Shame is not exactly a feeling.
Shame is an experience human beings have—like depression or anxiety. It is also often a numbing agent.
This is not a conscious process. You don’t think to yourself: “Oh, I will just feel ashamed in order to numb myself.” If you’ve experienced shame, which you probably have, you know it doesn’t really make you feel numb at all.
Here is how it works:
It’s an intense experience that is apt to take your attention away from the underlying, core emotion.
An illustration of this kind of diversion tactic is when someone says, “Well, I’m just a terrible person” to end or interrupt an argument.
All of the sudden, you have to deal with that statement rather than address the real topic of the disagreement. In the same way, shame diverts our attention away from the real issue: the core feeling that’s arising, which is usually an unpleasant one.
Does that make sense?
Brené Brown, author of best-selling books Rising Strong and Daring Greatly, identifies herself as a shame researcher. Her TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the most viewed TED talks out there (as mentioned earlier, it is at 30 million views). In her book Rising Strong, she says:
The difference between guilt and shame lies in the way we talk to ourselves. Shame is a focus on the self, while guilt is a focus on the behavior. That is not just semantics. There’s a huge difference between I screwed up (guilt) and I am a screw up (shame). The former is an acceptance of our imperfect humanity. The latter basically an indictment of our very existence.20
Shame is one of the most unbearable experiences for many people, along with loneliness.
If we look at what Brené Brown says, we can see why. Inherent in it is the message that there is something wrong with you; the person you are, at your core essence. This is why shame causes people to hide.
Normally, we don’t want other people seeing that we are a terrible human being. So if we don’t want other people to see that we’re a terrible person, we’re going to put those parts of ourselves that make us feel ashamed under deep cover.
How can shame be helpful?
It’s helpful to identify shame because doing so gives you the opportunity to know you’re holding a belief about yourself that’s disempowering.
We all hold these things inside; no one is special in this regard. The important thing to remember is that shame is helpful in the sense that it gives you the opportunity to correct something that’s stealing your personal power.
The wild part about shame is that it’s actually easy to disarm. Keep reading to see what I mean.
Ways to Identify Shame
We often don’t recognize when we hold an untrue belief about ourselves until it causes a problem, just as we may not recognize when we’re holding untrue beliefs in general.
The way we can identify shame is through our messaging system: our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
As a sensation in the body:
In the case of shame, you will no doubt feel an unpleasant sensation, which is probably something you’ll seek to mitigate. You might initially experience it as resistance.
Sometimes I have experienced it in the upper part of my stomach, like a “rotting” sensation, if that makes any sense. It might make you cringe or flush or even might make you make a sound out loud. You literally might not be able to stand it.
As a thought:
If it manifests as a thought, it might be a “hot” thought. In other words, your mind touches on to it and you immediately move away from it in the same way you’d quickly pull your hand back from a hot stove. Or once you touch on the thought that’s causing the shame, you might immediately be in a bad mood. Irritability might come up as a result because the irritability makes space and pushes people away. This is exactly what shame wants: no one to see it.
As a behavior:
It might look like hiding or omitting something or holding a secret about what you did, or why you think there is something wrong with you. You might cut off a conversation. Or you might avoid certain topics, people or places.
How to Deal with Shame
ONE: Identify that shame is present.
You can do this by following the clues in the section above.
TWO: Once you know shame is at hand, check your thoughts.
You want to find out what is untrue about what you might believe about yourself.
You want to move from thoughts like “I am a screw up” and restructure them toward thoughts like “I screwed up.” That way you are beginning to unhook the shame.
Here is what Brené Brown suggests in Rising Strong:
ONE: Talk to yourself in the same way you would talk to someone you love.
Yes, you made a mistake. You are human.
You don’t have to do it like anyone else does.
Fixing it and making amends will help. Self-loathing will not. (p 21)
TWO: Reach out to someone you trust—a person who has earned the right to hear your story and has the capacity to respond with empathy.
As Brené says, some of these actions may seem counterintuitive, especially the second action.
But really, as soon as we give whatever it is that is causing shame some light, it loses its hold on us.
It’s like magic.
Believe me, I have resisted it many times.
Every time I share what I’m going through with someone who has earned the right to hear my story, my shame dissolves.