Let’s talk about shame

If you’re a perfectionist or identify as someone who feels they must get everything right, then this episode is definitely for you…

In dysfunctional families, a thread of shame often runs through the family, operating out of our awareness. We have a core of shame, and we do everything in our power to avoid experiencing it. Instead, we try to be ‘good’ and perfect, convincing ourselves that everything is ‘great’ because the experience of feeling shame is so painful. Shame keeps us silent, sick, and separate.

Perfectionism

Those of us who try to get things perfect are actually the ones with the most shame because we are desperately trying to get away from it.

Shame and perfectionism are two sides of the same coin. – Brene Brown

Shame keeps us silent, sick, and separate.

It keeps us silent because we fear ‘looking stupid’ or judgment from others. It keeps us sick because our physical body is a manifestation of our inner emotional world. Where is shame keeping you sick? (e.g., having an eating disorder, IBS, skin rashes, etc.).

It keeps us separate because we fear not being good enough at our core. Allowing ourselves to stay separate and often people-pleasing protects us from being rejected and reinforces the shame we feel.

What Is Shame?

According to Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, shame is the fear of not being worthy of connection and belonging. It is the fear that you are not enough and will be rejected for your weaknesses. It overtakes the prefrontal cortex and initiates your fight or flight response. Instead of being able to think critically or analyze the legitimacy of a threat, you are thrust into survival mode.

Once the shame cycle begins, you really only have three options: fight, freeze, or run. In terms of human behavior, this might look like aggression, numbing, or people-pleasing. Being in this type of survival mode prevents you from connecting meaningfully with yourself and others, which impedes your ability to live wholeheartedly.

Categories of Shame

Brené Brown’s shame research identified 12 categories that fall under three core themes of shame.

Body Image and Health

Mental and physical health: Fear of not having a fit enough body, not being strong enough, not being smart enough, and so on.

Addiction: Fear of never feeling happy enough, alive enough, or peaceful enough.

Sex: Fear of unworthiness or fear of being ugly.

Aging: Fear of no longer being loved and admired for looks or fear of mental deterioration.

Appearance and body image: Fear of not having the right weight, the right make-up, clothes, and so on.

Relationships

Motherhood or Fatherhood: Fear of being unprepared or unable to identify with the role of mother or father.

Parenting: Fear of not being a good enough parent, not nurturing enough, or not respectable enough.

Family: Fear of judgment, fear of loss, fear of not being stable enough, and so on.

Surviving trauma: Fear of not being safe, not being worthy of love, or not being connected enough.

Religion: Fear of not being a good enough person or fear of punishment.

Social Status

Money and work: Fear of not having enough money, being criticized in front of coworkers, having to file for unemployment, and so on.

Being stereotyped or labelled: Fear of not being fully seen or fear of judgment.

Where Does Shame Come From?

Chronic shame comes from growing up in a family where we were not seen, where we didn’t get our needs met, and where we were not validated. This happens for many reasons. The most common reason is that we are attending to our parent’s needs instead of them attending to ours. This occurs if we have a mother who has a lot of her own wounds, commonly described as a narcissistic mother where it’s all about the mother instead of attending to the child’s needs. It looks like the child being the mother’s best friend, her confidant, making her feel better about herself, and minimizing our needs. Just being there to be like a best friend to our mother crosses the mother-child dynamic, and when the child is in childhood, this is not appropriate. That’s never meant to be the role of a child.

Mirroring

Shame arises relationally, meaning as children, one of our key needs is to be mirrored. We first know ourselves through our parents knowing us. Our parents give us language to describe ourselves, and they reflect that back to us. That is how we come to know that we are good enough.

