Shining the Light on Shame
*Activation Warning* - this post speaks in depth about shame. Shame is contagious, talking about it or remembering it, can cause us to feel it. Please take a present moment break if you need one.
Shame is probably the hardest emotional state to feel. It likes to remain hidden. It can be largely unconscious until we recognize it. The character Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings reminds me of shame. He is whispering lies into the Kings ear until the King loses his life force energy, turns grey and weak, and eventually loses his sense of self. Shame tells us a false story about ourselves. It either tells us that we are less than human or that we are superheroes. The less than human story is that we are the worst one, the most flawed, the most damaged, the black sheep, the too much one, overly sensitive or dramatic. It isolates us and tells us we don’t belong, that others would be better off without us, that we are a burden, we are not enough, or too much to deal with. The superhero still has the less than human underneath it, but has created a false self to cover it up; perfectionism, workaholism, chronic caregiving(no self-care), constant busy-ness. The superhero has to do more than what is humanly possible and is often lacking in boundaries and self-care. Shame can become deeply internalized and become a part of our identity.
Shame shows up in our body, emotions, and thoughts:
Shame in the body might feel heavy, collapsed, “dark”, numb, empty, stuck or hard to move.
The emotion might be anger directed at the self, depression, isolation, or devoid or numb to emotion.
The thoughts might be “I am bad”, “I don’t belong”, “What is wrong with me?”
What is missing in both the “less than human” and “superhero” is self-compassion. Compassion is needed to be truthful about our human condition. Being human is to be imperfect and flawed. We are flesh and bone, we get sick and old, having a human body is imperfect. We are all imperfectly perfect – perfect because imperfection is part of our story. When we rid ourselves of shame, we take our place of belonging in the human family. When we can truly accept our imperfections, we can stop wasting precious time shaming and belittling ourselves and spend our time connecting and being.
Does shame have a purpose? Yes, healthy shame, moral shame, or guilt, lets us know when our behavior is unsafe and helps us to adhere to cultural norms. A child who runs out in traffic gets pulled back by a parent who seems angry. The parent can’t help the fact that their nervous system just amped up in order to protect the child – probably their heart rate is up, they might be sweating, them might have yelled. But once the child is safe the relationship needs to be repaired by the parent letting the child know, you aren’t bad, running out in the road was dangerous. What’s important is that the child understands that it is the behavior that needed adjusting and not the child. Healthy shame or guilt is about the behavior being bad, it might bring on remorse but it is repairable. A bonus is we don’t have to learn everyday not to run into traffic, the affect of shame helps us to remember. Toxic Shame is when the person feels like the self is bad, I’m bad, and it feels as though it can’t be repaired. Toxic shame is often the result of parents having unresolved shame themselves and they are consciously or unconsciously acting it out on the child. There is a lot of toxic shame culturally especially around sexuality, gender, race, and bodies, all things that are part of the human experience and shouldn’t be shamed.
Understanding shame is an important part of trauma resolution. Shame is often the feeling that keeps trauma stuck in our body. It keeps us from looking at what happened from a different perspective because it’s too painful. We stay stuck in the traumatized place where maybe we had less power, agency, and choice. When we are caught in a shame spiral, we are like the King being fed lies. It stops us from the deep inner knowing that we are enough just as we are, and that “this is now,” in the present moment there is more safety and choice. If we are unable to differentiate between the past and the present our body keeps feeling as though the trauma is still happening even if our logical brain knows otherwise. Shame is welcome in trauma resolution because it needs to be worked through in order to heal. So even though it’s heavy and can feel scary, it’s an opportunity to change the pattern. It’s important to work through shame with someone who understands it and can help you to navigate it because it has a very strong pull.
Working with Shame
1. Shame likes to stay hidden in dark places. Being able to talk about it with a safe other brings it into the light
2. Begin to recognize shame as part of the trauma imprint and not accurate or factual information about yourself
3. If you’ve noticed a narrative around being less than human or more than human, it might be shame. If you can recognize it for what it is, it can begin to lose some of its power. Once the King saw Wormtongue for who he is, the Kings lifeforce energy came rushing back.
4. Work with someone you trust – ideally someone who understands shame and trauma. Shame often brings us into a shame spiral and it’s important to work with someone who can stay present and not be pulled into their own shame.