Handling Shame – a Shift in Focus

How does a person go about handling shame, the ‘soul eating emotion’ (Carl Jung)?

Well, what is shame first of all, and how is it different from – say – ordinary guilt?

One difference lies in the pervasiveness of the emotion. The feeling of guilt tends to be isolated to a certain behavior or behaviors. Shame feels a lot more hopeless, because it carries with it the belief that we are fundamentally bad/rotten. Damagingly, there is also the accompanying sense that there is nothing we can do about it. 

This is why shame, which we often go to great lengths to disguise from other people, is called a ‘dangerous’ emotion. It is a deep internal state of inadequacy. 

We might never be able to stop ourselves from experiencing shame because our emotions, like our thoughts, are involuntary. However, we can all liberate themselves from the effects of shame.

That is the ‘shift in focus’ that this post is about: how to stop trying to get rid of shame through our various unconscious strategies and instead understand the truth about our shame, and eventually stop shame from defining who we are. 

Where shame started

Not everyone suffers with shame – it depends on certain factors, including the messages that you unconsciously consumed during your childhood. Those who suffer the most from shame, at some early point in their lives, absorbed the belief that they weren’t lovable without having to do or be XYZ. For instance, we might have adopted the belief that we need to be helpful in order to be loved.

A few impacts of shame

Although we all tend to focus on the behavioral effects of shame, it is worth paying attention to how shame feels physically in us. All emotions have an accompanying physical sensations. Learning to recognise those helps us to become more aware of when we are in the grips of a shame attack, and might even help us not to identify with it so much. I have used this technique myself to help me not identify with painful emotions. 

Some of the physical expressions of shame include the blushing face, a slumped posture and avoiding eye contact with people. Inside, we might feel like we want to crawl out of our own skin or a heaviness. 

What about how shame affects us behaviorally? If we allow our shameful feelings to define us, we’ll exhibit insecure behaviour to ourselves and others. There will be the sense that we are ‘covering up’ or ‘hiding’ something; a lot of very successful people, or highly supportive people, are covering feelings of shame. In fact, the cover up might be so elaborate that they might not even be aware of it themselves. 

That is the more subtle way that shame affects a person. Shame can be unsubtle, too. A person that feels crippling shame might hide themselves away from the world, and even look and talk smaller than they are. 

Handling shame unconsciously 

I already outlined one way we respond to inner states of shame: we paper over the cracks by projecting an image of success and strength. Unfortunately this means we can never relax and just be ourselves. 

Or, we may instinctively seek to numb and distract ourselves somehow. This doesn’t work as we cannot selectively numb emotions; when we avoid painful emotions, we also can’t be fully present to positive emotions. Or as the author Thomas Moore says, a death of one God is the death of them all. 

So our unconscious strategies for handling shame are doomed to fail and keep us stuck. 

Handling shame – a shift in focus

Once a person is aware that they are affected by shame, which is already a significant hurdle, the standard approach to handling it might be to build self-confidence through ‘self-improvement’, for example. But as this can reinforce the message that we are inadequate, it may not be lastingly effective. 

The author and shame researcher Brene Brown says that “shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” She suggests “if we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Her emphasis is on exploring shame skillfully, navigating shame with self-compassion and courageous vulnerability. 

So talking about shame with a trusted friend or family member is a good idea. What else?

Brown’s other suggestion, which will only be relevant to some shame sufferers, is to recognize the urge to isolate, which is a sign that shame identity as assumed control. Sometimes we can project shame onto others, being critical of them. When we find ourselves judging others and feeling separate, this is a signal that shame has taken hold.

This latter is a mindfulness-based awareness technique. Mindfulness is key to unlocking yourself from the effects of shame, because when you are mindful you are not caught up in the thought or the emotion. You’re just aware of its presence. 

What about the person that knows they cover up their shame through projecting a certain image? Handling shame for them means becoming aware more and more of how and when they are using that strategy. Slowly, they might try not doing that, and just seeing what happens. They might start thinking about what they’d really like to do if they already felt ‘enough’. 

Linked content from the archives 

The themes raised in this post are based on the idea that self-knowledge is our route to improved happiness. This post also uses some knowledge of the Enneagram types 2, 3 and 4, and also some techniques from Buddhism (mindfulness and acceptance).

To explore these ideas further, here are some links to related articles: 

Why Self-Knowledge is Hard to Come by – and What to Do about That!

Why Learning the Enneagram has Changed my Life

What is ‘Radical Acceptance’ and How do We do It?

How to Process your Emotions

Mindfulness saved Me from Myself (and it Can Save You, too)

10 Exercises for Developing your Self-Acceptance