Guilt and shame are bad, right? Well, certainly no one wants to feel either. Some of us, especially therapists, seem to be “guilt magnets” and “shame prone”. We cringe at the slightest sign that we may have hurt or offended someone and spend hours thinking about it afterwards. We may even avoid that person in the future for fear that they are upset with us even though they never explicitly said so.
Psychology has long made a distinction, however, between guilt and shame. Guilt is actually considered to be a desirable emotion as far as society is concerned. Guilt is defined as feeling bad for something you have DONE. That is different from shame, which is feeling bad for WHO YOU ARE. Consider this– if we lived in a world where no one ever felt guilty, i.e. never felt bad for hurting someone or cheating or stealing– then what would keep people from doing whatever they wanted? If you knew that whatever you were going to do would not upset anyone in the slightest then why not do whatever you want?
So if guilt has a function, then what about shame? While I am not an anthropologist, my personal theory is that shame is just overshooting the mark of guilt. I think that Mother Nature gave us the capacity to feel guilt for the reasons stated above, but sometimes that feeling grows too large and instead of being just about our behavior it becomes about our identity, about who we are. Shame does not serve any positive function. While guilt makes us want to move towards people in order to repair the damage, shame makes us feel so bad that we isolate and move away. As shame researcher Brenee Brown puts it “shame corrodes the part of us that thinks we can do better [and therefore is willing to go and say we are sorry]”. Shame leads to self destructive behaviors and isolating from others. Shame is toxic.
So what are we to do if we find that, like many patients who come to my practice, we seem to be “shame prone”? What if we tend to feel shame about even small things? Working on shame resilience is an excellent goal for therapy. Shame can only survive in secrecy and shadow. If you share your shame with someone, almost always you will find that the feeling diminishes. When we can see that the other person does not run screaming out of the room after we make our “confession”, we don’t feel so bad. And sometimes we are even lucky enough to talk to someone who reciprocates our shame tale with one of their own. Hearing someone say “oh, I’ve done that too” or “I did something else that made me feel the same way” we feel tremendous relief. We feel that we are not alone and perhaps we are not the worst person on the plant.
Psychotherapy provides a regular opportunity to talk about shameful experiences and feelings. It gives us the opportunity to shine a light of objectivity and neutrality on the shame-drenched sludge that we have been harboring in the deeper recesses of ourselves. And in that light of objectivity and through the compassion of another person we find that the shame shrivels and retreats, growing smaller and less powerful. Keeping the secret of shame is what keeps it alive. Sharing the secret of shame is the antidote.
Researcher Dr. Brenee Brown has written several Ted Talks and written several books about shame. She notes that “shame happens between people and needs to be healed between people”. I could not agree more. Fortunately for us Dr. Brown has made a career about researching shame and has come up with four common characteristics of people who are “shame resilient”:
People who are shame resilient talk about shame, and when they do, they use the word shame. They talk about what they feel and what they need.
People who are shame resilient reality check themselves in regards to expectations. They don’t let themselves fall for myths of perfection. If they are unsure if an expectation is reasonable (“should I never be late dropping off my kids to school?”, “should I always eat raw broccoli for lunch instead of pizza?”) they “fact check” it with friends. This helps them avoid buying in to crazy standards like “every woman should be a size 4” or “every man should love to play sports”.
People who are shame prone understand what shame is and know what tends to trigger them into feeling shame. Due to our different cultures, childhoods, politics, religions and values we are all going to be prone to shame for different reasons. Someone who is an orthodox Jew might feel shame for working on the Sabbath, someone who is a feminist may feel shame for enjoying being seen as a sex symbol. Knowing what will likely trigger your shame is a great way to be ready to do a “fact check” when you first begin to experience it.
Finally, people who are shame prone are able to tell their stories of shame to trusted people. Mind you I said TRUSTED people. Telling your inner-most painful and shameful experiences to someone in the check-out line at the grocery store is not a good idea. That’s not taking good care of yourself. But telling it to a trusted friend or family member who you know cares about you and will listen with compassion allows that light of objectivity to shrink the shame goo before it has a chance to spread too far.
If you are interested in learning more about shame I recommend any of Dr. Brenee Brown’s work on shame and shame resiliency. Another great resource is work on self-compassion, which is another way to fight shame. For more information on self-compassion see Dr. Kristin Neff’s website on the subject, www.self-compassion.org. She has links to her Ted Talk as well as information about self-compassion and even a self-quiz you can use to see how you rank on self-compassion.
One of the services I offer in my work is to assess your level of “shame-proneness” with a paper and pencil test developed by shame researchers. This test can be administered and feedback given all within a 45-minute appointment.
If you are interested in talking to me more about shame please feel free to send me an email or call me at: