woman sad with head in hands

What is Underlying Shame?

Many of us walk through our days trying to survive. We’re stressed and we’re trying to cope with a multitude of pressures coming our way, while simultaneously trying to maintain an impression for others,” that everything is OK.” Meanwhile, there sits deep inside us a pervasive fear that we are not enough. A fear that we are impostors. A fear that if anyone else knew how truly insecure we were about measuring up that they would conclude that we are defective. Many of us look in the mirror and find little about our bodies that we’re satisfied with. We see ourselves as too fat, too wrinkly, too short, or too small in certain areas. We are brutal in our assessments of our self. We sometimes level scrutiny at ourselves for being too emotional, too sensitive, and potentially too vulnerable. Some of us have a pervasive fear that if we are seen as we truly are, that others will be aghast at what they see. So, we guard ourselves against the purview of others.

How do we Better Understand Shame?

Shame is the underlying core belief that we are essentially defective. It is an emotionally charged and deeply held belief that we do not measure up. Intellectually, a person carrying this deep shame can easily state that they’re smart, well adjusted, and valuable. However, when looking into the mirror in the morning to get ready, or after “failing” at something, even something small, a pervasive sense of shame wells up inside. I have many clients who in their cognitive self, can assert that they are valuable human beings. Simultaneously, just beneath this, on an emotional level, they carry a deep and pervasive sense of their unworthiness. Shame is not to be confused with guilt. Guilt is feeling remorseful for a wrong done. In contrast, shame is feeling defective in who we are. Shame is a profound sense inside us that “we are not enough.”

What are the Roots of Shame?

Many wounds and childhood messages fertilize the roots of our shame. Some have had parents convey, sometimes unknowingly, very damaging messages. You’ve been told you are “selfish,” “fat,” “ugly,” “unimportant.” Some of these messages are explicit and others are implicit and internalized over many years. Some have been treated as invisible. Others are taught the “no talk rule.” This is the family rule that we don’t talk about who we really are or how we truly feel. Some of you have been literally bruised and battered by parents or siblings. Others, have been sexually molested by relatives, neighbors, or friends. Some of you have lived under the shadow of parental alcoholism or drug abuse. Others have walked the halls of horror in homes with unspeakable acts. As children, we are hardwired when experiencing trauma or negativity to internalize it and make it about ourselves. When those that are entrusted with our care falter or outright fail, our leaning as children is to internalize the failure as our own. “It must be me,” we naturally believe. We are very determined not to doubt our parents as we emotionally need them to be our compass and source of safety. So, when they falter, we conclude it must be us. This self-blame fertilizes the seeds of shame in our psyche.

What are the Consequences of Shame?

Shame colors all of our relationships and reactions to situations. Shame tells us that our mistakes are catastrophic and unacceptable. Shame makes us suspicious of those who try to love us. Shame limits our trust of others and their motives. Shame drives us to attempts through performance to one day earn our worth and to prove that “we are enough.” Yet, the harder we try through doing everything “right,” it still eludes us. Performance-based living never quells the disquietude of the shame deep within. Instead, a performance-based valuation of ourselves feeds shame because we seem to never to do quite enough to quiet its voice. Thus, it actually feeds the shame. Shame causes us to enter relationships that are not healthy because we assume we don’t deserve better. Shame leads to crash diets, weight gain in an attempt to hide from others, and extreme fitness to show the world that we measure up. Shame can lead to and fuel addictions as part of the desperate attempt to feel relief from the pain of self-doubt. Shame uses any situation in relationships to reinforce its core message that others will ultimately disapprove of and reject us. Hence, it leads us into overreacting to situations with other people and to misinterpret their motives as rejection when they may need space, or are busy and have a hard time getting back to us. Shame finds its way into parenting, marriage, career, and all aspects of our lives. Most people have at least some degree of shame that they need to manage.

How do we Find Healing and Freedom from Shame?

The start to combating shame always begins with two important questions. The first is what people and influences in our lives have explicitly or implicitly contributed to our shame? Second, what is the source of our value? Our first task is to write out an inventory of our lives. We can take note of people and situations which may have given us the impression that we’re not valuable, worthwhile, or lovable. Then, we can evaluate our inventories of past influences and recognize those negative messages from the past that we need to disarm. The second question that comes to play in confronting shame is about the source of our value. Those who are most successful in experiencing a dependable basis for their value, place it outside of their performance. They seek a more stable and dependable source, such as their inherent worth as a human being. Some rely on faith in God and the inherent value given by the creator. Others think of a powerful person in their childhood like a healthy parent, or their favorite grandmother, as a reminder of their inherent value. It is important to choose a narrative which affirms our inherent value and lovability. We can then reinforce our thinking and beliefs on this appropriate basis. We can make a list of all our good qualities. Post these on the bathroom mirror and read them every morning. We can reinforce a sense of our value and seek others in our lives who support us in healthy ways. We can seek validation through inspirational readings, like the Bible, and other sources, such as podcasts, poetry and music. Lastly, we can seek guidance from a professionally trained psychologist or counselor to assist us in this journey. Shame can be confronted and overcome. Often, the journey is ongoing and consists of a lifetime of fostering an accurate view of ourselves as unique, valuable, and very lovable people. Along the path, we learn to answer the hardest question of our existence in the affirmative, “yes, I am enough and definitely lovable.”