Standing Up to Shame

You can shrink shame back into the status of an emotion, not a declaration of your worth as a human being. Here's how.

Shame is a devastating emotion, right up there with grief. But unlike grief, shame is often not recognized for what it is. Conscious emotions like guilt, anger, or happiness are easy to spot, but shame can affect our lives in ways we aren’t aware of, influencing our choices even as we don’t recognize its impact. We push shame away because it feels so terrible. We suffer its after-effects, but may not even know it was there in the first place.

Shame affects our self-concept in ways that the more obvious emotions don’t. We experience other feelings, like sadness or guilt, as reactions caused by outside events. In contrast, shame feels like who we are. According to Erik Erikson, shame starts in our early toddler years when our independent impulses put us in conflict with parents. How parents respond to our willful self-assertions determines if we will go through life feeling confidently autonomous or saddled with shame and self-doubt.

As very young children, we consist of emotions and body sensations. Before the age of about seven, children haven’t developed a witnessing self that sits inside and seems separate from the body. Without that ability to stand a little apart from our body and emotions, we are likely to internalize others’ neglect or rejection into our deepest being. (This is why young children can’t understand the notion that their parents love them but don’t like their behavior.) Young children experience disapproval or punishment not as having done something bad, but as being bad.

Your Core Shame Identity

How Shame Can Infiltrate Your Self-Concept

Shame is the only emotion that can make you feel physically repugnant. It’s not just a feeling of being reprimanded, it’s a sensation of deep unworthiness. Shame is such an excruciating experience that it makes people want to disappear, sink through the floor, or die of embarrassment. Shame can even infiltrate your self-concept, as what psychologist Jerry Duvinsky in his book Perfect Pain/Perfect Shame calls a core shame identity.

Is it any wonder that we want to run and hide from shame? Often we do the next best thing by hiding it from ourselves. We deny our feelings of shame by building up defenses that make us feel better about ourselves. Unfortunately, buried feelings of shame are likely to resurface in intimate relationships or in any situation where we feel our inadequacies might be revealed. As we run from these feelings, it causes more problems because we start blaming other people, acting out, or forcing others to be responsible for our self-esteem. Addictions often have their roots in avoidance of shame issues.

We decide to hide our shame instead of questioning the need for it in the first place. By questioning shame, we could reveal it as just a feeling foisted on us by others, and not our core identity. Instead of absorbing shame into our self-concept, we could tolerate, explore, and consciously label shame as just another emotion. Here’s how to do that.

Relabel Shame as an Emotion

Find Your Worth as a Human Being

Think of a time when shame made you want to run away from yourself. You avoid shame because you think it holds a truth about you, but it doesn’t. The only truth in shame is that someone made you feel awful about yourself at an age when you were psychologically defenseless. As an adult, you are now able to detoxify shame simply by facing the shameful self-belief, looking at it without turning away, and then deeply questioning it. By repeatedly facing your shame feelings and relabeling them as highly unpleasant emotions instead of the truth about you, you will shrink shame back into the status of an emotion, not a declaration of your worth as a human being.

Keep exploring how shame makes you feel while you simultaneously label it correctly as just an emotion. Tell yourself, “This shame feels awful, but it’s just a feeling. It never, ever could be a statement of who I am. It’s just an emotion, like any other emotion.” The reason you avoided feeling shame was that you feared it would expose you to other people as inadequate or unlovable. Now you can see that shame is just another painful feeling you can easily survive.

Finish this exercise by imagining shame as a toxic residue that you can cleanse yourself of. Imagine washing away or peeling off any feelings of shame. You will then be able to see yourself as that pure and innocent child who either was shamed or emotionally neglected to the point where you felt something was wrong with you.

Twinges of shame now can be used as warning signals that someone might be trying to make you feel bad so they can feel better about themselves. Seeing shame for what it is not only helps free you from other’s manipulations, but strengthens your positive self-concept as well.

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