Can Shame Be Your Friend?

Surprising ways that shame can serve you

Posted Jun 10, 2016

Pixabay image by Johnhain
Source: Pixabay image by Johnhain

We often hear how shame is toxic and destructive. As a psychotherapist, I continually see how toxic shame saps our energy and makes us feel flawed and defective. But can there be a healthy aspect to shame? Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin, who lead popular workshops for helping professionals, describe shame as “a primary emotion and a freeze state, which has a profound effect on personal development and relationship success.”

Believing that there is something inherently wrong with us, we’re robbed of the capacity to accept ourselves and affirm our basic goodness.

But shame also has a positive aspect. If we try to jettison shame each time it arises, we will not avail ourselves of its constructive potential.

It takes mindfulness and self-affirmation to notice shame without being ashamed of our shame. If we can differentiate destructive shame from friendly shame, we need not slide down the slippery slope of self-denigration. Rather than succumb to the shame spiral, we can learn something about ourselves.

Allowing Ourselves to Be Imperfect

We spill a glass of water in a restaurant and people turn around to stare at us. We feel that uncomfortable surge of shame as we imagine how we’re being perceived negatively.

If we tend to carry toxic shame, we may curse under our breath and tell ourselves how dumb we are. “I wasn’t paying attention! I feel badly about myself!” This is a paralyzing, destructive shame that freezes us.

Bringing some gentle mindfulness to the situation offers the possibility of repair and healing. We can notice the shame without getting swept away by it. If we can hold on to our self-worth during that embarrassing moment, we can remind ourselves that we’re an imperfect human being.

Making a mistake doesn’t mean that something is wrong with us; it simply means that we’re just like everyone else. We’re a part of the human condition.

A light sense of shame might offer relief. It’s a sober reminder that we don’t need to be perfect in order to be respected, accepted, or loved. A brief flash of shame makes us more supple and human. Maybe we can even find some humor around our imperfections. It’s ok to be ourselves with a full array of strengths and limitations.

Correcting Our Tendency to Blame Others

I was recently looking for a parking spot in a busy lot. A driver seemed ready to pull out of a space. As his car was idling without backing up, I noticed myself getting impatient. “Doesn’t he know I’m waiting? How oblivious to my needs!”

Finally, the spot opened up and I parked and did some shopping. I entered my car and then checked messages on my cell phone. As I was backing out, I noticed a car waiting for my spot! Yikes! I was doing the same thing that I criticized him for doing! I felt the shame of having been critical and judgmental for something that I’m quite capable of doing myself.

In this somewhat embarrassing moment, I smiled to myself, shook my head a bit, and noticed a touch of friendly shame. It got my attention—reminding me to be more accepting of others and not so self-centered. We all have reasons for doing what we do. We all get absorbed in our “stuff” sometimes. It’s part of the human condition. A small touch of shame can make us more humble.

Being Mindfully Gentle with Ourselves

My shame in the above example was a good reminder to be more gentle with myself and others. We’re all a little insensitive to others’ needs sometimes. We don’t have total control over refraining from doing things that hurt people sometimes. But we do have control over noticing the shame that tells us when we’ve crossed someone’s boundaries.

Such healthy shame can get our attention. Perhaps we notice this instructive shame as we’re about to say something hurtful or send a nasty email. Or, if we’ve violated someone’s dignity with a harsh word or insensitive action, we can apologize and find some way to repair broken trust. Such friendly shame may help us become more empathically attuned to each other. Gradually, we can respond to others with greater wisdom and love, without needing the shame to remind us to be more sensitive.

Mindfulness practice is a helpful path to notice what’s happening inside us when we’re reacting automatically rather than responding with a more conscious choice. We can gently turn our attention to how we’re feeling inside when someone does or says something that riles us. Perhaps old, toxic shame is getting activated, which might trigger an angry reaction or shutting down.

Toxic shame is a debilitating emotion that stifles our well-being and creativity. Healthy shame arises from something in us that wants to stay positively connected to our fellow humans. From a survival standpoint we need to be connected and cooperative if our tribe is to survive. As author Laura Markham puts it:

"In its mild form, that feeling of shame is nature's way of insuring that humans learn to live with other humans and follow the rules of the tribe."

Shame tells us when we’ve strayed into a self-centered stance that disconnects us from the tribe and threatens our collective well-being.

I invite you to notice shame as it arises—probably many times a day. Is it the toxic variety that diminishes you? Or might there be a redeeming aspect to it? A small dose of friendly shame is sometimes a healthy thing—useful for personal development, repairing broken trust, and building a healthy community and society.

© John Amodeo

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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book about relationships as a spiritual path, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.

Pixabay image by Johnhain