to you. The fact is, you have felt shame in one form or another, and also people you know will have experienced feelings of shame. While a completely normal emotion, if left unexpressed and misunderstood its impact can be highly toxic. Previous articles I have written have been met with feedback from many about how the issues raised strongly resonate. I have wondered about writing this article because I know that so many people feel that shame doesn't apply to them.

The truth is, shame is an emotion that we all feel to some degree, and in reading this article you will probably identify with some of the issues raised. You will recognise traits of shame in yourselves or people that you know. Recognising shame in ourselves and in others can be really helpful in making sense of our feelings and the feelings of those around us.

When we tell ourselves that we are somehow inadequate, lacking, bad, flawed, undeserving or not good enough, we are feeling shame. Despite it being something that we have all felt, it is possibly the most misunderstood and taboo of all our emotions. The impact of shame at its most crippling can be highly destructive. Shame is strongly linked to depression and anxiety. It can be an underlying factor in compulsive behaviours and addictions. It can cause us to form negative relationships and to self-sabotage, opportunities to move forward in a positive way.

What is shame?

If asked to think about how shame feels, the chances are the question will evoke a particular time when we have felt a sense of wanting the ground to open up. It is a gut-wrenching, cringing, sense of inadequacy and a feeling that you would just like to curl up and become invisible. When shame becomes deeper rooted, it’s a feeling that you are a bad person, that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. It is a sense that you are being punished (and deservedly so) for being bad.

Shame, like all behaviour and emotions, can be viewed as a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is so-called ‘healthy’ shame. This is what helps us from an early age to understand societal norms and assists us to be considerate in our relationships and interactions with others. My previous article about boundaries is relevant here because healthy shame helps us be aware of our boundaries and those of others.

At the other end of the spectrum is what is often referred to as 'toxic shame'. These are feelings of shame that are so pervasive they become crippling and all-encompassing. They are so deeply buried that sometimes there is no or little conscious knowledge of them. This toxic shame can manifest itself in lots of ways; common traits of toxic shame are:

  • a chronic sense of unworthiness
  • anger and blaming
  • martyrdom
  • low self-esteem
  • addictive and or compulsive behaviours
  • a sense of being punished
  • self-sabotage
  • feeling like a phoney or imposter
  • abusive or negative relationships
  • defensiveness
  • withdrawal
  • coldness/indifference

Shame and guilt are often used interchangeably but are in fact related and yet distinct. Guilt is about the behaviour, the feeling that we may have behaved in a way that is wrong or bad. Shame is the internalisation of that guilt to feel that we as a person are wrong or bad. There is a short hop from’ I did something bad’ to ‘I am bad’.

The paradox of shame is that we are often ashamed to admit feeling ashamed. Although we may feel the emotion of shame, most of us are unable to name it as such. The likelihood is that someone who is living with feelings of shame will not openly disclose those feelings to others - they probably don’t know what they are themselves. They are afraid that others will be as disgusted by them as they are by themselves. Toxic shame may lead us to feel we can never show our true selves to others; as such the quality of relationships is often poor as a vicious and toxic cycle of feeling unloved and yet not feeling deserving of love ensues. Those who are experiencing toxic shame are likely to be rejecting of love shown to them and what is actually shame may present as anger, indifference or withdrawal.

When shame becomes toxic

There are factors in our lives that increase the likelihood of shame becoming toxic. Toxic shame often originates in childhood and can be something that is passed down through generations of a family. This happens because those who have toxic shame are likely to displace that shame onto others. The ins and outs of this are complex, but essentially if you are raised in an environment when you are routinely made to feel shame for your ‘bad’ behaviour, there is a likelihood that this shame will become internalised and toxic. In other words, you will start to believe at some level, maybe even subconsciously, that you are bad. Shame can also result from a shame-based educational environment, bullying, sexual abuse or abusive relationships. How many times have we heard ourselves or others say ‘it was my fault’, even when it seems clear to everyone else that it is far from the case? Even people who are victims of the most terrible abuse often blame themselves. This is a shame in action.

When asked to name emotions, most people will come up with maybe four or five ‘common’ feelings such as happiness, anger, sadness, envy or disappointment. The chances are shame won’t feature, even though it is normal and experienced by us all. I like to consider understanding our emotions as being similar to learning a language. To suggest that those four or five emotions encompass the whole range of human emotion is sort of like saying that five words are enough to make yourself understood in any language. This is why better understanding our emotions is so beneficial - the more we know about the subtleties and nuances of a language, the easier communication and forming of relationships becomes. The wider our emotional vocabulary is, the greater our capacity to express ourselves and to understand others.

If we can’t put a name to our feelings of shame if we can’t recognise how it feels, how it manifests itself, how can we begin to recognise and address the negative impact it has on our lives? As with everything I talk about in my blogs, awareness is key. It is about understanding the foreign language of our emotions. If we can begin to translate how we are feeling, we can feel more in control and in command of our emotions. We can start to challenge or re-frame our feelings of worthlessness or unworthiness. We can think about ways we may inadvertently evoke shame in others and how we can change this. If we understand shame for what it is, we can show more empathy to ourselves and others when we experience these feelings.

There are many incredible professionals who have dedicated their lives to understanding shame. It is a huge subject matter which could never be summed up completely in one short blog. If you would like to learn more, I recommend the texts below as a starting point. John Bradshaw and Brené Brown can also be found on YouTube.

  • Bradshaw, J (1983) Healing The Shame that Binds You
  • Bradshaw J. (1996) Bradshaw on the family
  • Brown, B. (2010) The Gifts of Imperfection
  • Brown, B. (2012) Daring Greatly

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Chorley, Lancashire, PR7
Written by Lydia Keighley, (MBACP)- Be You Counselling
Chorley, Lancashire, PR7

I am a Person Centred counsellor, and well- being blogger working in Chorley, Lancashire. As well as running my own private counselling practice, I also run a small charity which offers free counselling to victims of Domestic Abuse.

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