What is Shame? Where does it come from? Why do we feel it? How can I free myself from the paralyzing effect of my shame?
Let’s start with some defining. Shame is an emotion (or feeling), and emotions are fundamentally not rational, that is to say, not derived from logic or reasoning. While thoughts may trigger feelings and thoughts may change feelings, the feelings themselves are not thoughts. One way to describe feelings is to talk about behaviors and thoughts associated with them. Physical behaviors that are usually associated with shame include blushing (Mark Twain once said that “man is the only animal that blushes…or needs to”), averting our eyes, hiding our face, and more. Some of the thoughts associated with shame include the desire to disappear or die, the thought that we are going to be cast out or disowned, the belief that we deserve punishment or castigation, and more.
As I understand current psychological theory, the capacity for experiencing shame is wired into our brains, along with the capacity to experience anger, fear, pain, sadness, regret, joy, love, well-being, and perhaps some others. It is part of what it means to be a person. In other words, all human beings are capable of experiencing shame.
In all humans’ first years we begin exploring our feelings in a variety of ways. Our first use of shame-behavior is to modulate our excitement. Toddlers will experience excitement building to a pitch that feels unbearable, and then experience shame as a way to ease off the excitement. In the toddler, these feelings are experienced without judgements about whether they are good or bad.
As we interact with our parents and siblings we begin to observe that they have judgements attached to feelings, and expect us to also. Mommy not only expresses her anger but also communicates that the toddler should feel ashamed. “You shouldn’t hit your sister. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” “Shame on you for not sharing your toys with your friend.” “ I’m very disappointed with your [angry] behavior.” The message we get is that some of our behaviors and thoughts render us unacceptable or unlovable. So we attach shame to those thoughts and behaviors. We internalize the “shoulds” and “should nots.”
Some of this shame-attachment is unquestionably useful to us. Healthy shame helps us to create ourselves as responsible beings with a sense of integrity. We begin to develop a code of behavior towards ourselves and others. It is useful to learn to feel ashamed when, unprovoked, we deliberately hurt someone else, when we steal or cheat. The shame feeling can reinforce a decision to not do that behavior again.
Much of this shame attachment is more ambiguous. While it is useful to learn that there are inappropriate times to show our naked bodies to others, it is not useful, and perhaps harmful, to grow up feeling ashamed of our bodies. And making this distinction to a child requires persistence and patience, as well as a belief that being ashamed of our bodies is not good.
Most of us carry into our lives a whole host of these ambiguous shame feelings. We desire healthy expression of our sexuality, but carry shame-feelings about our bodies, our sensuality, our sexuality, our thoughts and desires. Deep in our memories are confusing shoulds and should nots about every aspect of our sexuality.
Often the messages we receive about what is shameful are being passed along to us by our parents from messages they got from their parents, etc. Perhaps you have heard the story of the holiday ham. It seems there was a family gathering for one of the holidays, and 4 generations of women were all present. The youngest little girl was helping in the kitchen. Watching her mother prepare a ham for dinner, she observed her mother cutting the ends off the ham. Being a curious child she asked why her mother did this. Mother thought for a moment, then replied that she didn’t know exactly why. Cutting the ends was how her mother had taught her. So they both turned to Grandma, hoping she would explain. But Grandma shook her head in wonder and explained that this was the way her mother had taught her to prepare a ham. All three then went to Great-Grandma, who was sitting in the other room. “Why,” the little one asked, “do you cut the ends of the ham off before you cook it?” Great- Grandma smiled and replied that in her old kitchen they had only had a very small oven and so the ham needed to be trimmed to fit inside.
Generations ago something useful to that time and place was being communicated. Unthinkingly, this message, often distorted by time and inaccurate repetition, begins to have a life of its own. Our parents and other adults in our life convey their own unexamined shame to us, sometimes deliberately — “You are a Winchester and are expected to behave accordingly” — sometimes unconsciously and accidently, as when we witness our parents shame about their own bodies or their sexuality.
Trying to please our parents and adapt to our surroundings we begin to attach the feeling of shame to some of our own feelings and behaviors. With a base of experience that shame modulates excitement, we are especially good at attaching shame to anything which gives us physical pleasure or excitement. Our parents or teachers or clergy teach us it’s shameful to touch our genitals. Through self-discovery we know it’s pleasurable to touch our genitals, so the shame we attach to our genitals is very strong. Our parents teach us that it is shameful to defecate or urinate in our clothing or our beds. It feels pleasurable to defecate and urinate. We develop strong shame around everything associated with defecating and urinating, often finding as adults we seem unable to defecate or urinate at any time that might be witnessed or heard by anyone else.
Thus we find ourselves, as adults, experiencing shame about many of our thoughts and feelings. This shame can be intensely painful and is often toxic to our health. In other words, left untreated this shame eats away at our self-esteem and sense of self-worth. This shame hurts or destroys our ability to create satisfying intimate relationships. This shame gets in the way of us knowing what we feel or want. And often, we experience the negative effects of this “toxic shame” without consciously knowing that shame is the problem.
The first step in dealing with our shame is recognizing it. Each time you feel shame stop and pay attention to it. Each time you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about something, call it shame and notice how you feel about being ashamed. Is your shame appropriate? Is your shame useful in this particular moment? Is there any good reason for you to feel ashamed? Who’s voice is that, inside your head, telling you you should feel ashamed? Often just asking yourself these kinds of questions, just shining a light on the shame, will have the feeling move and leave you more at choice.
The next step is to experience your shame feelings as a request for love, a cry for love. Attached to these shame feelings is a belief that we are now unlovable, unfit for human company, unacceptable. The moment we are aware of these kinds of thoughts and feelings is the moment to say to ourselves, in the most loving voice we can find: “I really love you” or “I love you unconditionally.” Say it to your reflection in a mirror. Say it to your image of your inner child. Say it in the voice of your father or mother. Say it silently or speak the words out loud. And repeat it.
A third step is to create a declaration or affirmation for yourself to supersede the shame programming. Every day, for at least 30 days in a row, declare what you choose to be true, to yourself in a mirror. “I’m proud of being a sexy, gorgeous guy and I love sex!” “My body is a beautiful temple.” “I deserve to feel pleasure.” Reprogram your mind to get rid of the toxic legacy and give yourself the belief system that serves you.
Three steps: (1) Recognize and accept what you’re feeling; (2) Consciously love yourself; (3) Affirm a new belief to replace the old. Sometime around the year 200 AD a church father known as Clement of Alexandria wrote “We should not be ashamed [of] what God has not been ashamed to create.” Amen!