September 7, 2017
Over the past month I have addressed the issue of shame in this blog. In my last blog (August 25, 2017), I wrote about Marin Clilic, and the public shaming that he received when he had a blister on his foot and lost a tennis match. Shame, as defined by Brené Brown, (2010) is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (p. 39). Shame is often linked the harmful message that we are told as children. Detrimental and pessimistic messages of “shame on you,” “you’re not smart enough,” “you’re not good enough,” and “you’re a bad girl/boy,” from authority figures such as parents, parent figures, teachers, and clergy can be devastating to a child (or adult). These messages imply that our needs or feelings are not acceptable.
Shame is amplified by negative family rules that stifle and forbid expressions of pain or desire. “Don’t get angry,” “don’t cry,” “Do as I say, not as I do;” these types of rules and messages put children in a Catch-22 and makes it difficult to trust parents, rule-makers, and other authority figures. Shame is then linked to fear, hurt, sadness, guilt, and then more shame and people then internalize their shame and believe that they are bad, not good enough, unworthy, and unlovable.
Sadly, parents, teachers, coaches, and clergy learn these shame-based behaviors from their parents, teachers, coaches, and clergy, and then cycle starts again. This recurrent cycle handed down from elders to children becomes intergenerationally shame-based. Children and infants don’t get their needs met, and are demeaned, hurt and shamed. These children grow into parents who use their children to get their needs met, and because these parents don’t understand how shame plays out in the power dynamics of a family, they pass on the same demeaning and shameful messages to their children, and the cycle continues through the generations. With shame the sense of self is annihilated. When children are toddlers and unable to put shame into words, the fear of annihilation is so great that these children begin to build defense mechanisms in order to “protect them from ever feeling blamed or shame again” (Wienhold, & Weinhold, 2011, p. 196).
People shield and hide their shame in many ways, they develop obsessions, and compulsions, they binge eat, they restrict their eating, they look at porn, or use drugs and alcohol. Shame exacerbates depression, anxiety, and PTSD. So called “social anxiety” is related to shame. Some people hide their shame behind perfectionism, religiosity, and pseudo-spirituality. Some people rage through violence, some people tweet demeaning messages; some people quell their shame by rigid beliefs and actions. Some people with shame deny their emotions; others hide their shame through fear and hatred. Some people intentionally hurt others, some people cut themselves. The list of shame-based behaviors goes on and on.
Since shame feeds on secrecy, judgment, and silence, the antidote is to bring the shame (as frightening as that can be) out of the shadows, and into awareness; paradoxically, when shame is spoken about, shame loses its power. Shame is a powerful and terrifying emotion, yet there is hope. Brené Brown (2010) in her research about shame states that we all have shame and that we each have the capability to develop and create shame resilience. Shame resilience is the ability to recognize shame, to move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity” this ability helps us to “develop courage, compassion, and connection” with others (p. 40). When shame-based people speak about shame, then shame is weakened. Shame, according to Brené Brown, “loses power when it is spoken. In this way, we need to cultivate our story to let go of shame, and we need to develop shame resilience in order to cultivate our story (p. 40).”
David Johns has a PhD in Counseling Education and Supervision. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Licensed Addiction Counselor (LAC) in the state of Colorado. He works with people who believe they are unlovable or unworthy, in order to build shame resilience. For an appointment call 303-642-6636 or email at [email protected]
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Weinhold, J. B., & Weinhold, B. K. (2011). Healing developmental trauma: A systems approach to counseling individuals, couples, and families. Denver, CO: Love Publishing Company.
Whitfield, C. L. (1989). Healing the child within. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.