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Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,
Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

What We Get Wrong About Shame

Why is shame such a painful emotion?

I think there are two reasons that people aren't as "zesty" as they could be. One reason is that they have acquired misinformation about the emotion of shame. The second is that they don't have enough information about shame.

Why is accurate information about shame so important? Because unnecessary shame creates so much pain in our lives. In the words of one of our contemporary scholars of shame, Gershen Kaufman, "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within."

Misinformation about shame

Here's an example of misinformation about shame: One client of mine was so confused that in the beginning of our work I could not even use the word ‘shame' in session without causing a major rift. We learned that she thought that if she FELT shame, that meant she had actually DONE something shameful, and that her whole self was shameful.

When I talk about shame, I'm not talking about anyone actually DOING anything wrong. I'm talking about the FEELING and the thoughts that we are somehow wrong, defective, inadequate, not good enough, or not strong enough.

Lack of information about shame

While everybody feels shame, most of us don't recognize it in its many forms. We can experience fleeting shame at burping loudly in an elevator. Or we can feel chronic shame, experiencing that we, as a whole person, are flawed and inferior. We can feel different intensities of shame. The most intense is humiliation. Humiliation is so painful that we can think, "This is so painful I wish I could just die!"

We didn't know it until fairly recently, but infants are born hard-wired with the ability to experience shame. Here is an example of a scene that shows an infant's response to feeling shame. Baby is sitting on the kitchen counter in his infant seat. Mom steps out of the room for a minute. When Mom starts walking back into the room, Baby hears Mom's steps, and anticipates making joyful eye contact with her when she gets back. (The photo accompanying this post shows a baby's state of positive interest.)
But this time Mom is preoccupied, and when she comes back into the room, she does not meet Baby's eyes. The muscles in his neck then lose their strength, and his head drops down. He turns his face away from her, his eyes are cast downward and he may even drool. This is shame/humiliation. Mom did not meet his high interest; she did not make the connection. Baby's shame is the result.

Ways we may experience shame

I've listed below some variations of shame. We may not recognize some of the ways shame shows up. Each is different-both in what we think caused the experience and in what we think the consequences will be. But they are all shame experiences.
Shyness is shame in the presence of a stranger
• Discouragement is shame about temporary defeat
Embarrassment is shame in front of others
• Self-consciousness is shame about performance
• Inferiority is all-encompassing shame about the self

Common triggers for shame

Shame is commonly triggered by the following:
• Basic expectations or hopes frustrated or blocked
• Disappointment or perceived failure in relationships or work
• In relationships, any event that weakens the bond, or indicates rejection or lack of interest from the needed other
You've probably heard the phrase, "What you feel, you can heal." We have learned much about what is needed to work through and release shame. Recognition of our feeling of shame is the first step to mastering our shame reactions. And mastering our shame enhances our zestiness.

An exercise to help recognize shame

Describe in writing a specific incident from childhood in which you felt shame. Record what thoughts went with your feelings. Write the feelings and thoughts that you had during the incident. And those you had afterwards. What impulses did you have? Did you want to move towards others, or to move against them, or to move away from them?
Notice, if possible, where you felt the shame in your body. If the feeling had a color what would it be? What sound, color, texture, and temperature would it have?
Lastly, write down how you think that shame scene still influences you today. The impact can be either something you like or something you don't like.

An additional aid

I have been discussing how you can begin to manage your shame reactions while working alone. You can also manage your shame reactions by keeping your relational bonds strong. In any relationship there are bound to be conflicts of needs. And when you can communicate lovingly while you are in conflict, it helps reduce shame inducing reactions.

To aid you in those communications, you can get a free chapter in my ebook, How to Make Love through Deep Listening.

About the Author
Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

Jane Bolton, Psy.D., M.F.T., is a supervising and training analyst and adjunct professor at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.