Example:

As a toddler, we played in a puddle, having a great time splashing around, jumping up and down, and enjoying ourselves. Our mother will mirror us by looking into our eyes and laughing with us, enjoying seeing us enjoying ourselves in the puddle. She will laugh too and delight in us. Our brain isn’t fully developed yet, but we see and feel that on a nervous system level. We feel the delight and pick up all these signs of safety and joy coming from her as she sees us playing. The mirroring is that ‘I am lovable. I am ok. She sees me. She sees me in my play.’ The Dad or Grandparents also do this mirroring.

There is a constant dance of children seeking their parents out, and the parents respond. Often this is nonverbal; the laughing with, the looking into their eyes, the voice that says ‘Wow, I see that you’re having so much fun isn’t that wonderful, look at you!’ The participating in jumping in the puddle.

There are multiple interactions throughout each day where the child learns, ‘I am lovable, I am safe, I am validated!’ Words can contribute to this, but primarily it’s the body language and how the parent feels about what the child is doing that really matters. This is going on all of the time, and much of this is unconscious from the parent.

When we don’t get enough mirroring and when we are not seen for who we are and validated for who we are, we might be told the message of ‘You’re too much. You have too many big emotions. You overwhelm me. You need to put your emotions away so that you can attend to me.’ We end up with a sense of shame. We can’t speak this obviously because this starts to happen around the first to the second year of life. We can’t precisely decode this as adults; we might not have words for this, but when we are not met in our needs, when we are not validated, when no one delights in us, we end up with a feeling of chronic shame.

If a parent is mentally unwell, very depressed, very physically exhausted, or there is addiction in the household, or the parents are emotionally unavailable, it’s common that we develop a sense of shame.

Rupture and repair

Rupture and repair play a pivotal role in preventing the onset of chronic shame. We understand that our parents cannot be perfect, so when a parent displays anger, for instance, and raises their voice, young children often internalize it as, ‘Oh, it’s something about me. I am bad,’ if the parent doesn’t apologize and repair afterward. Children naturally have a self-centered view, thinking everything revolves around them, and they sometimes attribute a parent’s behavior to being their fault.

When parents acknowledge their mistakes and say, ‘This is my fault. I was feeling stressed, and my reaction must have been scary for you. I’m sorry,’ they effectively take back the shame from their children.

Chronic shame develops when a child’s needs consistently go unmet. If, as children, we were left alone with our emotions without proper attention or support, leading to no space for expressing big emotions, we might develop a sense of ‘I am bad for having these emotions.’

Similarly, if our parents attempted to dismiss our ‘negative emotions’ by saying things like, ‘Big girls don’t cry. Your sadness makes me sad. Smile, it’s not that bad,’ instead of creating room for all our emotions and reassuring us that it’s okay to feel this way, we begin to feel bad and wrong for having these feelings.

Shame is a heavy feeling

Discussing shame is challenging because it involves addressing the painful areas where we feel insufficient. Striving for perfection, insisting on getting everything ‘right,’ avoiding any mistakes, seeing problems as monumental, and engaging in people-pleasing behaviours often signal the presence of chronic shame.

When we dig to the root of external ‘problems,’ it often reveals a core belief:

‘I am unlovable. I can’t get anything right. I am unlovable. I suck. This is all my fault.’

At its core, it boils down to the pervasive sense of ‘I am not good enough.’

Shame Triggers

Shame triggers are topics that evoke emotional responses based on your insecurities. These triggers are often the result of your upbringing and can elicit one of three negative responses:

  • Silence: You say nothing and internalize your feelings. This leads to disconnection as you shut yourself off emotionally. 
  • Complacency: You people-please and overcompensate to pretend that nothing’s wrong. This causes disappointment as you succumb to the pressures of others.
  • Aggression: You lash out and, often, shame other people in retaliation. This perpetuates and exacerbates shame culture.

