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The Stinky Cheese Smell of Shame

How shame stays with us.

Key points

  • Shame can be so ingrained in our lives from an early age that we don’t appreciate how powerfully it affects us in the present.
  • The “cheese” of shame is always there, slowly rotting, and smelling worse and worse over time.
  • Even after shame is addressed, the memory of its “smell” and the feelings it caused will remain.

Shame lies at the heart of many of the issues that bring people to therapy. The dictionary definition of shame is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Shame is something that can be so ingrained in our lives from an early age that we don’t appreciate how powerfully it affects us in the present. It can become an essential part of our personality, completely hidden but guiding our lives, until we recognize it and start to talk about it.

Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is the feeling we get when we do something bad, something we know is wrong. It’s something we can fix by doing better next time. We can give ourselves another chance. Shame is much more diabolical. Shame makes us feel not that we did something bad, but that we are something bad. Instead of feeling like we did something wrong, we feel like we are something wrong. Shame is like a little piece of cheese hidden deep down inside us in a crevice that is difficult to find and hard to reach. It fell into a crack in our psyche at an early age, and over the years it started to go bad and stink. Maybe when we were children we were exposed to anger, made to feel worthless, powerless, that instead of doing things that were wrong we were in fact wrong ourselves. Things as simple as spilling a glass of milk at the dinner table that, depending on the parents’ or caregivers’ reaction, can go from making us feel like we did something wrong, to making us feel that we are a bad child who can do nothing right and there is inherently something wrong with us, which is proved by events such as this. Shame starts early.

Each experience like this is like hiding little pieces of stinky cheese deep in the consciousness of our true selves. The cheese of shame is always there, slowly rotting, and smelling worse and worse over time. The irony is, even though this shame smell is so powerful, by the time we become adults we’re used to it. We’ve lived with it so long we don’t even notice the smell anymore. But unconsciously, we’re completely aware of it. Deep down we know we stink, and we act like we know we stink, and we expect other people in our lives to smell this stink and wrinkle their noses at us. To think we are bad. To think we stink. For shame!

But here’s the thing: Other people can’t smell our cheese. It’s not even on their radar. They can, however, sense that we smell the cheese. They see us act in ways that make it clear we think we stink. The way we protect or demean ourselves, the attitude we have about ourselves, and our inability to express our vulnerability or provide emotional support for our partners—these are all manifestations of us being guided by the stinky cheese smell of shame. People around us, friends, family, and loved ones don’t smell the cheese anymore. In fact, we might do such a good job searching for the cheese, examining the cheese, talking about the cheese, we might emotionally clean the cheese smell out completely. But the truth is, the smell will always linger in our memories. We have lived with that cheese for so long, building walls around it, hiding from it, feeling bad about it, so the smell will always exist in our minds.

In working with clients on this issue, I try to find situations where the smell of shame might have guided them towards conflict and tension and anxiety in the past. Times when we feel like we stink, and that other people can smell this, and that other people will know we stink and think less of us, that people in our lives that we love will think we are bad people because we smell. We explore the shameful feelings, and through that process we are able to find the metaphorical cheese and clean it up, to get rid of the stinky crumbs. We use lavender-scented cleaning products and a nice damp sponge and end up with a sparkling inner fridge.

But just because we’ve found the stinky cheese and cleaned it doesn’t mean we’re free of it. That smell was with us a long time, and the feelings it caused will always be with us. The goal of therapy is to become aware of these feelings and learn to accept them but not let them dictate our lives. We can’t get rid of shame, but we can understand it, accept it, and not let it define us. We can remind ourselves that even though the cheese is gone, the smell stays with us. But look at the people around you. They don’t look like they just got a whiff of stinky cheese. They aren’t wrinkling their noses at you. They only smell your lavender-scented cleaning product. But we’ll always remember the smell of the stinky cheese, even after we eliminate its power to influence our lives.