Shame keeps us safe. Shame is an evolutionary neurobiological protection mechanism. Even though shame is meant to protect us, it does not always manage and often makes us feel worse.
What is shame?
Shame is what makes us feel bad when we worry about how we are with people, whether we have done the right thing, said the right thing, or are the right person around other people. Shame drives us away from people, it makes us hide. This is unfortunate seeing as everyone experiences shame. Shame is something that we all have in common. Shame happens because we care about other people.
We would not want to be without shame. To be shameless would mean to lack the ability or intention for any connection with, or care for, another person.
Shame is isolating.
All humans have very similar struggles, but shame makes us think that we are the only one who feels inadequate, fat or unworthy. I often feel all those things. I have learnt to manage those feelings, but they are still there.
Shame easily spreads. People who feel ashamed can easily shame others without meaning to. It might be an unwillingness to make eye contact, avoiding a social event or reticence to be friendly to someone we bump into. Although we may do this because we feel ashamed of ourselves for some reason, it is likely that the other person experiences your shame as theirs and feel bad about themselves instead. Shame spreads.
Shame is inevitable.
Shame is the cost of relationships. In an evolutionary sense, humans need social connections. In the past, we needed our tribe to survive. Even in modern society, a baby cannot survive alone. Fundamentally, humans need connection with others to survive. Whenever we have connection, there is the possibility of shame. Shame is inevitable. We cannot get rid of shame, instead, we can develop shame resilience. We can learn how to better manage our inner shame monsters.
Inner shame monsters.
We will always have inner shame monsters whispering to us. They whisper things like ‘you are not good enough’ or ‘you are fat’. Although they may never completely go away, we can learn to manage them so they don’t overtake our lives.
We will never be perfect, and shame reminds us of this. Once we become ok with being imperfect, the shame monsters do not have so much of a hold on us.
We need a life purpose to escape shame.
We easily get stuck in shame. To move away from being stuck, we need a life purpose and to know our values. Once we have a desire and a plan, our need to escape shame is greater than our need to protect ourselves by hiding.
Compassion and empathy are the antidotes to shame. If you can sit with someone who is feeling ashamed and not judge them, it is likely to be a very healing experience for them. Therefore it is important to work on not judging yourself. I often write about the need for self-compassion and this is another example of why it is so important. Compassion counteracts shame.
Shame and the body.
Shame manifests in the body. We need to tackle shame in the body before we can change the shame story in our minds. It is very difficult to talk someone out of shame, as the body needs to be in a relaxed state first. Stephen Porges calls this the green zone. Shame can’t survive in the green zone as it is the realm of compassion and empathy in the ‘adult’ or logical brain.
Shame is visceral.
Shame promotes survival in a social group by preventing behaviours which lead to harm or rejection from others. Shame is very primitive, linked to survival and developed before we could speak. Therefore it is felt in the body and it is so hard to describe with words. Directly talking about shame easily aggravates it, unless enough compassion and empathy is around to keep you in the green zone.