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Scott Peterson LCSW
“The inner experience of shame is like a sickness within the self, a sickness of the soul. If we are to understand and eventually heal what ails the self, then we must begin with shame” (Kaufman, Gershen, The Psychology of Shame [New York: Springer, 1989], 5).
As the above quote states, shame keeps us from healing our inner selves. Shame psychologically and emotionally isolates us as we attempt to keep secret that which shames us. Such secrets can be large or small, recent or as old as our earliest memory. The important point is whether we perceive our shameful characteristics as something we feel or as something we are.
Healthy shame can contribute to our understanding of our own imperfection, help us cultivate a healthy conscience, and motivate us to improve ourselves. On the other hand, if we become overwhelmed with toxic shame, we think of ourselves as flawed or defective, and guard against anyone finding out about who we really are. We remain in a state of denial, refusing to recognize and ameliorate what we perceive to be wrong with us.
Dr. Brene Brown states that, “Shame is all about fear. We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we came from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when we are soaring (sometimes it’s just as hard to own our strengths as our struggles) ” (The Gifts of Imperfection, [Center City: Hazelden, 2010] 39).
Steps for overcoming shame include the following:
Acknowledging the shame. As with all troublesome things, we must recognize that a problem exists before we can overcome it. Shame-based people are unable to acknowledge just how bad they really feel. Their shame is tucked away in places they prefer to forget. But refusing to consciously acknowledge shame does not stop it from influencing their lives. The shame can manifest itself through failure in relationships, depression, anxiety, or a lack of direction, to name a few. People who suffer from toxic shame can only rid themselves of it by first admitting that it exists. Acknowledging shame is described by John Bradshaw in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You (Deerfield Beach, Fla.: Health Communications, 1988). He lists several steps, among them include:
Talk about what shames us. Confide in trusted others. If necessary, talk to a therapist. Write in our journals about past events or current challenges.
Learn to recognize when we talk negatively about ourselves to ourselves. There are negative and positive “voices” in our heads. The negative voices sabotage success and predict nothing but failure. Stop them by questioning the truth of what they are saying. Are we always failures? If we make one mistake, does that mean that we are completely bad? By challenging such faulty core beliefs with rational responses, we are able to dispel our shame.
Learn how to handle mistakes. Have the courage to be imperfect. Shame can drive us to try to be perfect, something we cannot do on our own. Furthermore, such efforts when controlled by shame will only throw us into a vain attempt to compensate for something we disapprove of in ourselves by covering it up with a new, disingenuous behavior.
Prayer and meditation. Create an inner place of silence wherein we ground ourselves with an abiding sense of peace.
Sharing Secrets and risking depending on others. Shame compels us to keep secrets about our private selves that we believe would shame us if we openly admitted them to ourselves or divulged them to anyone else. That is regrettable for at least three very important reasons: First, if we do not risk knowing ourselves as we really are, we harbor weaknesses that can never become strengths because we ignore them in the hope that they never existed in the first place or that by some magical process they will eventually go away. Holding on to our weaknesses, of course, deters us from growing and sharing ourselves fully with others. Second, keeping secrets locked away inside of us causes them to become filters through which much of our perceptions are processed. Things appear worse than they really are. New experiences become tainted with old shame. Eventually, even the most positive things are distorted, minimized, and dismissed. That process is incredibly effective at stopping our progress. Who can find the energy to change when everything appears so bleak? Third, keeping secrets allows the negative aspects of ourselves that are true to grow way out of proportion. Bad things become horrible things as they thrive on our silence. And because there is no way to assess the gravity of our secrets against a more objective standard that sharing with others provides, we find it increasingly difficult to discern just exactly what is real about us and what is not. In extreme cases, our minds fabricate negative images about ourselves that have no basis in reality at all.
Until we allow others to share our burdens and extend to us a compassionate hand, shame can eat at us until we feel totally consumed by it. We must depend on one another when our own ability is lacking. There is no shame in that, only the risk of increasing our shame if we don't.
3. Differentiating between healthy and toxic shame. Healthy shame is essential if we are to monitor and then correct ourselves. Healthy shame is synonymous with conscience. Such healthy feelings of shame, remorse, and self-disapproval motivate us to change and grow. Healthy shame, then, is essential to our psychological and emotional development. But when shame becomes toxic, it does the exact opposite. It motivates us to distort, deny, and hide things about ourselves from ourselves and others. It is crucial to know the difference between these two types of shame: one moves us to do better, the other keeps us from getting better. Shame is at the root of many psychological and emotional problems. If you suffer from toxic shame, perhaps it is time for you to talk to someone about it.