What Is Shame?
In her excellent and highly recommended book, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." In other words, shame is the inherent belief that we are not good enough, and we never will be good enough, regardless of what "good enough" might actually be. Brown also tells us in Daring Greatly that shame is ubiquitous, and nearly everyone experiences it to some degree. In fact, the only people who don't experience shame are people who lack the capacity for empathy and meaningful human connections (i.e., sociopaths).
One way to understand the concept of shame is by thinking of it as the opposite of self-esteem. For example, those with a stable, positive self-image tend to feel more confident, to be more willing to express themselves openly, and to take healthy emotional risks. Conversely, people who carry a deeply felt sense of shame live in fear of being exposed as unlovable and unworthy. Unsurprisingly, shame-based people avoid the risks associated with being open and assertive, fearing they might (re)experience rejection, abandonment and the like.
Both of these deeply felt experiences -- self-esteem and shame -- are the outcome of early parenting and social experiences. Loving, attentive, engaged and accepting caretakers tend to raise children with high self-esteem and minimal shame, whereas children raised by inconsistent, abusive and/or neglectful caretakers tend to feel less worthy of love, validation and attention -- all of which speak to an internal sense of shame. And the earlier in life that your emotional needs are neglected and/or inappropriately responded to, the more likely it is that shame will be hardwired into your adult self-image.
In therapy sessions I often hear addicted clients and trauma survivors talk about the "tapes" that play in their heads, or the "committee" that lives between their ears and holds loud conversations about their many shortcomings. When clients talk about things like this, I know that that they are expressing shame. Most often the primary shame message my clients hear equates to: "You're not worthy (of love, success, validation, support, a loving family, etc.), so why bother trying?" And when that's the main message bouncing around a person's psyche, that individual is much less likely to open up and fully express his or her true self. As such, these folks generally live lives that are less meaningful, less rich, and less interpersonally rewarding than they otherwise might.
In short, shame-based people deeply fear taking the risks needed to be fully known and intimate, thereby avoiding any potential of being rejected, let down or abandoned. They stay in their shell, not understanding that being vulnerable, open, and "seen" by others is the only genuine path to feeling loved, intimate, connected, creative and all that other stuff we crave. Simply put, a person who is driven by fears of rejection and humiliation tends to avoid intimacy, because being vulnerable (the path to intimacy) feels too scary. Yet none of life's positive, rewarding connections can really take place without allowing oneself to be fully known. Even worse, many shame-based people become mired in addiction, violence, isolation, anxiety, depression, dysfunctional relationships and various other manifestations of deep emotional pain.
Shame vs. Guilt
In modern society most people seem to think that shame is a good way to keep people in line. The thinking seems to be: If people experience a bit of shame, they are less likely to "act out" in ways that harm themselves or others. This is actually not true. In fact, the opposite occurs. Rather than motivating positive change, shame prevents it.
If this seems counterintuitive to you, that may be a result of confusing shame with guilt. The two feelings are related, but quite different on a very meaningful level. And I'm not just playing the semantics game here. Basically, the internal message that a shame-based person consistently hears is, "I am bad," whereas the message a person feeling guilt hears is, "I did something bad." This distinction is incredibly important. A shame-based person feels that he or she is inherently defective and nothing can be done to change that, so why bother trying. As a result, he or she will almost assuredly engage in problematic behaviors or experiences that reinforce this negative self-image. Conversely, a person who feels guilt is someone who recognizes that he or she has done something that violates his or her moral code, feels bad about it, and works to behave differently in the future. Guilt and shame are equally powerful, and both will drive future decisions, but the two cars are pointed in opposite directions.
Self-protective, avoidant, shame-based behavior shows up in many forms. For example, some people attempt to protect themselves from further pain, loss, abandonment and rejection by blaming someone or something other than themselves for their unhappiness. Others withdraw, isolate, or put forth a false front to ward off any potential reinforcement of their shame. Some become addicts, avoiding the pain of shame by numbing out through addictive substances and/or behaviors (gambling, spending, sex, etc.) Others become aggressive, lashing out either physically or verbally, essentially making those around them feel as miserable and ashamed as they themselves feel. Still others seek to feel connected and appreciated by becoming disingenuous people pleasers, always taking care of others (and therefore feeling useful and important) but never directly asking for what they need (never taking any emotional risks).
Moving From Shame to Grace
Shame thrives in secrecy but withers in the open. For example, one study of rape and incest survivors -- people who understandably experience great shame -- found that not discussing the traumatic event(s) can actually be more damaging than the actual event(s). The same research also found that when traumatized and shame-based people share their traumatic stories and experiences, their stress levels decrease and their overall physical health improves. Still, nobody ever wants to talk about their shame. And why would they? After all, shame is something most people try very hard to avoid feeling and experiencing. As such, the natural response to shame is to hide it. Unfortunately, in the secretive darkness, shame not only festers, it grows.
As mentioned above, shame-based people fear being vulnerable. They avoid revealing their true selves because they're terrified of the reaction they might receive. That said, talking about shame is not nearly as dangerous as keeping it under wraps. Undeniably, opening up about shameful thoughts and events is difficult and painful, but the more we talk (with safe, compassionate, nonjudgmental people) about why we avoid being fully known (our shame), the less power it has. When shame-based people can share their stories with supportive and empathetic people, they tend to feel more connected, worthy and alive. Essentially, when exposed to love and acceptance, shame loses its grip. In short, developing shame resilience is a process of reaching out to supportive others and experiencing empathy. It is no surprise to therapists that when traumatized, shame-based people share about their most difficult experiences -- the events that cause them to feel defective, unworthy, and unlovable -- even long after the fact, their lives get better. Period.
Sadly, shame can't be avoided. At the wrong moment, just when we're feeling vulnerable, it can hit us no matter how careful we are to surround ourselves with loving people. Plus, a life well-lived is one in which emotional risks are regularly taken despite the fact that, at times, the result may be less than optimal. The good news is that a person can develop shame resilience. Shame resilience requires courage and a willingness to be open and to risk not being heard or understood. No matter how frightening that may seem, it is always worth the effort. If you are interested in learning more about vulnerability, shame and shame resilience, I highly recommend reading not just Daring Greatly, but Healing the Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw and The Intimacy Factor by Pia Mellody.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is senior vice president of clinical development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tenn., Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships.