Is Unrecognized Shame Keeping You Stuck?
Healing toxic shame may liberate you.
Posted May 31, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Shame is the belief that one is inherently unworthy of love. It can operate in the background of one's life, suppressing one's energy.
- Shame can keep someone from revealing their authentic feelings, and in some cases, cover up their vulnerability with bravado.
- Gradually, shame can be healed through exploration and working with a therapist.
We know that when feelings are stifled, they don’t disappear. They operate unconsciously, suppressing our energy and contributing to anxiety or depression — or just a vague sense of discontent. Oftentimes, we can’t pinpoint what’s making us feel less connected and alive. One emotion in particular is adept at hiding out in a half-dormant state that reduces our joie de vivre (joy of living) and is easily activated when conditions trigger it. This is the stubborn emotion of shame.
The definition of shame
Of all our human emotions, perhaps shame is the most hidden, the most tenacious, and the most challenging to work with. Workshop leaders Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin refer to shame as “a powerful, universal, mysterious emotion,” which is incredibly painful and destructive. Everyone has shame operating in them. The more we try to deny or suppress it, the greater the debilitating effect on our lives.
Researcher and author Brene Brown offers the best definition of shame I’ve encountered. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
How shame presents itself
Interestingly, Brene Brown connects shame with relationships. Gershen Kaufman makes a similar point in his book, Shame: The Power of Caring. He describes shame as “the breaking of the interpersonal bridge.” Since shame colors how we relate to people, if we believe we’re flawed or unworthy, this gnawing sense of shame affects how we relate to people — or how we keep distant.
Or we may have constructed our lives in a way to avoid facing this intensely painful shame. We might avoid speaking up or taking risks that might expose us to failure. Some surveys suggest that the fear of public speaking is greater than the fear of death!
Feeling unworthy can show up in various ways. We don’t raise our hand in class, even when we know the answer. We don’t reveal our authentic feelings and needs in our relationships. We’re afraid that if we show any vulnerability, such as sadness, fear, or hurt, we’d face the dreadful fate of being laughed at, humiliated, and rejected.
Some people are quick to offer their thoughts and opinions, even when their beliefs are erroneous or misguided. Their personality is infused with a bravado quietly designed to cover up their underlying shame (arrogant politicians come to mind!). They are compellingly persuasive to many people, but their over-confident bravado is concealing a deeply hidden shame. For those discerning enough to see through it, the emperor has no clothes.
It can be illuminating to consider the power of shame to shape who we’ve become. A friend recently told me how she remembered being a happy, confident, effusive child until she was four years old. Then one day as her mother was dressing to go to the hospital to give birth to a second child, she told her daughter she had something important to say: “You are a spoiled child. From now on, you must not expect so much attention from your parents.” Ouch!
Not even knowing what it meant to be “spoiled,” my friend went into shock. She began to doubt and suppress her true feelings, and to ponder how she might reshape herself to meet her parents' approval, Sadly, the interpersonal bridge had been broken by her mother’s shaming rejection, which squashed her spontaneity and arrested her development.
It was very freeing for her to discover how shame was the unrecognized feeling that had been holding her back. Bringing attention to the shame enabled a deeply held knot to untangle as she newly affirmed herself. She realized how the background feeling of shame did not reflect who she really is — it was programmed from how her mother related to her. This insight opened a new world of possibilities — to discover and allow herself to be who she really is, including reclaiming the spontaneous, childlike part of herself.
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Discovering shame within yourself
During a relaxed and tranquil moment, gently turn your attention inside. Do you notice a background feeling of bewilderment, sorrow, lethargy, self-doubt, social anxiety, or some other uncomfortable feeling? There could be many reasons for this, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual. But consider whether “shame” resonates for at least some part of what you’re experiencing inside — that gnawing sense that there’s something wrong with you.
If so, it might serve you to uncover and explore the shame that was conditioned in you — and to realize that this is not who you really are. Perhaps by reading more about it, listening to audiotapes (such as those by Sheila Rubin and Bret Lyon, mentioned above) or working with a therapist to resolve it. Gradually healing your shame can be a step toward allowing you to recognize and cherish the beauty, spontaneity, and goodness of who you really are.
© John Amodeo
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.