We all experienced shame in childhood—whether it was from being teased or bullied on the playground, from always being the last one chosen to be on a team, from not knowing the answers when called upon in the classroom, or from being rejected by the girl or boy we had a crush on.
Shame is a powerful emotion. When you think back to the shaming experiences of your childhood it is likely that you are catapulted right back to those painful moments—almost as if you were experiencing them today. Shame is a feeling deep within us of being exposed and unworthy. When we feel shamed we want to hide. We hang our heads, stoop our shoulders and curve inward as if trying to make ourselves invisible.
Think about the most shameful experiences of your childhood. Can you still feel the shameful feelings? The sinking feeling in your stomach, the experience of suddenly feeling very small, inadequate or “less than” other people. The feeling of wanting to hide out of embarrassment?
We don’t like to think of those shaming experiences from our past because it is so painful and because it can interfere with our concept of ourselves today—the image we have tried so hard to create of being competent, equal to, and acceptable. But it sometimes doesn’t take much for us to revisit those painful feelings when something reminds us of a shaming experience. This is called “being triggered”—the phrase often used to describe the feeling of suddenly being reminded of the past so much so that it feels like it is happening in the present.
It happens something like this: You have put down your credit card to pay for a meal when the waiter comes back to tell you that your card has been declined. Now, most of us have experienced this before and can remember the familiar sensation of feeling shame. We feel exposed, embarrassed. We feel like everyone is looking at us and we wish we could disappear. Even if we are certain it is a mistake, we still feel the shame.
Now imagine that you had the experience in childhood of your parents never having enough money to buy the things you needed. Imagine that you were with your mother at the grocery store when the cashier told her how much the items cost and she discovered that she didn’t have enough money to pay for everything. Suppose you had to stand there mortified while she told the cashier to take back several items.
If anything like that happened to you in childhood, that dreaded moment at the restaurant of the waiter telling you your card has been rejected would be even more mortifying than for the average person. This is because you may have been triggered by those shaming moments from your childhood. So on top of what everyone else would feel in that situation, you feel the shame you felt as a child. That’s one of the ways shame stays with us, reminding us far too often of things we wish we could forget.
If you were to ask any group of people what they think the most destructive human emotion is, most would either say it is anger or fear. But shame may really be the most destructive human emotion. It can damage a person’s image of themselves in ways that no other emotion can, causing a person to feel deeply flawed, inferior, worthless, and unlovable. If someone experiences enough shame, he or she can become self-loathing to the point that he or she becomes self-destructive or even suicidal.
Shame is responsible for a myriad of problems, including but not limited to: self-criticism; self-blame; self-neglect; the belief that one does not deserve good things; self-destructive behaviors (cutting, alcohol and drug use); self-sabotaging behavior (starting fights with loved one, sabotaging jobs); perfectionism; and most important, continuing to repeat the cycle of abuse through either victim behavior or abusive behavior.
Think of one of the most shaming experiences of your childhood—the time you got caught cheating on a test and the teacher called you out in front of the class, the time your coach called you a screw-up in front of the whole team, wetting your pants and then having to walk in front of the whole class to the bathroom. Shaming experiences like that can stay with you for a lifetime.
While anyone can suffer from lingering shame, those who were abused in childhood tend to carry the most shame. Emotional, physical, and sexual child abuse can cause a victim to become so overwhelmed with shame that it can actually come to define the person and prevent her from reaching her full potential. It can cause someone to remain fixated at the age she was at the time of the victimization and it can motivate a person to repeat the abuse over and over in her lifetime.
Childhood sexual abuse is particularly shaming but it is not the only form of childhood abuse that shames a child. Many parents use shaming and humiliation to discipline their children, and emotional and physical abuse shame children as well. In fact, anytime a child is victimized in any way, he or she feels shame.
Abuse, by its very nature, is humiliating and dehumanizing. The natural reaction to abuse is a feeling of shame. Judith Herman described how childhood trauma creates a “damaged self:” “Traumatic events violate the autonomy of the person at the level of bodily integrity. The body is invaded, injured, defiled … shame is a response to helplessness, the violation of bodily integrity, and the indignity suffered in the eyes of another person.
Another reason a person feels shame whenever he or she has been victimized is that as human beings we want to believe that we have control over what happens to us. When that personal power is challenged by a victimization of any kind, we feel humiliated. We believe we “should have” been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless. This powerlessness causes us to feel humiliated—which leads to shame.
Many survivors of childhood abuse become what has been called “shame-bound”—meaning that shame has become a dominant factor in the formation of their personality. When this happens, their lives become characterized by shame. They live their lives in a constant state of self-criticism and self-blame or they become exquisitely sensitive to criticism from others and defend against it at every turn. Those who are prone to self-criticism often have a powerful critical inner voice that berates them constantly for imagined or real mistakes and demands that they be perfect. They set unreasonable expectations for themselves and are never satisfied with their performance or achievements. They find it impossible to take in compliments or even to take in positive expressions of love or admiration from others.
Those who defend against shame build up a protective wall with the goal of keeping any hint of criticism from others out. Strategies used for this purpose can include: being critical of others before they have a chance to criticize you, refusing to talk about any of your shortcomings, turning criticism around on the other person, accusing the other person of lying or exaggerating about their complaints about you and projecting your shame onto others.
