Today I want to write about a supremely unpopular topic: shame.
I like talking about the unspeakable because to not do so makes me a bystander to harmful dynamics. I think that we can’t heal what we don’t bring into the light. And God[dess] knows, we have a lot of healing to do in this society.
Shame is a strong undercurrent in our individual and collective suffering that feeds so much pain and struggling. Despite it being at the core of so many issues, this hard-to-feel emotion is often overlooked on our healing journeys. Shame is pervasive because its nature is to hide in the corner, curl in a ball, and shut down feelings. To tend to it is to move through layers of psychological defenses designed to protect us from that which feels intolerable. These walls can look like addictive behaviors, denial, projection onto others, and so much more. Once we get through the walls we have to bow down to shame’s level and tenderly listen.
These are some major reasons people come to therapy that have shame at their root:
- Low Self-Esteem: She berates herself for making a single error in her work among countless well-delivered and well-received contributions. She thinks shame-based beliefs like: “I am a failure. I’m not good enough. I can’t get it right” and feels the sinking feeling in her chest. To call it low-self esteem is okay, but to call it shame would be more to the heart of the matter. Low self-esteem is a cover term for shame.
- Social Anxiety: He is freaking out in the bathroom during the party his partner encouraged him to join. He’s feeling tightness in his chest, sweaty palms, and a clenched jaw. He has muddled thoughts, but a few that stand out clear “There’s something wrong with me. I suck. I am an outsider. No one likes me.” While this challenge may seem on the surface level to be about the emotional quality of anxiety, really at its core are un-feelable feelings around being rejected, socially excluded, and ostracized AKA shame.
- Depression: They are laying in bed knowing on one hand that they should probably get up and start the day, but on the other hand all they want to do is curl up under the covers and hide from life. They have no motivation to answer the phone when their friend rings, no energy to get up and go for a hike like they used to love doing. They feel small, worthless, hopeless. Underlying conditioned beliefs like “I don’t matter. I am a waste of space. I will never amount to anything” all have shame at their root. Persistent feelings of shame can contribute to nervous system collapse and overall lack of vital life energy.
- Addiction: She is meeting up with some friends to grab a beer even though she knows she wanted to work on her art project after class. Next thing you know she is having Round 6 and past the point of self-control. Why did she choose this instead of her art? One explanation is that drinking with her friends is a time she feels belonging instead of shame. Each sip of beer is like a warm hug to come home to. Perhaps the drinks (or other drug/behavior of choice) initially quiet the denigrating tone of the internalized shaming voice, although eventually, they may amplify it.
Many other mental health struggles have shame as a core component – body image challenges, persistent self-doubt, dissociation, relationship issues, disordered eating, difficulty with routines, and self-harm are a few that come to mind.
Pay attention to this emotion, when you feel ready, and your healing process will be catalyzed.
Shame is fundamentally a social emotion. This energy-in-motion evolved in our ancestors to strengthen social ties, curb anti-social behavior, and encourage the repair of social ruptures. Unfortunately, the global pandemic of unaddressed relational, sexual, and sociocultural traumas have led to a cascade effect of culture-wide shame.
It feels important to me, as a strong proponent of shame-alleviation culture, to de-stigmatize being a mental health professional with a trauma history of my own. Tara Brach, Ph.D., Jamie Marich, Ph.D., and Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D. are three mental professionals I admire who have publicly shared some of their stories. After all, who of us humans get out unscathed in this world? I do not share my trauma to gain attention, profit, or signal virtue. I do so in the spirit of the #MeToo movement, which overlooks a huge group of sexual violence survivors, I believe due to pervasive collective shame. To stigmatize a certain kind of trauma history is basically to shame one for being a human who’s been harmed.
So, I choose to share the following personal story not out of personal gain, but rather as a way to relate to you all and offer a glimpse into how relational trauma and social oppression foster the growth of toxic shame in the human body/mind, and to offer a pathway for clearing away the muck and stepping into self-worth. Current statistics estimate that at least 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys are sexually abused before they become adults. Unfortunately, due to shame, very few people are actually talking about this global pandemic.
