Understanding Shame

© Marta Knas

© Marta Knas

Shame on you! Hang your head in shame, put to shame, the walk of shame, tell the truth and shame the devil, a crying shame, hide your face in shame, the shame of it all, or directly… SHAME! Yes, just reading those idioms can be a trigger to a stored or imagined the emotion of guilt. We have all heard these words projected on us, on the other hand, maybe we use this psychological bullet to assassinate people we believe have acted shamefully and most definitely experienced it in our self-critical thoughts and our deep hidden feelings. By the end of this blog post, you will have a deeper understanding of what shame is and how to extinguish this most insidious of unhealthy negative emotions like a dim candle flame in the bright daylight.

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.” ― Brené Brown

Shame is an intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging, it is also an unpleasant feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of a perceived wrong or foolish behaviour. Another thing about shame is that we all have it, as it the most human and primitive emotion and sits in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, a thumb-sized region in the brain that seems to determine the size of your emotional response to shame or embarrassing situations. Not only are we capable of feeling shame for our behaviour and judgment about it, but we are well equipped to handle a deep sense of guilt for other people’s reaction. The closer they are to us in the relation, the more intense the feeling, typically end in disaster, as in so-called Honour killings and other violent shame attacks.

Shame is the swampland of the soul, and it permeates through all our thoughts and psychological processes once it takes hold. Shame is a direct attack on one’s sense of self at the very core of our being. It comes with a physical sensation of warmth/heat washing over our bodies from head to toe and is correlated to addiction, violence, depression, anxiety, aggression, anger, bullying, suicide and eating disorders. Do not mistake Shame for guilt as guilt says I did something terrible, I made a mistake, shame says I am wrong, I am a mistake. So, the difference between the two is that guilt identifies that an individual did something that goes against their moral code, whereas shame is a complete and absolute statement of ‘I’m not good enough’. It causes us to cover ourselves and withdraw from the outside world while harbouring feelings of embarrassment, dishonour, disgrace, inadequacy, and humiliation, all of which are detrimental to our all-important sense of worth.

We have identified four types of shame:

Competence Shame is the feeling that you are not good enough at something which you “should” be useful. (Notice the unhealthy demand)

Body Shame is the feeling that there is something inherently wrong with your body. 

Identity Shame is the feeling that you are the “wrong” kind of person.

Relationship Shame is the feeling that “I will be loved if I am _____.” Usually external factors such as career, wealth, education where we feel we will ONLY get love IF we meet such a separate condition. 

Everyone inherently possesses all four kinds of shame, to a lesser or greater degree, the only difference being the levels and proportions of each trait that the individual has acquired over time and who inflicted it upon them.

Think, if you have an inner voice that has a strong tendency to be self-critical, it will often jump from one type of self-shaming to another, like a busy bee flying from one flower to another — like it’s trying to stay hidden and one step ahead of us.

© Studio Gibli

© Studio Gibli

If shame were a seed, its fertile soil would be secrecy, its water, silence and its sunlight, external and internal judgement is all it needs to take root and flourish. Secrecy, if Silence and Judgement are a lethal toxic combo that shame needs to grow then Empathy is its exterminator! Empathy is exceptionally hostile to shame and obliterates it by firstly removing secrecy, then silence and judgement to allow space for validation, acceptance, and non judgement to come through. Shames healthy Negative counterpart is Regret, although similar in many ways, the critical difference is that regret is not a stagnant, irrational, and dogmatic emotion as shame.

Shame by nature is an irrational emotion and is accompanied with over exaggeration of the shamefulness of the revealed information, the likelihood that the judging group will notice or be interested in the news, the degree and length of disapproval, whereas with regret we can see things in a more realistic light. Shame also triggers us into wanting to remove ourselves from the gaze of others and isolate ourselves. Alternatively, to go on the defensive and attack others who have shames to save face to defend our self-esteem and not self-worth in self-defeating ways, whereas with regret we tend to continue in the partaking in social interaction even if it proves slightly more difficult and uncomfortable.

We are not frauds! We are good enough! We are lovable! We are all perfectly imperfect versions of our self! We must love and accept ourselves and resist allowing the insidious nature of shame was relegating us to the swampland of our consciousness and thereby letting life pass us by, denying the real versions of our self and most importantly the negative impact on our health and well-being! The next time we think of using those opening idioms of shame on ourselves and others, or we find ourselves in the grips of those dark, painful self-hating thoughts, place empathy, acceptance, openness, and non-judgement in our conscious mind and experience the joys and rewards of freedom empowerment and personal growth.


Insightful Conversations Team

Angela Trentin