How Do You Heal Shame?
Fortunately, there is a way of healing even our most painful shaming experiences. The answer? Compassion. Compassion is the antidote to shame. As it is with most poisons, the toxicity of shame needs to be neutralized by another substance if we are truly going to save the patient. Compassion is the only thing that can neutralize shame.
In the past few years, many people have taken an increased interest in the subject of compassion. This is no doubt at least partially due to a number of recent studies that have revealed surprising results concerning compassion. Researchers have found that from the day we are born to the day we die, the kindness, support, encouragement, and compassion of others has a huge impact on how our brains, bodies, and general sense of well-being develop. Love and kindness, especially in early life, even affect how some of our genes are expressed.
And there has been a lot of research recently on the connection between shame and compassion. What was particularly interesting to me was the most recent research in the neurobiology of compassion as it relates to shame—namely that we now know some of the neurobiological correlates of feeling unlovable and how shame gets stuck in our neural circuitry. Moreover, I discovered that due to what we now know about the neural plasticity of the brain—the capacity of our brains to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections—we can proactively repair the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion.
Until a few years ago, the subject of self-compassion had never been formally studied. But recently there has been some breakthrough research done on self-compassion by researcher and social psychologist Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin. Among other things, Neff discovered that self-compassion can act as an antidote to self-criticism—a major characteristic of those who experience intense shame.
It was found that self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. Self-criticism, on the other hand, has a very different effect on our body. The amygdala, the oldest part of the brain, is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment. When we experience a threatening situation, the fight-or-flight response is triggered and the amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol, mobilizing the strength and energy needed to confront or avoid the treat. Although this system was designed by evolution to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks—from ourselves and others. Over time, increased cortisol levels lead to depression by depleting the various neurotransmitters involved in the ability to experience pleasure.
Since I specialize in working with survivors of trauma, I have been particularly interested in the latest research showing that trauma survivors, particularly those with PTSD, benefit from incorporating elements of self-compassion into treatment. The practice of self-compassion has been shown to decrease posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, including, self-criticism, thought suppression, and rumination—phenomena associated with trauma and PTSD. A large majority of both victims and abusers of intimate partner abuse and family violence were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused in childhood and consequently, many suffer from PTSD.
How Does Self-Compassion Work?
Compassion comes from the Latin roots com (with) and pati (suffer), or to “suffer with.” When we offer genuine compassion, we join a person in his or her suffering. Self-compassion begins by connecting with one’s own suffering. Unfortunately, most of us don’t want to do this. We want to forget about our past suffering and put it behind us. By doing so, however, we don’t heal the emotions that accompany the suffering—the pain, fear, anger, and especially, the shame. The same holds true for painful and shaming experiences in the present. Instead of stopping to acknowledge our suffering in the moment, we try to move past it as soon as possible.
Self-compassion encourages us to begin to treat ourselves and talk to ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show a good friend or a beloved child. In addition, it helps us to feel less isolated and alienated from others. The more shame we feel, the more deficient we feel and in turn, the more separate we feel from others. But self-compassion helps us to recognize our common humanity—the fact that we have all done things that we feel ashamed about and that we all experience the same pain in difficult times.
I am currently writing a book on how compassion, especially self-compassion, can heal shame and I will be happy to share with you more information about this important subject in the future. For now, let me offer you this exercise:
- Think of one of your most shaming experiences from childhood. Now think of what you wish someone had said to you right after that experience. What would have been the most helpful and healing thing for you to hear at that time? Write this statement down on a piece of paper.
- Imagine that someone you care about very much, someone you admire, is saying those words to you now. Hear those words in your ears. Take those words into your heart. Notice how those words make you feel.
- Now say those words out loud to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words. How does hearing yourself say those words out loud make you feel?
If you are like most people, hearing those words of compassion can be very healing. It’s almost as good as if you heard them at the time. I’ve had clients cry when they imagined hearing the words from someone they love. In some ways, it doesn’t really matter that you are hearing them now rather than at the time. What matters is that you let the words in now—that you experience both the compassion from someone else and that you provide self-compassion toward yourself.
In essence, in order to heal your shame (past and present) you need to provide for yourself nurturing, encouraging words to counter the typically self-critical words you normally tell yourself whenever you make a mistake, disappoint yourself or someone else, or in some way fall short of your own or someone else’s expectations. Self-compassion involves telling yourself what you most need to hear at the moment—words of understanding and encouragement.
There are many other aspects of self-compassion. For now, just know that practicing self-compassion can help you:
- Begin to generate compassionate feelings toward yourself and self-soothe yourself in positive ways
- Begin to replace self-criticism with self-kindness
- Begin to create a nurturing inner voice to replace your cold, critical, bullying inner voice
- Begin to generate alternatives to your self-attacking thoughts, including stimulating underdeveloped pathways of the brain—pathways that stimulate inner support and warmth
- Help you to develop an appreciation for yourself, including feeling pride in your accomplishments—pride is the opposite emotion from shame
- Encourage you to practice accountability versus self-blame and self-correction versus self-criticism.