Written by Nikki Heyder
Shame is a universal human emotion that we've all experienced at some point in our lives. It's that feeling of discomfort or embarrassment that arises when we feel like we've done something wrong or failed to meet expectations. Oftentimes when I work with clients who have experienced shame they say things like - “I just wanted to sink under the table and disappear” or “I had my hands over my eyes the whole time - I didn’t want them to see me”. While it's actually a very natural human emotion, it can be challenging to accept it. Understanding its origins and how it affects our daily lives however, can be helpful in offering us more compassion towards it.
Shame can manifest in various ways, and one of the most common ways is in social situations. For example, you might feel ashamed if you say something awkward during a conversation or if you do something you consider embarrassing in front of other people. You might also experience shame when you're criticized or judged by others (even if it’s just a perception). Social media has added another layer to this as well, as we're constantly comparing ourselves to others and feeling inadequate if we don't measure up to their projected version of success, or beauty, or happiness.
However, the roots of shame go much deeper than these surface level social situations. In many instances, they can be traced back to early childhood experiences and our relationships with our caregivers. Shame is often the result of feeling rejected or humiliated by someone we love and trust. As children (and adults in general), we deeply value attachment and safety within relationships - we are ‘social creatures’ and have thrived off living in community for the entirety of our existence. We intrinsically value these connections so much so that if we do something ‘wrong’ it feels like it threatens that connection, and therefore our chances for survival. We then feel shame (and its associated emotions) as a result. For example, if a parent is emotionally distant or critical, a child may internalize those messages and feel like they're not good enough. These feelings can then manifest as shame later in life, affecting how the person perceives themselves and how they interact with others.
Another common cause of shame is trauma, which can occur at any point in life. Trauma can lead to feelings of shame and self-blame, even if the person was not responsible for the traumatic event. A person who was abused as a child may feel like they did something wrong or that they somehow deserved the abuse. A person who experiences acute trauma in adulthood may also develop the belief that they or their lives are undeserving of good things because the event or experience happened to them. These feelings of shame can be incredibly damaging and can affect the person's self-esteem and relationships for years to come. It’s usually not the trauma itself which causes shame, but rather the beliefs which follow on from the incident are what keep a person stuck in their ‘shame story’ and question their worthiness or actions thereon.
The experience of shame being that of unworthiness or inadequacy can then lead to a range of follow on negative emotions, including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. It can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as addiction or self-harm. People who experience chronic shame may struggle to form healthy relationships or feel like they don't deserve love and affection. As a result they may isolate themselves from society believing that they are simply ‘unloveable’ or ‘broken’ in some way.
It's important to note that shame is not always a bad thing. In some cases, it can motivate us to change our behavior and make better choices. For example, if we feel ashamed of our unhealthy eating habits, we may be motivated to start exercising and eating healthier foods. However, when shame becomes chronic or overwhelming, it can be harmful and interfere with our ability to function.
So, what can we do to overcome shame?
The first step is to recognize it and acknowledge where it's coming from. This may involve exploring past experiences and relationships and identifying any patterns or triggers. It may also involve working with a therapist or counselor to process these experiences and develop healthy coping strategies and to learn how to relate to yourself and your lived experiences in a new way.
Another important step is to practice self-compassion. This means treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding that we would offer to a friend. It involves acknowledging our mistakes and shortcomings without judgment and recognizing that we're all imperfect humans who make mistakes. Learning how to normalise our humanness and the ups and downs of our lives, can prevent our shame story from getting too loud. In other words - don’t make yourself wrong for being a human.
Finally, it's essential to build a supportive network of friends and family who can provide encouragement and support. This may involve opening up to others about our struggles with shame and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. It may also involve seeking out community groups or organizations that provide a sense of belonging and acceptance. A key thing to remember here is that shame grows in secrecy - meaning the more we keep our feelings of shame inside, the more it perpetuates the belief that what we are ‘hiding’ is in fact, shameful. The more we can speak up about it, normalize it, and befriend it, the less of a weight it is to carry. What you will discover by opening up about your shame, is that everyone else has experienced it too and all of a sudden you don’t feel so alone and isolated.
To summarize, shame is a complex emotion that can have a significant impact on our lives. While it's often associated with social situations, most of the time its roots can be traced back to early childhood experiences and our relationships with caregivers. It's essential to recognize and acknowledge shame, practice self-compassion, and build a supportive network to overcome its negative effects. With time, effort, and support, it's possible to move past shame and live a more fulfilling life rooted in acceptance rather than comparison and criticism.
Nikki Heyder is a qualified Counseling Practitioner, Clinical Nutritionist, Yoga Instructor and Mentor/Supervisor for fellow therapists and coaches, as well as the founder of State of Soul. Nikki works specifically with women to guide them to heal from acute or complex trauma, low self-worth, anxiety, addictive tendencies, attachment issues, and disordered eating. She integrates a multidimensional approach in all aspects of her work and believes that “health” is not merely about the internal workings of the body - but rather a fusion of the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual self. With over 11 years of experience within the wellness industry, Nikki is deeply passionate about reconnecting her clients back to their authentic, present selves and to help them better understand who they are - to operate with less stress, less pain, and less conflict in the world around them. As a mentor/supervisor, she teaches heart centered therapists and coaches the power of compassion, attunement, emotional safety, and how to utilize a mixed modality approach to healing and self acceptance.