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Shame and Gentleness

Let’s talk about the S-word…SHAME.

First, it’s important to understand what shame is. Though it is often associated and/or confused with guilt, shame is actually a different experience.

Guilt is an emotion that results from self-evaluations of specific actions we took (or did not take) and can lead to regret or other negative feelings about those specific actions. Moreover, guilt can often be resolved by changing the behavior(s) that caused it; in this way, guilt can actually be a healthy feeling that keeps us aligned with our sense of self, community and society.

Shame is like guilt on steroids! It is an emotion that results from negative evaluations of ourselves by others, and often has its roots in our childhood experience. For example, we may have been made to feel like we disappointed our parents/guardians in some way, or like we did something that they deemed as “wrong” or “bad." Sometimes this shaming is obvious, and sometimes it is expressed more unconsciously, which means that the adult figure takes their own shame and hands it down to the next generation. As we grow, the shame that was inflicted on us, whether consciously or unconsciously, becomes part of our own internal experience and can lead to monitoring or shaming ourselves when we are around our shame triggers. Because shame is not necessarily associated with specific actions in the present, it is often difficult to resolve and can lead to negative feelings about ourselves as a whole.

Though shame is an emotion just like happiness or sadness, we, as individuals and a society, often experience it as so much more than that.

On a societal level, shame is one of those unspoken, forbidden topics. Though it is actually universal among humans, almost no one talks about it, making it difficult to recognize and understand. Because of this, shame can make us feel isolated and alone on an individual level. Being ridiculed, criticized, or judged (or even assuming we’re going to be) can make us withdraw from others, which plays a large role in the association between shame and depression.

Another factor in this association is the fact that shame can make us believe falsehoods and generalizations about ourselves. Others’ negative evaluations of us, along with our own self isolation, can lead to negative self-beliefs. Unfortunately for us, because shame is not associated with specific actions, these beliefs are also non-specific, and they often involve being inadequate, powerless, worthless, and more (e.g. I am bad, I’m unworthy of love). Given enough time, these beliefs can become internalized, at which point we develop our own inner critic. This critic is harsh, and it can impact us even when we’re not feeling shame. In this way, shame, ultimately, can make us turn against and lose ourselves.

The outcome of this gradual process might look like never expressing our angry feelings to others without huge feelings of shame and regret. We might feel like we are “too sensitive” and shame ourselves for crying in front of a loved one, even when they actually want to know more about our feelings. We might stifle our sexual impulses, because we were shamed about our bodies, and now we don’t feel like it is okay to feel or express desire with another person. Shame, unfortunately, comes in all shapes and sizes, but the consistent themes are that it can keep us isolated, anxious, and disconnected, and it can make us turn to coping mechanisms like addiction, eating disorders, and other forms of self-sabotage that lead to… you guessed it…more shame.

But it doesn’t have to!

As with all our emotions, we don’t have to avoid or fight against our shame—we can work with it to gain understanding and growth. An integral part of this process is being gentle with ourselves when we experience shame. Examples of how to be gentle include:

  • Repeating affirmations

  • Offering words of kindness

  • Taking a bubble bath

  • Reaching out to a friend

  • Journaling

  • Nourishing our bodies

Gentleness may not be able to get rid of the critic forever, but it can help quiet it (and soothe ourselves) in the moment, and it can help our brains and bodies learn a new response to shame.

To further your work with shame, you might consider therapy! Speaking with a therapist who is warm, welcoming, and nonjudgmental, just like we aim to be here at The Holding Space, can offer a unique opportunity to heal and grow from present and past shame.

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