Stop Shame in Its Tracks

Understand feelings instead of shutting them down.

Posted May 20, 2020

Understanding an emotion instead of shutting it down is important. A person who is ashamed of a feeling may, in turn, experience shame regarding who he or she is. Feelings are an essential and sacred component of a person. Fully understanding them allows a person to know himself or herself, shed shame, and act on the emotion in a healthy way.

Negative emotions such as anger, envy, and sadness, are necessary and human. Remaining in touch with these emotions when they intensify allows a person to understand them. Alternatively, if a person shames himself or herself for a negative feeling, the person surrenders the opportunity to glean insight and feel better.  

For example, say Katie, an experienced tennis player, and her husband Rick, a newbie, are taking a tennis lesson. At the end of the lesson, Rick maintains long and competitive rallies with the instructor. Katie immediately feels bad. She asks herself, “Why do I feel bad?” Katie realizes she is envious of her husband’s ability to sustain points with the teacher.

Reflexively, she shames herself for feeling jealous, but stops herself. She reminds herself that her feelings are important and need to be understood. She resists shaming herself for the emotion and reflects. Katie realizes it is natural to hurt a bit when someone else is succeeding and you are not. Katie feels less ashamed.

At the end of the rally, Katie says to Rick, “You are playing incredibly well. I am so jealous. Good job!” Because Katie tolerated, accepted, and examined her feeling state, she was able to identify and verbalize it. Rick is flattered and thanks her for the compliment. They play on, happily.  

Alternatively, if Katie shames herself for feeling envious, the negative feeling is compounded and overwhelms her. She feels deep shame about who she is and remains quiet and uncommunicative for the remainder of the lesson. Punishing herself, Katie decides she does not deserve to share a lesson with Rick and refrains from agreeing to a future lesson. Rick senses Katie’s withdrawal and fears he did something wrong. He asks Katie, but she cannot talk about it because she is paralyzed with shame. They spend the day apart.

Recognizing, identifying, and verbalizing a negative feeling state helps a person do something positive with a negative emotion. A person who can say how he or she feels is less likely to act on the feeling in a destructive manner.

A third possibility is that Katie unconsciously defends against experiencing intensely negative emotions. She is out of touch with the uncomfortable feeling states that threaten her self-esteem. As a result, Katie fails to recognize her jealousy and instead lashes out at Rick. She slams her racket and storms off the court. In the car, she calls Rick selfish and accuses him of hogging court time with the instructor. She remains angry at him for the remainder of the day and refuses to examine her own feelings and actions.

When a person is unable to recognize a negative feeling state because of a rigid defensive structure, he or she is unconsciously implementing robust deflection, projection, denial, and distortion.

For instance, Katie deflects accountability for her jealousy, projects blame onto Rick, and distorts the situation in order to perceive herself as the victim in the scenario. Naturally, Rick is upset and confused. He defends himself and asks Katie to look at herself. Katie refuses and uses Rick’s words against him. Ironically, she accuses Rick of being cruel because she has rewritten history in her mind.

Unfortunately, this last scenario is the worst. Conflict in the relationship is not resolved because Katie is overly defensive and, thus, out of touch with her uncomfortable emotions. Rick’s perspective is rebuffed, and the interaction is distorted so Katie believes she is the victim. In this case, it may be necessary to encourage Katie to seek the assistance of a therapist who may help her decrease her defensiveness.

Feelings are rarely wrong. It is how a person acts on them. Understanding negative feeling states help a person gain insight, alleviate guilt, and act on the emotion in a way that brings about closeness in a relationship. Recognizing, identifying, and verbalizing negative emotions allows for a positive resolution of conflict. Both parties are in touch with how they feel and refrain from continually deflecting accountability and projecting unfair blame onto one another.

The roots of shame often stem from a person’s attachment relationship. If a person had a parent who shamed him or her for feeling differently than the parent, the person may continue to shame himself or herself for negative feeling states.

For example, say Lisa bombed her softball tryout and is intensely disappointed. When she and her mom drive home from the ballpark, her mom says, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You did this to yourself. You should’ve worked harder.” This sentiment compounds Lisa’s emotional pain and conveys a message that Lisa should be ashamed of how she feels.

On the other hand, say her mom empathizes, “You are disappointed. I would be too. I understand. Keep at it, honey. You’ll get it.” This statement honors Lisa’s feeling state and empowers Lisa. Lisa does not feel paralyzed by shame, but rather feels understood and less alone because her mom “gets it.” Unencumbered, Lisa moves forward and tries again.

A parent who honors feeling states, but corrects behaviors is a parent who may cultivate a strong sense-of-self in a child. For example, saying to a child, “You are mad. I get it, but you cannot throw your backpack. Please go pick it up,” illustrates a parent who addresses negative behavior while honoring a child’s feeling state.

Feelings are rarely wrong; it is how a person acts on them that may be the problem. Attempting to recognize, accept, and understand negative emotions may assist a person to decrease shame, remain close to others, and feel whole.