The Insidious Nature of Shame and Finding Your Way Out (Part 1)

We are typically well aware of the variety of emotions and moods we can go through in our lives.  At any given moment, we may feel some variation of Mad, Sad, Glad, or Scared.  These were the “basic” emotions I taught kids when I first was practicing.  In fact, they are pretty good basic categories for anyone just trying to tune into their emotions.   


So, if these basics are the part we can learn to see and recognize, what feeds these emotions?  What can’t we see as easily?  What is at the roots of these more accessible feelings? 




What did you notice in yourself just then when you read that word? Did you hold your breath?  Did you slump?  Did you feel numb?  Did you just gloss over it ready to move on and keep reading?


Shame is a tricky emotion.  I call it insidious because it really creeps in slowly and subtly, almost stealth.  It doesn’t rise up quickly like rage, panic, or excitement.  It holds on tight just beneath the surface and colors one’s perception of themselves in their world and in their relationships. 



in·sid·i·ous [inˈsidēəs]


proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects: 





a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong

or foolish behavior.


I would like to expand upon this dictionary definition of shame by adding that someone can feel fundamentally flawed and feel shame over being who they are and not just over particular behaviors. 


Going Deeper

For a deeper understanding of shame, I love to turn to the work of Brené Brown, a researcher who studies and writes about vulnerability and shame.  She writes,

“I define 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. 

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

From Daring Greatly


So, if the idea we may hold about ourselves is that we are unworthy of love and belonging, something we instinctually need to have in place for survival, we may guard ourselves to the degree that we cannot truly be available for really being seen and known. 


How is Shame Insidious?


It causes us to hide

In fact, there may be more hiding of one’s true self and a feeling of watching the world around from within a bubble.  Being really seen can feel dangerous to someone who is trapped in shame.  One may fear that once someone gets close enough to really get to know them, they will be rejected, left, ridiculed, because their true, flawed self will be realized by the other.


It causes us to quiet ourselves

If someone is caught in shame they will likely keep quiet and not voice their thoughts.  Shame will convince someone that if they express their true voice (thoughts, feelings, needs, etc) again they will be rejected, ridiculed or feel humiliated.   


It causes us to doubt ourselves

In fact, if someone even considers sharing their thoughts, their shame they leave them doubting their thoughts, feeling like they are not accurate, and thus second-guessing themselves.  They will tend to defer to another’s thoughts as more “right” than their’s.


It has deep roots

Shame is a different kind of emotion because it builds up usually over a lifetime of experiences.  Whereas a more recognized emotion or mood can be the result of a situation, shame develops as a sense of self.  Often, we will find this development beginning right from the very beginning of life.  Certain early experiences with caretakers as well as family dynamics can set the stage for the deep roots of shame. 


Stay tuned for the rest of this series on Shame for more on how shame develops, how it may show up for you, and how to find healing from it.


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