As a small girl, my mom’s now-dead-from-a-life-of-alcoholism boyfriend would play wrestle with me. It was fun. We’d jump up and down on the bed, and he gave me the wrestling name “The Pelican.” He got me comfortable with physical touch, I was used to it being a game. I now know this is called grooming. I trusted him and he took advantage of my girlhood open-heartedness. My body did what it needed to protect me, completely froze up, pretended it wasn’t happening, or acquiesced and went along with the messed up “games” he’d make up. I now know this is called dissociation. He told me to never tell or I’d be in trouble, that it was our “little secret”. So I obeyed as good little girls do. He utilized the complicated socioemotional pathways of trust/belonging and shame/exclusion to abuse me. Even as I write this, after years of therapy, the ashamed part of me trembles for sharing the secret. My inner-resourced part puts a hand on my little heart and says “it’s okay, you are safe now, this is his shame, not yours” and “your truth is power.”
Even when my other family members laughed about a book called “My Body is Private,” that somehow ended up in our home, I laughed along and didn’t tell. Meanwhile, as I held this secret inside I also kept inside feelings of disgust, fear, anger, and grief of the loss of my innocence. With nowhere to go, they went inside and grew into shame. I never got to hear “It wasn’t your fault” until decades later. So I blamed myself; “If only I’d known better… if only I’d said something.” When I did tell a few trusted friends as a teenager, they were dumbstruck. They responded with silence and perhaps their own shame, as we have all been conditioned to do in the shadow of oppressive patriarchy. This confirmed to me, although I now know this was irrational, that speaking this truth was shameful. I felt it was me, my experience, my voice, and my choices that engendered this discomfort in others. I frantically found ways to cover up everyone’s discomfort and care-take for them. I now know wholeheartedly that this was my abuser’s fault, that I was just an innocent child, and the burden of the sad story was his to be accountable for. Unfortunately, the brain’s misguided attempt to gain control over a helpless situation can breed shame and negative self-beliefs.
Classism, ableism, and the degradation of social networks by capitalist and colonialist forces create conditions for shame to fester. Shame is not just an individual problem, it is a culture-wide phenomenon.
My story was compounded by factors beyond my personal and familial situation. Classism, ableism, and the degradation of social networks by capitalist and colonialist forces create conditions for shame to fester. Shame is not just an individual problem, it is a culture-wide phenomenon. For example, systemic racism and ongoing police brutality towards black people can create shame-based messaging that those lives don’t matter. Hence the power of the slogan and movement “Black Lives Matter.”
Fortunately, I have been privileged to encounter healing forces in my life that helped me move beyond my circumstances. A guidance counselor who saw past my problem behaviors encouraged me to apply for the Sidney Topol scholarship for low-income Bostonians in the STEM field, which paved my way to higher education and into new communities. Moments in scholarship-funded dance classes taught me to connect to my body and learn that it could be powerful, purposeful, and effective. Going to the beach with my Dad taught me to connect with the healing power of nature, as did my Mom’s love of animals. My Nana reflected my innate goodness to me, and women’s circles with trusted friends taught me that I wasn’t alone and that truth-telling is powerful. A scholarship-funded trip to Israel showed me the legacy of my Jewish roots and reconnected me to a community that had been lost through assimilation. Working as a community organizer in my hometown with other low-income youth fostered feelings of pride, empowerment, and connection.
I found my way to yoga, in which the practice of noticing what is going on inside of you blasted me open in what I now know is called flooding. The emotion of shame, which I so effectively kept at bay all those years through avoiding deep intimacy, being preemptively hard on myself, and suppression, rose to the surface when I was encouraged to “feel what was there.” I made my way to EMDR therapy to work through it. It was this experience that led me to be passionate about creating trauma-informed yoga spaces and learning to effectively work with difficult emotions when they arise. I am now a full-fledged licensed Social Worker specializing in complex trauma, and Intensive Trauma Therapy, and Trauma-Informed Yoga with a lifetime of lived experience. Attending to my shame has been a source of personal growth and finding my life’s work. I am writing this article because perhaps for you it could do the same.
