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What is Shame?


I believe that shame is way too tabu in our society and not talked about nearly enough. As a certified Relationship and Family Counselor with almost two decades of experience under my belt, I feel it's high time that we addressed the issue of shame.

This article is a overview of all things shame, ie. what it looks like in the body, what it feels like, what children interpret it as, how and why it develops and how we deal with it as adults. It is an abbreviated summery, and if this resonates with you and you are interested in a comprehensive understanding about shame please do contact me to learn more.

Brene Brown, in her seminal research work on vulnerability and Shame, has given two important talks to the global community via TED.com. Having researched vulnerability for 9 years, she discovered that little has been documented on the impact of shame in our culture. She has now published a book on the findings of her research, called “Daring Greatly”

Gestalt Definition of Shame

Shame, as a physiological response of pulling back, is an instinctive self-protection when we perceive we wont be received ( Robert G Lee: Shame and belonging in Childhood, British Gestalt Journal 2007).

Shame in the Body

Shame begins with shyness, moves through stages of disappointment to humiliation until full blown shame is felt. In the body the observed response is:

  • the eyes drop

  • the head hangs

  • the chest collapses

  • the shoulders pull forwards

  • the body may go into full fetal contraction

  • Flushing, blushing, heart rate increase, sweating all are part of the physiological response generated in the body

Consequences of Shame

Ironically shame is experienced as information about the self:

  • I am inadequate

  • ‪I am worthless

  • ‪I am unlovable

  • ‪I am too much/too little

  • ‪I am unworthy of belonging

Shame is caused by a failure to connect from a significant other e.g a caregiver, or the mother or father. In the case of developmental shame, the mother is either:

  • absent

  • ‪inadequate (has no understanding of child’s emotional need for attention)

  • ‪pre-occupied ( eg has depression, or may be working or engaged with large family)

  • ‪disapproving

  • ‪abusive

Childhood Development and Shame

If shame is prolonged or accompanies abuse, especially in the crucial neurological development of 0-2 years, the experience of not being received (eg poor maternal attunement), is overwhelming to the nervous system and the child develops ground shame. This means whenever there is yearning for connection, throughout life, shame is triggered. This state leads ultimately to isolation, disconnection and becoming the subject of blame and disregard…leading to hopelessness and despair.

Difference between guilt and shame

GUILT: I’ve done something bad

SHAME: I am bad

Children are unable to explain their experiences rationally so an abusive environment is interpreted as a deficiency of the self:

Something bad happened to me translates into "I am bad"

I failed my test = "I am a failure"

I cant get help = "I am unworthy of help"

I cant fight back/say no = "I am inadequate, I am nothing" or "I am bad"

Adult Coping Mechanisms for Dealing with Shame

The experience of shame is so awful ( feeling of wanting the ground to swallow you up), that we develop defenses against experiencing shame:

  • Secrecy and isolation => let no-one know

  • Diversion reaction => Let no-one see

Aggression, Anger and Shame

Aggression involves a lashing out as reaction to shame being triggered. So rather than experience shame, we would prefer to lash out (verbally, emotionally, mentally or physically). This is a deflection from feeling shame and usually lies at the core of our violent culture.

Addiction and Shame

If we choose not to react outwardly when shame is triggered, we will turn our aggression inwards. This is what may create addictions and self-destructive behavior.

contact me for additional handout.

Dr Melanie Salmon, E-mail: quanten@me.com

 
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My Story

I have been working with people as a coach and counselor since 2004, predominantly in Australia and India, and since 2019 also in Germany. I've had the privilege to work with people from all corners of the world and all walks of life. This brings a rich array of experience into my work. I give individual sessions (in person and via Skype), facilitate groups and seminars internationally, create online education programs, write books, and manage an eCommerce business. Due to my extensive travels, I founded my company Squinwin OÜ in Tallinn, Estonia. The Estonian Government allows free spirits like me to manage my business remotely (even to sign contracts virtually), which is hassle-free and straightforward, and it makes it possible to travel and submit my tax return from where-ever I am based at the time. This is what allows me great freedom and flexibility, and this is very important to me. Luckily the newest technology solutions make it possible now to even work with people in one-on-one as well as group settings around the globe via virtual platforms. 

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