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Understanding Shame

What is shame?

Shame is a feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of being “wrong.” It’s a response to a sense of failure when we don’t live up to idealistic beliefs of how we should look or behave. Shame is the voice in your head that says, “I’m not good enough, I’m bad, something is wrong with me.”

Growing up, I had a relative who loved to yell “SHAME ON YOU!” at the misbehaving children and animals. I never really thought about that until I learned about shame; why would I? It was normal. I dare say shame is normal, like sneaky normal. Especially because identifying shame is uncomfortable, and we don’t like discomfort!

Girl with hands over face

How does shame feel?

It can be challenging to identify when shame shows up in your body. If you are not attuned to feelings of shame, you may call it “sadness” or “fear.” Shame can feel like a bottomless pit in your stomach and heat in your body and face. Think of something that would be embarrassing, like the nightmare of being on stage in only your underwear– that’s how shame feels.

Shame feels sad and alone. Shame is the belief that no one can ever know the real me. Shame is fear. It’s a fear that you’re different than everyone else, but negatively. Fear that you won't be accepted because of this perceived defect and not being accepted is a survival fear: cue anxiety, panic, and depression.

What’s the difference between shame and guilt?

Guilt is a feeling one gets when one has done something wrong. It is associated with a behavior or action, while shame involves the entire self. Shame is not I’ve done something wrong, but instead I am wrong, or there is something inherently wrong with me. In this way, both shame and guilt can be felt together. One can feel guilt for an action they have done and carry the belief that there is something broken about them that causes them to behave that way. One may feel guilt about doing something “wrong” and believe it defines them as a bad person. While they can show up together, it is possible for someone to feel guilt without shame. One may have guilt about their actions and not believe that they are inherently flawed.

Who experiences shame?

As mentioned earlier, it is assumed that everyone experiences shame to some degree. Shame thrives in the domain of “right” and “wrong,” so anywhere there is a judgment of right or wrong there is an opportunity for shame.

woman standing outside with white t shirt that reads right to be wrong

In my work, specifically, I see shame come into play with clients who have a history of involvement with religion, Christianity in particular. People who grew up in religious communities with rigid beliefs and views of right and wrong tend to be conditioned to feel shame automatically. When these people leave this religion they can cognitively recognize they do not share those same beliefs, but the conditioning is often held deeply within their bodies. Having such deep conditioning in their bodies can lead to extreme distress without knowledge of where it’s coming from. This distress can present as depression, anxiety, confusion, hopelessness, and more. For these people, it can often feel like they don’t belong anywhere and they tend to feel completely alone.

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