If something in my words resonates for you, here are some ways you can begin to resolve your shame:
- EMDR/PC: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and its cousin Progressive Counting allow you to “feel it to heal it” safely and effectively. These memory processing techniques allow you to access adaptive information neural networks to connect with maladaptively stored trauma memories to resolve them. They can help you truly believe “It’s not my fault” and “I did the best I could” and provide a safe space for working through your shame, terror, rage, and whatever else you need to. See https://www.ticti.org/treatment/ for more info
- 5 Sense Grounding: If going inside is too much or if the shame is overwhelming, there’s always the outside world. Noticing what you see, feel, hear, taste, smell, gets you out of your head and into the world around you. This can help with reducing intense emotions. Here is a blog article I wrote about a form of 5 sense grounding I have been developing called “ReAssociation.”
- Secure Attachment Figures: This is the process of developing a connection with an imagined resource person you admire. This could be a character from a favorite book/movie/show, your old dance teacher, or a spiritual figure like Swami Kripalu or Mother Earth. You imagine this figure providing nurturing, care, wisdom, and empowerment for the parts of you that feel shame. This could look like imagining Mother Earth kneeling in front of the part of you that feels embarrassed at the party and putting her gentle yet stable hands on your shoulder and saying “You got this, you are powerful, capable, and connected.” The key is to feel the emotional resonance of this practice and notice it in your body. Notice how it feels when she “puts her hand on your shoulder.” Feel the steadiness of her safe touch, the peacefulness in her gaze, the strength in her words. Notice how that affects your body. Doing this regularly reinforces neural networking for antidote-to-shame feelings like belonging and love, and can accumulate into thoughts “I matter.” “I am worthy of a good life.” “I am lovable.”
- Non-judgemental and compassionate self-observation: I truly must stress the importance of non-judgment and compassion if you are a Yoga practitioner. If you repeatedly practice down-dog with the underlying belief, “my body is contorted” or “I am weak” and you observe these beliefs with a critical voice. This will further deepen your shame and low-self esteem and lead to aggravated self-consciousness. I believe that for complex trauma survivors it is of the utmost importance to add compassion to your self-observation practice. You may reply to the shame-fueled voice you hear in your head, “Actually, I got onto the mat today, and that’s cool!” or “Yoga is about the process, not perfection” or “Now that I read this Spirit Space Blog article about shame, I understand these thoughts are rooted in wounding, so I am going to love my hurt parts instead of driving the shame home.”
- RAIN practice – Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. See more of Tara Brach’s powerful healing technique here
Inquiries to explore:
- How might shame be a contributing factor to your current challenges? Notice your most troublesome current challenge, and explore the “I am _______” negative belief-statements that underlie them. As you think those thoughts and about the current challenge, is the emotion of shame there?
- What life experiences might you have that contribute to you carrying shame?
- What does shame feel like in your body? Where do you feel it, what postures does it make you want to be in? Can you find a place in your body that harbors self-compassion, love, or care feel like? What posture or movement does this feeling evoke in you? Go back and forth between these two experiences, and notice what comes up.
- What would your shame look like if it had an image associated with it? Draw this image. What does your shame need? Draw that too.
- If shame were not a major component in your way of relating to yourself or others, who would you be? What would be possible?
- When you’re not feeling ashamed, what is that part of you like? How do you know you are self-confident? What is your body posture showing you? Are there images, movements, thoughts associated with this part of yourself.
I’ll close this treatise on shame up with a wish or a prayer. May you be gentle with your healing process. May you wrap your shame with safe and loving arms. May you find support from the healthiest parts of yourself, trusted people, or a professional if you are struggling with deep-seated shame. May healthy relationships and robust communities be antidotes to a shame-filled world.