Shame: What Is It Good For?
“If I accept myself as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers
Shame is the opposite of that statement. It is that self-loathing experience of not feeling good enough. If I had a magic wand and the ability to create an immediate change in people, I would wave it to help recognize shame and transform it to love and acceptance of self. This does not absolve us of our wrongdoings; on the contrary, it gives us the opportunity to change rather being stuck in our shame.
I owe much of my enlightenment on this topic of shame to Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW. Millions have viewed her Ted Talks on vulnerability and shame.
Brown’s books, especially The Gifts of Imperfection, offer an even more in-depth look at shame, shame resilience, and how to live wholehearted lives.
Brown uses the terms guilt and shame in specific ways to help clarify the emotional experiences of our situations. Simply speaking, she references the internal dialog of shame as "I am bad" and guilt as "I did something bad." It is important to clarify these specific meanings of the terms as the words shame and guilt are often used interchangeably in everyday language.
When I am stuck in shame, I mostly feel awful and believe there is nowhere to go but to continue feeling bad. For me, shame is an achy feeling in my stomach. Others may have a different sensory experience of that shame feeling. For some it is a nagging voice in their heads telling them how worthless they are, for others it is a visual that depicts them as very small.
When I recognize and identify my feeling as shame, I have an opportunity to move through my experience. I can realize that I am not a horrible person, but perhaps I have done something horrible. I can then work to make amends or vow to be more aware of my actions in the future. When I remain stuck with a feeling of shame, I continue to feel bad, the focus remains on myself, and the situation has little opportunity to transform or heal.
When we shame others, we give her or him little room for change. For example, "you are sexist," rather than "that was a sexist comment," gives little room to change and forces the person into feeling bad about him or herself. When the feeling of shame is experienced and not recognized or identified, it can be too painful and thus transformed into anger before an opportunity to address it is realized. I believe that many reactionary or angry outbursts, verbal and physical, begin as a shame experience.
Noticing and addressing shame allows for ownership of actions (guilt),
rather than the experience of self-loathing and self-centeredness (shame).
Talking about shame is challenging. In fact, the topic is a great conversation stopper at parties. I have found this out first-hand on more than one occasion! We seem to spend so much time and money on ways to feel better, from exercise classes to travel to massage… yet few seem interested in actually talking about shame or acknowledging its existence in our lives.
Recognizing and addressing shame presents a way to fast track finding comfort in our own skin and
moving forward as wholeheartedly as possible.
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Dr. Barbara Dunn: