The power of shame
11 July 2022
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”
- Brené Brown
Shame is one of the most difficult emotions to deal with and it’s one that we’re often not fully aware of even when we’re feeling it.
Clients who come to therapy often find that there is shame somewhere in the mix, when it comes to dealing with unhealthy behaviours they want to address.
I think shame is a particuarly difficult emotion to deal with because it is often hidden underneath other emotions, such as anger or a compulsion to withdraw. It’s an extremely powerful feeling that can corrode our very sense of internal self-esteem. It is also an emotion that is often not talked about.
But because shame often underlies a lot of our self-destructive behaviour, if we don’t find a way of dealing with it then we’re likely to remain trapped in some form.
When I talk about shame I’m basically talking about ‘toxic’ shame rather than ‘healthy’ shame. Healthy shame is when we do something that is opposed to our personal values. For example, we may remain quiet when someone is being bullied and then later on feel some shame at our behaviour.
Toxic shame, on the other hand, is a deeper feeling of internal worthlessness, even though we may not have done anything wrong at all. Toxic shame is often related to very harsh internal self-judgments, which are frequently linked to the negative judgments we experienced as children from adults around us.
Anger, sexuality, jealousy and vulnerability are some of the emotions or energies in which shame is commonly present. This can relate to how our care givers treated these aspects of us when we were children.
A child who is shamed when he shows jealousy or anger may well learn to repress those emotions as he grows up. But these feelings are normal parts of being human and so, now and again, they will find a way out and leave him feeling toxic shame.
One of the reasons shame is so powerful and so painful is that, when it is present, it reminds us of those childhood experiences when our parents or other important adults communicated to us that there was something deeply wrong with us. Because we depended on those adults, the feeling of shame brings with it existential fears of survival.
Therapy can help with shame because it provides a space in which the shame can be named - this is often a big step for the client who has, until then, not been fully aware of the shame.
When we name something it generally loses something of its power, or at least it means we are able to notice it when it is there and gradually understand what role it plays in our life.
Over time some of the client’s shame can begin to be transformed through increased self-compassion and self-acceptance. This is not a linear process but one that gradually evolves through the relationship between client and therapist and, utlimately, the client’s relationship with him or herself.
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