The experience of shame – a feeling of being unworthy, bad, or wrong – can be extremely uncomfortable. It has the potential to change the way we see ourselves, and may lead to long-lasting social, professional, and sexual difficulties, as well as affecting other areas of life. The word “shame” may mean different things to different people. Shame is different from guilt and embarrassment. Guilt is usually understood to involve negative feelings about an act one has committed, while shame involves deeply negative feelings about oneself. Embarrassment deals with exposure to one’s peers or to society at large; shame can be experienced secretly – and often is.
Shame is known to almost all people at one time or another. It is mentioned in the very first scenes of Genesis, and it was noted among primates by Darwin. It may even serve a social function by encouraging negative emotions as a consequence of certain behaviors, such as breaking sexual taboos or insulting a group member. Shame in the aftermath of a violent or otherwise harmful act may be appropriate. But shame that does not resolve, that cannot seem to be diminished or altered, is a cause for clinical concern.
Chronic shame usually originates in childhood, and uncovering the experiences that led to shame can help relieve shame, as can engaging in new experiences that foster a sense of goodness and worth. Shame is sometimes rooted in experiences of a sexual nature, whether consensual or not, that were, in the child’s perception or understanding, not accepted or acceptable to adults; that is, children who engage in sexual activities or who are abused sexually, may develop a sense of shame about their role in these acts, especially if the adults shame them on purpose, or do not take steps to reassure them of their essential goodness and innocence. Some level of shame usually reveals itself in anyone engaged in therapy. Becoming aware of our shame is the first step towards working through it.
Shame may last a brief time, or it may be a core experience of the self. For some people, feelings of shame may begin in childhood and stay around. They may be conscious of such feelings, which can lead to depression and several forms of anxiety. They may be unconscious of the shame, and hide it under a mask of narcissism or extreme behaviors, such as addictions or episodes of anger. Shame can also lead to dissociative episodes and disorders. Living with shame is terribly painful and can prevent people from meeting core needs, such as the need for self-esteem, hope about the future, friendship and intimacy, productivity, and love.
Therapy can help people overcome feelings of shame by providing a healthy and objective perspective of the situation that causes them to feel shameful. People who have been abused, victimized or harassed can feel immense shame. Life circumstances such as job loss, infidelity, divorce or even problematic children can cause someone to struggle with intense feelings of shame. Regardless of whether the shame is self-induced or the result of someone else’s actions, overwhelming shame can affect every area of a person’s life. Getting help for those feelings can provide freedom from shame. Therapists can teach people how to accept responsibility for their actions and put their guilt into perspective. Additionally, therapists who work with survivors of abuse or the bereaved can help them understand that they did not cause the trauma. This fundamental release of blame allows them to liberate themselves from the negative affects the shame causes and its related symptoms, such as anxiety or depression.
Trudy, 47, enters due to anxiety and problems with her husband, to whom she has been married more than 20 years . Talking with the therapist, she is tearful, and soon begins to disclose that she had an affair very early in their marriage, which resulted in her having an abortion. She has kept this secret for years and feels deeply ashamed. Therapy helps her achieve emotional release, and move through shame into remorse and self-forgiveness. She then resolves to disclose this to her husband, and does so. He is hurt, which retriggers Trudy’s shame, but their relationship survives and Trudy is eventually able to feel a sense of peace.
Dave, 21, is starting to date seriously and finds himself very anxious and ashamed around sexual matters. After a few sessions he is able to disclose that he was a victim of a sexual molestation 10 years earlier. Dave feels very ashamed of this event, though he isn’t exactly sure why. The shame interferes with his ability to be relaxed with a partner. Therapy helps Dave uncover and examine the beliefs that reinforce his shame, discarding the beliefs that are untrue and unhelpful, and developing new beliefs that more accurately reflect reality and lead to a stronger sense of self, and hope.
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Last updated: 12-13-2013