George Bernard Shaw, in his play Man and Superman, wrote that “We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinion, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins.” Consider that this play was first performed in 1905. And then think about everything our culture has evolved and developed, and the current culture of shame.
Brene Brown, a shame researcher, differentiates shame from guilt. She explains that guilt is about something that we’ve done, or not done, and how that aligns with our value system. Yet shame is more about the experience of being. Shame makes us feel unworthy, not belonging, and flawed. Guilt is about our actions, shame is about who we are. Its a deeply uncomfortable experience, and therefore is often not talked about. Yet it is also a very human experience – most of us have, at some point, experienced shame. Even the most psychologically healthy among us, if we think far enough back into our childhood, likely have memories associated with shame.
Author Peter Stearns wrote Shame: A Brief History. He discusses our cultural connection to shame – from early Colonial periods to present day use of social media and technology, shame has been a component of punishment. In fact, Benjamin Rush wrote that shame is a punishment worse than death. When a person experiences shame, their brain reacts in a highly emotional way – the neurological structures that control emotion are activated when a person experiences shame, including the frontal lobe, temporal lobe, and limbic system. We tend to respond to these emotional activations in one of three ways: 1) We move away from the shame and withdraw, reducing our connection with others. 2) We move toward, becoming people pleasers, putting our needs second to others, or 3) We move against, by setting ourselves in opposition to others, in an attempt to regain control and power.
Developmentally, we experience shame in the latent periods of our lives, the period in which we are in elementary school. Shame decreases in adolescence, and then begins to increase again at age 50, until a plateau around age 70. This is consistent with developmental expectations, where we learn many of the societal rules in that latent period, we then boldly test these limits in adolescence, develop our identities and personalities, and then it is not until the “life reflection” developmental stage that the experience of shame may re-emerge. Problematic experiences of shame is associated with other psychological difficulties, like depression and anxiety, while the more authentic and “shame-free” individuals tend to have greater overall well-being.
To cope with shame takes conversation. Facing the shame experience, not tamping it down, but objectively looking at the experience that is associated with shame, can be very beneficial. With that type of conversation and processing, one can separate shame from guilt, anxiety, depression, and embarrassment. Knowing what a trigger is for shame – be it about body image, work competence, or relationship status, can help us steer clear from the opportunities for self-shaming to take place. Know too, that shame, while not often talked about, is an experience that likely most of us have all dealt with.
Therapy can be quite helpful for coping with the experience of shame. The therapist, an objective observer and offering unconditional acceptance, can help sort through these difficult experiences and work out a plan for avoiding triggers. The relationship and connection that is formed in a therapy office will often translate to increased connections outside of the therapy space – and if shame makes us feel disconnected, then connection is the antidote.