What is shame?

It’s a thief. It sneaks into your spirit uninvited in the still of the night and it robs you. No. More than robs, shame ransacks your self-esteem at the deepest level.

Whilst guilt says, “what you did was bad”, shame gets personal. It says, “you are bad”. And for some reason, you believe it.

Even though your worth as a human being is actually inherent, shame has a way of convincing you otherwise.

It starts in a thousand different ways. In a thousand different messages. It starts in the playground when a child is mocked for having ‘weird’ play lunch. Or in the locker room when a teen is laughed at for having freckles. Race, gender, strengths can all be the targets of shame.

Even parents can be carriers:

“Who do you think you are?”
“You’re an idiot.”
“You’re friends think you are nice Johnny, but I know what you’re really like.”

Yes, shame is a nasty passenger. As a therapist I find it lurking inside even the most beautiful, caring, successful people. No matter who a child grows up to become, if the shame messages have gone in, these wonderful adults will often end up in a place where they find themselves questioning their worth or wondering if they are loveable.

The Impact

When a person is shamed it’s crushing. The experience of shame leaves them feeling uncovered, exposed and judged. It makes a person want to hide.

Shame impacts by causing you to feel embarrassed and wanting to withdraw. It leaves you feeling inadequate and powerless.

The judgement might come from outside at first, but then we judge ourselves. It’s the inner voice that criticises and ridicules us; tells us we are not good enough.

Where it starts

If the shame messages have gone in during childhood they can be more difficult to shift because children are so vulnerable and tend to believe what is said to them as truth. Children have an uncanny way of internalising what is said or done to them and end up in a place of self-blame, even when they are not at fault.

A child reasons like a child:

“Mummy said I’m a lazy sod. I must be bad.”
“They all laughed at me in Science today. I must be unlovable.”

If somehow you got through childhood with the affirming messages outweighing the shame messages, it is likely your self esteem and self concept in adulthood will be stronger. In cases like this you will still get knocked when you encounter a shaming experience as an adult person, but you most likely won’t be undone by the experience.

However, if the scales tip the other way, and you have been significantly shamed in childhood, any similar event in adulthood can feel like it completely rips you to the core. When this happens the pain can be extremely intense. It can feel like you have been knocked for six, and the shame is experienced as an attack on the very essence of your selfhood.

What to do

The first thing to know is that shame is a liar. It is simply just not true that a human being is void of worth. Are you perfect? No. Are you going to make mistakes? Of course you are. We all do. But that has zero to do with your inherent worth.

If you have received shame messages in your life it is more a reflection of the sender than of you. The type of person who chooses to ridicule, mock or make another person feel bad is not a very nice person, plain and simple.

Quite frankly, what they think of you is none of your business!!

You can visualise yourself wearing a teflon coat. You can visualise these messages coming towards you and bouncing off you. And if it was your child self who received these awful messages, you can visualise yourself showing empathy to the child within and speaking affirming messages instead of shaming ones.

Even if it is years since the shaming events occurred, you can still re-program those dreadful messages.

So we need to expose shame for the liar it is. It’s an opinion, not a fact. And you get to ‘return to sender’. Send it back from whence it came. Put on the teflon coat! Don’t reject yourself, reject the message because the message is faulty.

You have just as much right to exist on this planet as the next person and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

By Deborah Sanasi, BA(Psy) MA(Couns), Principal Therapist, Norwest Counselling (www.norwestcounsellingservices.com.au).