Shame is the belief that we are fundamentally flawed, bad, or worthless. We can shame others by attacking their person, and we can shame ourselves through negative self-talk and self-sabotage.
Shame is different from guilt, because guilt is to feel badly about something we have done; shame is to feel badly about who we are. We might develop shame because we have been shamed at some point in our life. Shame can be a kind of anger and violence directed at ourselves or others.
Shame can get us into a vicious cycle of sabotaging ourselves, as if to prove to ourselves, to validate and enforce the belief of how worthless we perceive ourselves to be. This can be a form of self-abuse used to violently express our anger, often unconsciously. Self-shame also helps us remain in a victim role, as we victimize ourselves with self-administered punishment and negative reinforcement.
When shamed, we develop an internal persona that feels badly about who we are as a person. As a result, we might condemn ourselves, feel less-than, and perceive the world negatively. Shame is also often concomitant with some degree of depression, when we feel worthless. Yet, this feeling of worthlessness might be more a symptom of depression than bona fide shame. On the other hand, depression can also arise from being shamed by others and by ourselves.
Surprisingly, it can be scary to leave the insular world of shame. To maintain this suffocation and prevent against realizing that we have been living a small life and that we can change our reality by working through our shame, we seem to find every justification to stay in our little box of mediocrity.
To this end, we sabotage ourselves, turn away goodness (also because we don’t yet know how to let it in,) engage in negative perspectives and consider these negative beliefs we have learned and to which we have grown accustomed to be facts about who we are. Of course, this is not the case, as we can change our beliefs and perspectives, even if we have harboured shame for a long time.
Shame is a one-two punch in that it both creates a negative and impoverished sense of self and it perpetuates that poverty.
Shame’s first punch is a negative self-image dealt to us by impoverished and condemning others. To heal the punitive false beliefs about our core sense of self we need to contact and reprogram this narrative. To recover through shame we also need to address the emotions caused by the violence done to us, emotions that often remain repressed until we confront and begin to work with our shame.
We can uproot, unearth, and replace the negative operating system of false beliefs about ourselves. Releasing any pent-up rage, fear, and sadness from being unloved and shamed instead is also key because these emotions keep us stuck, especially by preventing us from receiving goodness. This way we can disarm shame’s first, original blow.
Shame’s second punch is a fear of feeling shame again, of admitting and seeing shame’s first punch. If we were to see shame’s architecture inside us, we might shame ourselves for being this way, which is to shame ourselves more and build more shame on top of shame’s first punch. In other words, shame scares us into believing that we would shame ourselves for admitting and embodying our original shame.
So, not only do we have the first punch of a negative shame operating in us, but to recognize and reveal that programming can trigger more shame: self-shaming ourselves on top of that shame that’s already there. This is why shame is particularly insidious: it prevents us from pursuing our healing because we shut down our recognition of it for fear of activating our self-criticism, the critical shame that hurt us in the first place.
Shame’s second punch might trigger this kind of self-talk: “Oh God, I’m so awful for having these feelings, for failing, and for being such a loser for so long.” Of course, if we are afraid of this voice, we might knee-jerk into shutting down awareness of our shame altogether so we don’t have to feel worse for self-judging ourselves over our shame. This of course only keeps our shame hidden and lethal.
Shame, self-condemnation and judgment can also develop through unhealthy envy. It’s one thing to feel envy — to covet what someone else has — but it’s another to spin a story about our unworthiness or being a complete failure because of it. Competitiveness can spark us to excel and even be fun, but when it’s used as a weapon against us, it becomes toxic and leads to shame that gets in the way of our thriving.
When we can recognize when shame’s second punch is being delivered, we can cut through its lies to get to our core shame. Remembering that shame’s first punch is not our fault and something we learned from someone else, often as vulnerable children, we can similarly work with shame’ second punch the same way. We can treat shaming ourselves over our shame the same way we do our original shame: deconstruct, reprogram, and release any toxic emotions in our shame. Expressing and acting with self-compassion is crucial at this point as we allow the stuck feelings to emerge and learn to treat ourselves kindly and to tolerate relationships that also treat us well.
