Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, has spent the last two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
So let’s break that down. Where does shame originate? When a person does something wrong or goes against their personal or societal moral code, they might feel shame about their behaviour or action. It can be a helpful indicator that what we are doing does not feel right. It doesn’t sit comfortably with who we are or who we want to be.
When is it unhelpful? If we have been the target of someone else’s anger through prolonged or sudden abuse, violence or aggression, it is not uncommon to take on the shame the perpetrator should be feeling. In these instances, shame seeps into the core of ourselves, pervading our instincts, obstructing logic and preventing us from seeing it is not ours to carry.
How does it show up day-to-day life? When we are carrying shame around with us, we can be triggered by seemingly unrelated events. Watching a movie where a character has suffered the same experience as we have can cause the heart rate to soar, sweaty palms, dry mouth and a feeling that we are no longer connected to the body. This is because we think people in the room can tell we have been through the same thing and are judging us for it. Triggers can include casual conversations with friends when a topic reminds us of what we have been through, a workplace conflict, witnessing something similar happen to someone else, or being around the person who inflicted the hurt. This list is not exhaustive, and sometimes triggers can be surprising and unexpected.
What to do about it? Shame feeds on silence. If it feels safe to do so, talk to a trusted family member or friend about the experience. Imagine the experience happened to someone you love and care about. What advice would you give them about feeling shameful? Remember that you are not to blame for the actions of someone else. You did not choose to use violence, oppression, abuse to control anyone else. Long held shame can be difficult to work through alone. If you are unable to talk to people in your life, therapy is an effective way to understand, and deal with the root and effects of shame.
Don’t suffer in silence. If you need support to work through the issues raised here, contact one of our counsellors. We are gentle, warm and empathic in our approach, led by you and your needs. A life free of shame is one of generosity, creativity and space for choice.