“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
If you’ve experienced a childhood trauma (the death of a parent, childhood neglect, or emotional, physical, or sexual abuse), then chances are that you’ve also experienced shame. Those us who have experienced childhood trauma (I lost both my parents by the time I was X-years-old) are especially susceptible to feelings of shame. We often carry the scars from this long into our adult lives because we have not unraveled our confusions from shame.
But there is encouraging news! While we may not have had control of events or our feelings as children, as adults, we can look shame in the face and try to understand where it comes from and transform our experience of it.
To let go of shame, we first have to define and identify it. It could be defined as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. It can also be explained as a feeling of loss of respect or esteem.
In researching childhood trauma and grief for my upcoming book, TITLE, I found a treasure of information by a fantastic author who writes about shame. Brené Brown is the most prominent shame researcher. You may be familiar with Brown from her many Oprahappearances, New York Times bestsellers Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection, or her ground-breaking Ted Talk on vulnerability that has been seen more than 34 million times.
While her research alone is fascinating what I truly admire is her vulnerability in admitting that she too is no stranger to shame. This made her work even more meaningful to me. I thought, with relief, she understands. Brown’s work is the most valuable I have found that offers helpful and enlightening information about shame. Her books describe how to recognize shame and suggest practical tools to transform shame into self-understanding.
Guilt Vs. Shame
Most of us remember this phrase from our childhood, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Whether you are being accused rightly or wrongly, you know what this means and how it feels. We may have done something wrong and feel remorse; this is guilt and is a healthy response. Or we may feel shame for a reprimand even if we are not guilty. Guilt and shame are not the same. Exploring the difference helps unravel confusing feelings.
Brown’s research narrows the difference to this:
Guilt = I did something bad.
Guilt is a healthy reaction when we act outside our values and standards. Guilt can lead to positive behavioral changes. Guilt can teach us a lesson. It’s easier to move on from guilt.
Shame = I am bad.
Shame is something we learn and makes us believes we are unlovable or bad to our core. Shame colors our perceptions of who we are and can lead to self-defeating and harmful behaviors. Shame is not easily left behind. Shame discourages change.
Childhood Trauma and Shame
Something I remember from my childhood is the discomfort of not being like my friends because of my unusual family situation. Everywhere I looked, my peers had two parents or at least one. Orphaned, I was being raised by my brother and sister-in-law. I tried to hide and ignore these feelings. Still, they held me back.
Also, I could not let anyone know how I felt. It was as if admitting there was something wrong, would cast further shame my direction. I never understood my feelings. I had done nothing wrong, yet I felt like I had. Or worse, I thought, I was the problem; that there was something inherently wrong with me. I felt responsible and shame. These feeling were stuffed down yet came up uncomfortably now and then. And, I hated when this happened.
As children, we may have felt shame because we did not fit in and wanted to hide. This behavior may have stuck with us, and it may feel normal. Replacing these behavior patterns with more mature healthy behavior can be healing and helpful. Even though you may have tucked this away, it is not too late to change. As kids, we had little control over our environment. Guess what? You are grown up now, and you have much more control and many more resources.
Recognizing Shame from Childhood Trauma
- Have you ever felt like hiding?
- Have you felt the need to cover up who you are or what was happening in your life?
- Have you ever had a fear of another’s judgment along with a physical reaction?
- Are you wary of being stereotyped because of something you have no control over?
- Do you recall feeling sheepish, embarrassed, with no one you could talk to?
As a child, I felt this way as well as being very confused by these feelings. Now, I realize that many times, when I felt like this, it was the feeling of shame for not what I had done, but what had happened to me.
Recognizing Implied Shame
- Have you ever noticed the feeling of being accused show up when nothing explicit is being said?
It’s a tone, a twist of a phrase, a look, or body language meant to imply something is amiss with you. Without any words, implying that you are in some way not okay and that you should feel ashamed. This is being shamed.
- Have you noticed sarcasm or a seemingly ‘joking’ communication?
- Do you recognize a pattern of being poked in your sensitive spots?
Sometimes this is joking, and sometimes not. Sometimes this is a pattern of behavior from a person who is unwilling—or lacks the skills—to communicate with clarity. You have the right to address this. Many of us who have been shamed as children have trouble putting our finger on what is happening. We feel confused. We may want to tell ourselves that the irritated look or snarky comment is nothing and dismiss our feelings. Resist this! When you notice shame coming your way, address it. We all need practice, and we may need help forming new healthy patterns.
Tackling Shame with Talk Therapy
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
I couldn’t agree more with this quote from Brown’s work. I found working with a therapist was the best way to begin unraveling childhood shame that has colored your adult world. Your gut will speak to you! Listen! Until you learn to recognize implied shaming, it can be confusing.
Know that you don’t deserve to be shamed; you deserve honest communication. Know that childhood shame does not have to follow us into adulthood. As kids, we were not the captains of our own ships. We had little to no little control over our environment. We may have had to suffer and be quiet about it. As an adult, we now make the rules, and your voice deserves to be heard. Talking with a therapist is a smart start to unraveling your shame.
How Shame Colors Our World
Unexplored shame is insidious. It can color our perceptions of situations and people. We may allow people and situations in our lives that do not support, or may even hurt us because it feels “normal.” In short, unexplored shame allows us to endure behaviors from others that are not in our best interest. If you begin to recognize shame, this changes. You have more clarity in your life experience and your relationships.
If this resonates with you, I encourage you to explore further. Clarity and understanding are useful tools; lasers that will help cut through to the truth. And, freedom from shame involves untangling a web that includes our intellects, emotions, and physical selves. Shining a light on whatever it is (or was) is a productive way to begin.
Taking a Stand Against Shame
Being and feeling shamed as a child leaves a scar so please be patient with yourself. The good news about being an adult is that you are in charge.
Here are some action steps:
- Be observant and aware of the secret shame in your life.
- Talk to a trusted friend or therapist about your observations.
- Be courageous and begin making changes in your life.
Your journey to leaving shame behind begins with noticing and ends with freedom. You will experience old patterns falling away as more happiness and joy show up. Go on; I’ll be thinking of you and silently cheering.