For example, if you feel insecure about your body, and someone makes an off-hand comment about someone’s weight, you may feel an emotional response to their comment, leading you to do one of the following:

  • You walk away and dive into your work. When people ask you what’s wrong, you say nothing. (Silence)
  • You overcompensate by also making fun of the person your colleague was talking about. Later, you feel disappointed for commenting on someone else’s weight. (Complacency)
  • You tell your colleague to back off, then comment on their appearance. Your colleague feels shamed and takes it out on someone else. (Aggression)

These triggers are often developed in childhood but carry on into adulthood. For example, if you were raised to believe that laziness is unacceptable, you may view taking breaks or getting sick as unacceptable because they keep you from working. This may cause you to make unhealthy decisions and overwork yourself to avoid your shame.

Shame Prevents You From Developing Worthiness

Worthiness is the conviction that you are good enough as you are. According to The Gifts of Imperfection, worthiness is underpinned by four key principles:

  1. Accepting yourself unconditionally. You don’t need to hit a milestone to become worthy—for example, losing a certain amount of weight. You’re enough right now
  2. Rejecting the idea that to be “enough,” you need to adhere to societal norms or the expectations of others. You’re worthy as you are, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
  3. Abandoning the idea that you need to work for your worthiness. You don’t need to prove yourself to be “enough.” Your worth is based on who you are, not what you do.
  4. Believing that you’re worthy of love and belonging. If you don’t, you won’t be able to truly experience these emotions.

The greatest barrier to developing worthiness is shame. Shame prevents worthiness from growing because it tells you that you’ll never be good enough. It encourages you to reject and hide the parts of yourself that you think other people will dislike. It also convinces you that if you do reveal your flaws and struggles, they’ll come to define you. People will focus on your bad parts and ignore everything good about you. 

The shame voice does not speak the truth

The key takeaway from this episode is understanding that the shame voice does not speak the truth. Our focus shouldn’t be on constantly pleasing others, striving for perfection, or obsessing over getting everything right. Instead, what we truly need is to confront and address the root of our shame. This involves paying attention to ourselves and our inner child, gradually learning that we are inherently good enough, and understanding that the messages ingrained in us during childhood were not accurate.

The experience of shame, signaling that something is wrong with us, is profoundly physical—a visceral and distressing sensation. We instinctively try to escape this discomfort by overloading ourselves with tasks, seeking external validation, and attempting to meet unrealistic expectations.

In childhood, shame acted as a danger signal, indicating a break in connection, potential violence, abuse, or unmet needs. Acknowledging this historical context helps us recognize that the current sense of shame is part of an old story—one that doesn’t reflect our present reality. It’s crucial to internalize the understanding that the shame voice does not speak the truth.

The Solution to Shame

A huge part of breaking down our shame is letting others in. Sharing how we feel and shining a light on the parts of us we feel shameful about. We need the courage to be vulnerable and stay open as we share and practice receiving empathy and love from others.

  1. Acknowledge your shame and what causes it. Recognizing your shame and its causes will allow you to separate from your negative thoughts and emotions before they can cause you to experience fear, react with blame, and become disconnected from yourself and others.
  2. Acknowledging your shame will enable you to practice courage, compassion, and connection.
  3. Develop critical awareness of shame. Critical awareness is an understanding of why we deem certain identities as shameful, how shame around these identities impacts society, who’s most affected by the shame of identities, and who benefits the most from them. (“Who is benefitting from me feeling this way?”) To develop critical awareness about shame, think of an identity that makes you feel ashamed. Which components of this shameful identity contradict society’s or your inner circle’s expectations? Then, think of the ideal you feel like you’re supposed to be living up to instead, and consider its impact on society at large: Who suffers because of this ideal’s existence, and who profits from it?
  4. Learn to talk about shame and connect with others. We connect with others by sharing experiences and establishing mutual support. This is crucial to combating shame because it facilitates the empathy element of connection, which helps you put courage and compassion into action. Further, once you learn how to express your own shame and ask for support, you’ll be better equipped to listen to others and support them.

If you’d like support as you understand and navigate your shame, especially around your body and your relationship with food then reach out to me. You’re not alone. ❤️

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