Shame is the feeling or belief that we are somehow flawed and unworthy of love and belonging. If we are capable of connection and empathy, we are vulnerable to shame. It is a common human experience. Unlike guilt, which is the conviction that I did something bad, shame is the feeling that I am bad. Shame often isolates and immobilizes us, stunting our growth and inhibiting connection for fear of being unloved or unwanted.
Early in my counseling career I believed that shame was fundamentally toxic, serving no purpose except to sabotage our growth and isolate us from others. As I developed professionally, I began to see that, like most human experiences, shame serves a purpose. This is especially true in the context of trauma.
Belonging and connection are human needs. We are herd animals, designed to live in community. In fact, our survival is often influenced by acceptance by others. From the time we are born, our survival is heavily impacted by whether or not our caregivers like us. We desire to belong in large part because it keeps us safe. However, there are times when those we belong to are unsafe. Children who grow up with abusive or unpredictable caregivers, for example, are forced to choose between connection and safety.
Children are developmentally egocentric, assuming that when things happen, traumatic or otherwise, they are responsible. If their environment is abusive or unsafe, children will assume it is because of them. This will contribute to a deep sense of shame. For example, “My parents neglect me because I am unworthy of love” or “It is my fault I was abused”. As an adult these beliefs linger and are often very difficult to contradict. We develop core beliefs when we are young that influence us over the course of our lives.
When working with adult survivors of childhood trauma, we will confront these core beliefs directly. However, I noticed that even with CBT and EMDR (2 interventions helpful in reframing beliefs), there seems to be a loyalty to shame for many individuals. There is a payoff in holding onto shame. Understanding the benefit of shame means understanding the alternative.
If I endured a traumatic even due to my unworthiness then I am responsible. Shame means responsibility. If I am responsible for what happens then I can convince myself that I can avoid this same hurt in the future. I might do this by sabotaging relationships or isolating myself, avoiding connection. I use shame to increase my sense of safety and control. I know this is sounds counterintuitive, but assuming responsibility for my trauma can feel safer than acknowledging that evil exists. In fact, I could do everything right and trauma still happens. That fact alone is devastating. It is devastating to know that parents will abuse their children by no fault of the child or that sexual assault happens by no fault of the victim.
In fact, I believe this is why we often blame victims (consciously or unconsciously). If I can pinpoint where things went wrong—your location, what you drank, what you wore—then I can convince myself that this would never happen to myself or my family because I will avoid those things. Again to believe that I can do everything “right” and still be hurt is often incredibly painful to acknowledge.
Another benefit of shame is that it protects us from other unsafe feelings. For example, to acknowledge that I am worthy of love and my trauma was not my fault means to assign responsibility elsewhere. Assigning responsibility elsewhere often results in anger. If I have learned based on my experience that anger is unsafe or bad then I may choose shame (it is me) over anger (it is you). One example of this from my practice was an individual who felt deep shame due to a history of pervasive abuse from her caregivers. When we began to confront the long-held belief that this was her fault she began to experience anger for the injustice she experienced. Like shame, anger serves a purpose. It motivates action. The world changes with people get angry enough to do something. However, this individual survived through compliance, meaning the energizing emotion of anger feels incredibly risky and unsafe. For her, moving from shame means moving through anger and it is scary work.
This leads me to the final benefit of shame that I have identified. Shame allows us to stay put. In other words, if I am fundamentally unworthy then I might stop trying. You may not recognize this as a benefit, but if an individual has survived through avoidance, compliance and freezing, then movement may feel too risky. To let go of shame means to let go of responsibility for the ways others have hurt me but it also means to take responsibility for my actions and relationships moving forward. I can choose to connect. I can choose to accept feedback and grow in my behavior and thought.
Shame inhibits growth because of the belief that I am unworthy. Because of my beliefs about my unworthiness feedback feels like a personal attack or rejection. Instead of admitting mistakes or accepting feedback I will hide mistakes and defend against feedback.
The antidote to shame is compassion–toward self and others. Compassion recognizes that we all have innate worth yet we are imperfect at the same time. Compassion allows for safety and growth. It also requires connection which can feel risky. For the individual stuck in shame healing requires taking risks to confront old beliefs about self, accepting and rejecting responsibilities based on true and healthy beliefs, and leaning into the discomfort of connection.
Healing from shame is complicated and often lifetime work. We all experience shame on different levels and this blog is only an introduction. If you find often feel unworthy, hide mistakes, avoid negative feedback, or distance yourself in relationships stay curious about how you experience shame and seek professional support if needed. Take care of you.