Shame is a normal human emotion. It relates to the inherent ‘quality’ of oneself, our sense of self or our identity, dignity and honour.

Shame manifests in behaviours such as hiding one’s eyes, turning away one’s face, blushing, avoidance behaviours, blaming, over reacting, self-deprecation, apathy or cognitive freezing.

Shame can be triggered by being criticised or humiliated, when we experience failure or abandonment by significant others; when being evaluated or judged, teased, laughed at or being exposed unexpectedly before one is ready.

It involves the sense that because we have done something wrong, we are “flawed”, “no good”, “inadequate”, “worthless”, “unlovable”, “awful”, “despicable” or “bad”. Because we feel defective and flawed, we strive to cover up, to conceal this defect with a false self resulting in a lifetime of hiding and secrecy. Hiding and secrecy take up a lot of energy! A typical thought might be “If others knew this about me, they would hate me or think less of me”. For this reason the source of shame is rarely revealed to oneself, it remains hidden having an undermining and destructive consequence. When deeply internalised, it can become our identity. Shame is usually connected to a highly negative view of ourselves and often includes feeling isolated and alone.

However, there is a positive and helpful aspect to Shame and that is, it is the psychological foundation of humility. It motivates us to seek new information and learn new things.

Shaming can occur within the family or school, religious, social and cultural groups.

For example, Shame often accompanies a family secret involving other family members, a secret such as alcoholism, sexual abuse, abortion, bankruptcy or dishonourable social behaviour. It can produce poor communication skills, conflict, manipulation, withdrawal and blaming resulting in decreased intimacy or closeness amongst family members or friends. It is difficult to let someone get close to you if you feel defective and flawed as a human being. A person experiencing shame will guard against exposing his inner self to others but more importantly, he will guard against exposing his perceived failure of self to himself.

Guilt is a close relative of shame but has more to do with actions or behaviour. We tend to feel guilty when we have violated “rules” or values that are important to us or when we have not lived up to standards we have set for ourselves. We feel guilty when we judge ourselves to have done something wrong. Our internal critic relentlessly judges our every behaviour as inadequate. If we think we “should” have behaved differently or “ought” to have done better, we are likely to feel guilty.

Transforming Shame

Transforming our shame is possible and liberating. It includes some important steps:

  • To heal our shame we must come out of hiding and isolation, in other words to break the silence. Because shame masks our deepest secrets about ourselves – that we are essentially defective – the only way we can find out we were wrong about ourselves, is to self-disclose more. In other words to risk sharing more of ourselves with others we trust or someone who is non-shaming. When we trust someone else and experience their love and acceptance, we begin to change our self-beliefs. We learn we are not bad. We learn that we are lovable and acceptable. A therapist or counsellor could be an appropriate person to provide a safe space for this to occur.
  • Celebrate your assets and strengths.
    In the case of guilt, it might require us to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for any inappropriate actions one might have taken and making reparations for any harm caused.
  • Self-forgiveness. This is acknowledging that part of being human is about making mistakes.
  • Violations do not necessarily mean we are bad. Our actions may have been linked to a particular situation or to a specific time in our lives. Self-forgiveness also includes recognising your own imperfections and mistakes, strengths as well as weaknesses and accepting yourself, shortcomings and all.

If you would like to better understand and transform your Shame issues with a therapist or counsellor, please don’t hesitate to contact Winkie.

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