What is shame and how to heal?

By guest blogger: Stephanie Patterson, LMFT


According to researcher Brene Brown,

shame is defined as “the intensely painful experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

Shame has a strong visceral reaction. One person describes it as “that feeling in the pit of your stomach that is dark and hurts like hell. You can’t talk about it and you can’t articulate how bad it feels because then everyone would know your ‘dirty little secret.’” And yet we all experience it from time to time when one of our vulnerable spots gets triggered. For example, motherhood and body image can bring a feeling of shame to women; men commonly feel ashamed of being weak.

Shame is different from guilt.

Shame is believing one is bad, while guilt is believing one did something bad

This is an important distinction.

Parents often try to shame their children into obedience, mistakenly thinking shame is a great motivator. This could not be farther from the truth. Shame disconnects us from others.  It immobilizes us. It makes us feel weak.  We want to shrivel up into a little ball and disappear. When we call children names, when we say “You’re always…(anything negative)”, or if we say, “Don’t be a…. (wimp, cry baby, drama queen, etc.),” we are shaming our kids. When we tell children, teens, or grown up children that they ARE something, they usually believe it.  Then they wear that label and inwardly feel it is true about them. Make sure you are not telling them they are something bad. That is shaming.

On the other hand, feeling bad about doing something wrong can be a great motivator for change. The difference is that when you do something wrong, you yourself are not something wrong.

There is a fine but significant distinction.

In Brene Brown’s book I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t), she shares her insights from years of studying shame and how to overcome it.

Here are her steps in a nutshell:

  1. Notice when one of your shame triggers is hit. Get to know what your body feels like and the thoughts that tend to run through your head when you feel shame.
  2. Reach out to someone you feel comfortable with. This person should be reliably supportive on the topic that you are feeling shame about. For example, I may go to my sister on topics of womanhood or dealing with family, but I may avoid topics of raising children if she sometimes makes unfavorable comparisons.
  3. The last step is the hardest: speaking shame. After you receive a healthy dose of empathy from your support person, you can then talk with the person who hurt your feelings. You can tell them what they said and how deeply it hurt you. When you are able to speak your truth about your shame, you disarm it.

We cannot always know which of our comments will hit someone’s shame target right on, but we can be fairly certain that when we respond to others with empathy, shame cannot exist. Empathy means listening to others, hearing the emotional undertone of their messages, and commenting on how the experience might feel to them. Empathy connects and heals. Shame severs and hurts.