What is shame?
It’s a thief. It sneaks into your spirit in the still of the night, and 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.”
“Your 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 questioning their worth or wondering if they are loveable.
When you are shamed, it’s crushing. The experience leaves you uncovered, exposed and judged. It makes you want to hide.
Shame embarrasses. It makes you withdraw. It leaves you feeling inadequate and powerless.
The judgement might come from outside at first, but then you judge yourself. It’s the inner voice that criticises and ridicules; says you’re not 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. Children believe what is said to them as truth. Children have an uncanny way of internalising things that go wrong, 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 navigated childhood with affirming messages, your self-esteem in adulthood will be stronger; you will still get knocked when encountering a shaming experience, but not undone.
However, if shamed in childhood, a shaming event in adulthood can rip to the core. When this happens, the pain can be intense. The shame feels like 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 just not true that any human being is void of worth. Are you perfect? No. Do you make mistakes? Yes, you 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 person who ridicules, mocks or makes another person feel bad is not a nice person, plain and simple.
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 receive 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 to where 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).