It’s a shame

The other day I was enjoying dinner with friends when an upcoming summer social was mentioned. We all opened our phones to check calendars and discuss logistics. I explained to the table, I’d have to be late to the social as I was attending an all-day workshop on guilt and shame. There were some chuckles in response, but mainly the atmosphere turned a little uncomfortable and awkward. The heavy words of guilt and shame seemed to hang suspended above our table. I broke the tension with a self-deprecating joke, and we returned to our evening. 

Shame v Guilt

Often, we use the terms guilt and shame interchangeably, but they are quite different concepts. Guilt refers to something we’ve done whereas shame relates to how we feel about ourselves. In other words, I did something bad (guilt) verses I am bad (shame).

Guilt is far easier to resolve than shame. Essentially if you’ve done something wrong, you might be able to make amends. Feeling guilty, although painful, is a sign of emotional maturity and making amends a sign of growth. 

As shame is not about our behaviour its far more difficult to move on from and often reflects early psychological pain. When it comes to shame, Dr Brene Brown is, in my opinion, the go to expert. I would absolutely recommend reading her many books on the topic of shame and vulnerability if you want a deeper understanding. 

Dr Jan McGregor, (who’s written a book on guilt and shame), explains that the guilt we feel where we’ve done something wrong is more like remorse. The guilt, which is far harder to shake off, and more akin to shame, is what she calls persecutory guilt. It is where we inflict ourselves with a kind of psychic punishment and turn our aggression or hostility. We see this in aspects of self-harm and self-sabotage.  

Ways to combat

Shame thrives on secrecy. It likes nothing better than sitting in the dark, hiding from everyone, slowly crippling its victim, and lowering their self-esteem.  Brene Brown adds silence and judgement to secrecy as the key ingredients to really allow shame to grow and deepen. 

Empathy is an integral antidote to shame.  When shame is introduced into an empathetic environment, it can’t survive for very long. 

Brene lists four elements to building up our resilience towards shame.  She explains that this resilience is about moving from shame to empathy. 

  • One element is to understand our triggers for shame (i.e., what kind of situations leave us vulnerable to feeling shame) and be able to recognise shame when we feel it (connecting with our bodies is very useful for this).
  • Another element is to practice critical awareness (e.g., do a bit of a reality check when we’re caught in shame, are we trying to be what we think others want us to be?)
  • A third element is to reach out and connect with others.
  • And a vital, last element is to speak about our shame. For us to know and to ask for what we need when we’re feeling shame. 

Exploring our experience of shame is vital to our psychic health. As psychotherapist Susie Orbach explains, “when you’re drenched in shame, it blocks other kinds of thinking and feeling.” Shame can cripple us from living a full and rich existence. Talking about our shame is key to recovery. The more we talk, the less control it has over us. 

Photo by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash

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