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:
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)
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: firstname.lastname@example.org