Most of us have felt self-conscious from time to time. Self-conscious emotions include embarrassment, guilt and humiliation. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll lump them together here under the broad category of shame. Even an 18-month-old child can feel shame. Young children respond to something as simple as a disapproving glance from a parent.
Some forms of shame come from our own actions, and some are inflicted upon us by others. In adults, shame often happens when you breach something within a relationship and thereby risk or receive disapproval. The experience of shame lets you know when you’re in danger of overstepping (or already have done so). As Dr Robert Neborsky, clinical professor of psychiatry at USDC School of Medicine, puts it, the role of shame is to “let you know when you’re about to make a boundary violation or to let you know where you stand socially, in terms of ranking and value within the group.”
All this makes sense in terms of the fact that we are human beings, social creatures who seek to belong, and desire safety and security. The shame signal alerts us to the possibility of an invisible line that should not be crossed, in much the same way a dog collar might send an electrical zap when the dog runs up on the invisible fence.
For people who have healthy shame, the system runs normally: They rarely breach, and they rarely get zapped. For people who carry unhealthy shame, it’s another story. They breach and bungle (or perceive that they have done so) in big and small ways, and the shame signal goes haywire, sending off alerts right and left, causing confusion and emotional mayhem. A tiny embarrassment feels monumental. A questionable moment becomes a major mishap. The molehill becomes the mountain.
Moving on from shame requires three actions:
- Recognize the shame as it happens. Make the unconscious shame conscious. When you feel embarrassed or awash in guilt or deeply uncomfortable about your own behavior, stop and examine your feelings to determine if the experience amounts to something in the shame category. If you’re feeling self-conscious, odds are that you’re having a flash of some version of shame. Knowing that fact will allow you to move to the next step.
- Remove the self from the shame experience. Shame compounds upon itself when the experiencer identifies with the shame and pulls it into his or her sense of self. When you isolate the experience and explore it, you remove it from your personal identity. Detach the negative emotions from your story about who you are. The story is about an experience, not about your selfhood.
- Re-attune emotionally by repairing the breach. Once you realize that you are not your shame, you can mend the breach (if, indeed, one occurred) by apologizing or repairing the relationship in question. If a sense of core shame overrides the system, you’ll need self-compassion, an understanding that mistakes happen and growth follows.
Studies by Canadian researcher and psychoanalyst H. Davanloo showed that shame happens early when a child experiences the broken bond of attachment. In his research on shame, he repeatedly asked the question, “In the structural model, where is the pain?” When he looked for the pain, he was looking for the breach, the brokenness, and he suggested that what is most important is repair.
The repair can be an inside job (self-compassion), or it can happen within relationships. The relationship can be a professional therapeutic one, or it can happen within loving, sympathetic relationships with spouses, family, or friendships.
Think about what happens in the therapy office. Therapists follow the Three R’s to assist clients who have trouble with excessive shame. They help the client Recognize the shame, Remove it from the client’s sense of selfhood, and offer ongoing emotional Re-attunement in the process. Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly explains, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
This is a call to action for us all. We don’t have to wait for a therapy appointment to help each other manage shame. We can repair breaches, regulate emotion and restore attunement with the people around us by paying attention, offering understanding and being willing to forgive others and ourselves.