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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: Shame

Monday, October 24, 2011


According to Wikpedia shame is "variously, affect, emotion, state or condition." In here, in my office, it's what sometimes comes up when unpacking feelings, events, memories, and things that have shaped us. It seems to be lurking sometimes, underneath anger, exhaustion, fear. It often gets mixed up with regret, remorse and rumination. It comes out often during discussions about actions and choices, past and present, relationships, fantasies and wishes. We are ashamed about all sorts of things.

Sometimes, we are ashamed about what we have done because of what someone else might think or expect of us, or what we think they would think or expect of us. Sometimes, it is our relationship with ourselves that brings it on, when we believe we have crossed over a line and nicked our own values, beliefs or self respect. Or when we think we are out of control in some way, or have made an unforgivable mistake.

And of course, many folks carry a lot of shame from the past, from childhood wounds or violations, from the actions of parents, from having bad feelings about actions of their parents. Shame can be confusing and painful all at once. And talking about it can be far from easy.

While some shame can be simple, uncomplicated and fleeting, from, perhaps, a passing thought, or a feeling we don't think we should have, the other kind of shame is deeper, darker and seems settled into the psyche. It is this kind of shame that requires more tenderness, more airtime, and more studying. We cannot just wish or ignore it away.

People often ask me, "so, what do I do with this feeling?" I don't think there is any one true answer. It does help to study it though, I think, a bit, before deciding what you might like to do with it. I think when a feeling is so bad, we tend to think we should or would like to just get rid of it, make it stop. But shame, like any feeling, can be put to good use. Getting rid of it may be the ultimate goal, but sometimes feeling it, considering what beliefs are holding it in place, and how it may help to move us out of a bad situation, or dangerous behavior can be helpful. Sometimes shame is blocking our self esteem. It may be standing in the way of genuinely good feelings about ourselves.

Sometimes, shame, like grief and anger, while difficult to bear, can be a connection to a person or time that we miss or long for, even when, confusingly, the situation caused us pain or trauma. Feeling shame can be a way punishing ourselves for something; we may be confused about what we really deserve, or what our role was. It may be a way of protecting ourselves from acknowledging the shortcomings or errors of others, or protecting them and ourselves from anger or disappointment. It may be a way of holding us back, if we are afraid to move forward in other ways.

When shame is a deep emotional imprint, it does not generally go away by instantly changing the thought behind it. It takes a bit more than that. It's not as simple as knowing that everyone makes mistakes, or that you are not the only one, or it wasn't your fault, though these may be helpful and true. It takes talking, and bravery and a willingness to reveal it, and then it can be decided what to do with it and why.

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