One of the key reasons that shame isn’t talked about in a lot of mental health settings is because it’s like a chameleon: it blends/binds with other emotions. Anger or depression can ‘take over’ in order to protect an individual from feeling shame.
Education and awareness on the pervasiveness and prevalence of shame are important for us to move forward. To get the ball rolling, I thought I’d share my experiences with shame and some of the research I’ve found helpful in my own (lifelong) healing journey.
The difference between shame and guilt
This is important because guilt is, in essence, a feeling of ‘I have done something bad’, whilst shame, particularly toxic shame, is a feeling of ‘I am bad’.
While guilt is an emotion that a person feels can be alleviated by taking action – i.e. “if I say sorry to her, this feeling will go away” – shame instead fills the individual with a sense of powerlessness and helplessness.
Understanding and managing a ‘shame attack’
Some individuals have been so severely shamed, or have such a damaged sense of self, that talking about their shame (whilst they’re experiencing a shame attack) runs the risk of retraumatisation.
When an individual is in a shame spiral, the different parts of the brain not only disconnect from one another and go ‘offline’, their fear response also kicks in, leaving a perceived sense of danger (which is often mismatched to their surroundings, as they may simply be at a quiet cafe with only a few people around).
In my experience, during a shame attack, the first action someone could take is to focus on reintegrating the brain again by techniques that can work to calm the amygdala down, such as:
- deep breathing
- moving away from the source of shame/trauma
- hot shower and resting in bed
- going for a walk, or
- anything a person feels would help them ground back into reality.
Healing from shame
There are several ways to heal from shame, some of which (from experience) I feel are more effective than others. While it’s definitely important to be vulnerable and share your feelings with someone who can validate as well as show unconditional positive regard, I have had to learn the hard way that there is definitely a time and place to do this.
Often clients can feel hopeless when they feel that they are not benefitting from therapies utilising cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approaches, which relies on the use of the prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, this is often the part of the brain that shuts down in a spiral and can make it difficult for a person to reduce their feelings of shame.
Ironically, the lack of perceived therapy progress may often fuel an internal sense of being fundamentally flawed (which is the essence of toxic shame). This is where somatic-based and relational/interpersonal-based therapies may be more effective.
Learning patience and grace
The biggest takeaway, I feel, is that the path to freedom from shame is a lifelong one. I am slowly coming to accept that I still have a long and painful journey ahead and it likely will be the same for many others too.
The first step is to recognise that you struggle with shame, and from there, you can begin to seek out the help you need to begin healing from it. Shame is often rooted in the way we attack ourselves. Spiritually, it’s also known as a “split within ourselves” or a “disowning” of our very own psyche, where anger is internalised.
Learn to send shame back to where it belongs, make a commitment to stop internalising experiences and put up appropriate boundaries to protect yourself from further shame. Most of all, always be kind to yourself! Developing tools and practices to come to your own assistance and be your own best friend is a great way to manage shame long term.
For further reading on the topic of shame, check out the following authors:
- John Bradshaw
- Alice Miller
- Pia Mellody
- Bassel van der Kolk
- Peter Levine
- Patrick Carnes
- Pete Walker
- Robert Firestone
- Gabor Mate
- Dan Siegel
- Stephen Porges
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