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Setting Healthy Boundaries: A Key to Healing Shame

Learning to set boundaries is key to healing shame.

What Is Shame?

Shame is not a feeling, although painful feelings accompany the experience.

Shame is not akin to guilt—a feeling of remorse or pain at having caused suffering to another or others. Of course, we do—and should—suffer pangs of guilt and conscience when we cause pain to another. But I differentiate that experience from the dynamic of shame.

I define shame as a dynamic with two parts. First, it arises when someone is hurt in any way (physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually) through overt or covert, intentional or unintentional, violence. That violence could be a physical assault, the violence of words and criticism, neglect, or the daily micro-aggressions suffered by peoples marginalized by mainstream culture.

Second, the violence is then witnessed by others whose actions trigger the shame dynamic by denying that the assault happened, dismissing it as significant as though the victim is exaggerating, or blaming the victim by asking what they did to provoke or deserve the mistreatment.

The Result of Early and Sustained Shaming

The most fundamental result of shame is the deeply held belief: Something is wrong with me. This belief sows the seed of a lack of self-trust: "I can't trust myself because something is wrong with me."

Accordingly, when we are hurt by another, we don't think: "That person was hurtful." "That person is mean." "That person is dangerous." "That person isn't loving." These thoughts would lead us to naturally set a boundary.

Instead, we think: "Maybe I'm not understanding where they're coming from." "I believe them when they say they didn't mean it." "Why I am so sensitive?" "But that person really is a good person," or “I need to learn to let go of difficult feelings, like hurt and anger."

The following can be a useful question: "Why do I enter these kinds of relationships or friendships?" But it can also be used to take the focus off the hurtfulness of the other and focus on the question: What's wrong with me?

The shamed person has been taught to not trust themselves, to not believe their own experience.

Not only do these denials and dismissals of our injury take hold in our psyche, but, because we think something is wrong with us, we proceed to look for ways to “fix” or “heal” ourselves by ridding ourselves of what we believe are indicators of what is wrong with us, from procrastination and lack of progress in areas of our life to relationship patterns, persistent painful feelings, and addictive tendencies.

When the shamed person comes to counseling, they don’t speak about hurts or abuses they have suffered; instead, they report on their pathologies, aspects of themselves that they believe are sick and the cause of their problems.

In short, they have internalized a shaming witness, one that disavows and invalidates their own true experience.

Healing Shame

When a person proceeds on the path of healing shame, they begin to recover their own experience (believe in themselves) and diminish the power and impact of the internalized shaming witness which denies, dismisses, and blames the person for their suffering.

To do this, they must begin protecting themselves from further shaming. Learning to protect oneself from shame always requires learning to set boundaries in one form or another.

Early shaming undermines one's natural self-protective impulses and the development of healthy boundaries.

There are three ways most people manifest this protection.

1. Resisting Assault

Sexual assaults are the most egregious, where someone who has power over their victim touches or objectifies them in a way that injures.

First responders may deny that a violation has happened, either by questioning whether it happened or whether it was harmful. Family, friends, or co-workers may dismiss the trauma by calling the victim overly dramatic or sensitive. Law enforcement or others working in the justice system may blame the victim by pointing to the way they dress, behave, or look. All of these cause shame.

Socially, many assaults occur in the form of microaggressions. "Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership."

Microaggressions are often shamed because they are witnessed by the dominant culture as insignificant or as not being an assault at all.

Resisting assault, a form of boundary setting often in the form of naming the assault itself, often takes courage or personal power to overcome the shaming power of denying and dismissing them.

2. Resisting Advice or Counsel

Many people reach out to others with their difficulties and sufferings, only to meet a series of suggestions, remedies, and advice. While this is often well-intended, when a person is not asking for this kind of help, they often experience the candor and vulnerability of their disclosure to be passed over in favor of the advice-giver’s need to feel helpful, intelligent, or caring. The person reaches out for a witness only to find their difficulties not truly seen.

It can be difficult to tell a person that we don’t want their suggestions, cures, or fixes.

This form of resistance to advice or counsel is a way of setting a boundary, protecting oneself from being shamed.

3. Saying "No" to Giving

We are often asked to give our time, energy, care, or other resources. If a “no” exists, if we are not honestly open to giving, then going along with an action can be injurious. We need an inner witness, one that says, no to giving.

For example, when someone accepts an invitation to visit family while knowing the visit may harm their mental health, they have failed to set a boundary.

Making matters worse, if the person comes to believe that the suffering that results from their acceptance is because of their personal psychology ( they haven’t gotten over their anger or hurt, they misunderstand, they get into unneeded conflicts, they don’t speak up for themselves), it infects the psyche with an insidious form of shame.

Blaming oneself for being hurt is an insidious form of self-shaming.

In this way, setting boundaries by saying “no” is an important learning step on the path of healing shame.

4. Eliminating People from One’s Inner Circle

A final method of setting boundaries, akin to the above, is to eliminate people from one’s inner circle. This action inherently takes one’s hurt as real, as serious, as important. It also treats the hurt as something to be rectified by changing one’s outer life instead of treating it as arising because something is wrong with one. In this way, this form of boundary setting is also critical to walking a path of healing shame.