Shame: The hidden truth

Shame is often associated with exposure, but exposure of a certain kind. We feel exposed when we meet a negative response from others, or when we fail to meet our own self-ideal. For people who are very shame-prone these feelings of failure are the source of almost constant anxiety and dread.

The origins of the word 'shame' lie  in an older word, 'kam', which means 'to cover'. Given that feelings of shame and feelings of exposure often go hand in hand, perhaps it is not surprising to find they are linked bin this way. The things that we feel ashamed of though, are not necessarily the things about which we feel guilty. While guilt relates to things we may have done, shame relates to painful feelings about the self. For example, research into infant life reveals that even very young babies will display clear signs of shame after trying and failing to initiate eye contact with an unresponsive caregiver. From this we can begin building a picture about where shame starts, and why it might influence future relationships.

In fact shame is one of the most disturbing experiences that we can have about ourselves; feelings of defectiveness and inadequacy can invade our sense of who we are so powerfully that we feel demolished from within. When shame gets internalized to this degree an overwhelmingly negative sense of self comes into play. At its worst this can feel unbearable and it is for this reason that shame sometimes changes register and converts into other, less 'helpless' feelings, such as anger, blame and contempt.

Unfortunately this sets up a vicious circle. Interactions that are fuelled by anger and blame deprive us of what we most need to heal shame, which are positive and validating experiences with other people. On the other hand anger-driven interactions confirm our worst fears about ourselves and only add to feelings of shame.

Because shame is so painful it can be hard to acknowledge or recognize. Of course this doesn't mean it stops influencing the way we feel about ourselves or how we relate to others. Counselling is often very helpful in coming to terms with underlying feelings of shame. Uncovering these feelings is a powerful way to detoxify them, leaving us more able to value ourselves and begin feeling valued by others.

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