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Effects of Shame

Middle school is rough for kiddos- it was no different for me. There was a period of time when my group of friends would identify a person to “oust” from the group. No particular reason to be ousted, it was just their time. And for a period of time, it was my time.

I tried to hide, pretend like I was busy at recess because I had no friends to play with. I remember feeling lonely, wandering the lower yard by myself. This went on for a while, until finally, I told my mom, who talked to the teacher about what was going on.

The social ostracization ended, but that experience left me feeling as if I would never be good enough to belong to a group. Another emotionally jarring experience happened towards the end of high school, reinforcing the idea that something was wrong with me. I didn’t know it at the time, but the feelings resulting from those experiences was shame.

“Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.” -Brené Brown

What is Shame?

Dr. Brené Brown, shame researcher and writer says, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experiencing of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame and guilt sometimes get confused, but are different feelings. Guilt is feeling bad about a behavior, whereas shame is feeling about the self. Shame has also been described as an emotional and self-blaming style that is a response to events in which the status of one’s social self is threatened or when someone perceives their social selves to be devalued. Shame is often mixed with other emotions, in particular, fear and anger.

When someone experiences shame, there might be an attempt to repair the self-image. When that doesn’t, however, a few different things might happen:

  • Withdrawing, hiding, or disappearing to hide the bad self (this is what I did)

  • Obsessive thinking about the bad qualities of the self

  • Attempts to stop or reduce the painful emotion, numbing

Shame is associated with poor functioning in Western samples.

  • PTSD symptom severity

  • Suicidal ideation and self-injurious behaviors

  • Substance abuse problems

  • Poorer immunological function

  • Shame and fear of shame is particularly prominent for people dealing with childhood/relational trauma, depression, eating disorders, self-injury/suicide, and social anxiety.

Of note, the impacted sited above was found in Western samples; the relationship is less clear with Asian samples. Research indicates that collectivistic values and the concept of “loss of face” found in many Asian cultures may be related to more instances of feelings of shame.

Shame is often hard to recognize and may only occur in brief flashes. One of the difficulties in shame is that a core aspect is the tendency to hide and cover up its occurrence. Shame grows in the dark, when it’s kept secret and not talked about. Therefore, understanding where the shame comes from and talking about it can help decrease the shame.

Dr. Brené Brown suggests three steps to shame resilience:

  1. Understand shame and recognize what messages and expectations trigger shame

  2. Practice critical awareness

  3. Reach out and share your stories with people you trust- use the word shame, talk about how you’re feeling, and ask for what you need.

I’ll talk more about ways to do cultivate shame resilience in the next post.

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