Sadly, we often learn shame’s second punch from those who dealt us the first. We might even hear in our own self-shame the haunting echo of a parent, sibling, or teacher. We break through shame’s double-whammy by recognizing the dynamics of all this. If we’re not able to notice and admit it, we don’t stand a good chance to heal shame that keeps us down. After all, we all have wounds, and to be a grown-up means to take responsibility for our own healing and not remain in old beliefs that perpetuate our mediocrity. In fact, healing our emotional wounds is a key initiation into adulthood, as we learn to free up the vitality, creativity, and aliveness that got squelched in us once ago.
Part of the cage of negativity shame builds for us seeks to keep us in that cage. We humans like to stick with what we know. Believe it or not, it’s easier to remain stuck (and remain bitter) than to break free and learn a new way of being. To break out of the shame-game requires courage, humility, and an ability to tolerate the fear of scary emotions and to live outside our comfort zone.
If we have not recognized and decoded shame’s dynamic in us, we keep our world small by shooting down solutions, thwarting goodness and dismissing promising opportunities—because we don’t believe we deserve them. And, a less obvious reason why we do this is that growing into accepting goodness and abundance would rattle our comfortable, familiar cage and put us in touch our sense of unworthiness. It’s much easier to stay small and bitter rather than confront our fears and shadow by acting differently.
If we don’t mount the fight to overcome shame, it will cleverly and often covertly (beneath our awareness) sabotages goodness, as if to say, “See, it’s true, life is unfair and I’m right about how useless and worthless I am.” Mounting this “fight” against shame, mind you, includes lots of self-acceptance and self-compassion, because part of healing shame is to recognize the survival dynamics of why we developed shame: because once ago when we were unawares and powerless at the behest of adults, we took on shame for a fear of offending or upsetting our elders for fear that we would be abandoned by them—physically and/or emotionally.
Of course, these fears may not be true and to a child they are as real and terrifying as anything. As adults, these shameful beliefs we harbor aren’t factual unless we make them so. It’s the lie we tell to further sabotage ourselves. It’s what we secretly do to fend off the scariness of change and the realizations that come with it, which often includes some remorse for not doing the healing work sooner. But, hey, better late than never, and we can grieve and shake off the lost months and years so that we at least rescue the remainder of our life from the shackles of shame’s iron fist.
So, if we don’t recognize our shame, we never get to move beyond our illusory limitations. We never get to experience, hang onto, and build upon abundance because we don’t believe we are worth it. This goodness is so incongruous with our perceived self-image and inner dialogue that we just aren’t able to accept it, hold onto it and build upon it . . . until we break through. Having the cognitive understanding of shame’s first and second punches helps us navigate and cope ahead as we travel healing shame’s unsettling and unsettled waters.
We will do almost anything to keep ourselves down, just the way we are, so we don’t have to confront our shame and all the dreadful emotions and regrets that come with it. Often, we do this unconsciously. But if we can see the territory before entering into it, then we have a better chance to move beyond the apparent roadblocks that prevent us from healing the toxic mess shame makes of our lives.
Shame operates unconsciously until we become conscious of it. Some of these unconscious mechanisms include gambling away our savings, talking ourselves out of or compulsively rejecting an attractive and worthwhile partner and coming up with many reasons not to accept better opportunities. These include a) focusing on and emphasizing the negative or risky aspects of anything new b) attacking others’ suggestions for how to move into a different and better life and to make different, often uncomfortable, changes c) treating ourselves poorly by not exercising or eating poorly, and c) repeatedly recreating stressful, impoverished, abusive scenarios.
Shaming, especially what we receive from an early age, is pernicious. While we might feel that the people who shamed us or otherwise instilled worthlessness in us might be evil and deserving of the cruelest punishment, at some point we have to be willing to move beyond blame. Paradoxically, at first this might look like unleashing our hatred towards them in a safe, therapeutic context in which we let out our venom for being abused. We don’t have to express ourselves directly to the person who shamed and hurt us. Working with a psychotherapist can help determine appropriate action and how to vent and purge without causing more damage and burning bridges in the process. As this toxicity is purged, we naturally move through and eventually beyond blame . . . and shame.
By releasing the hatred in our toxic shame instead of directing it towards ourselves or others, we also diffuse the backlog of anguish we have used to punish and keep ourselves down (as well as our loved ones). Simultaneously, we learn to talk and treat ourselves more kindly. As we take responsibility, learn to receive goodness from everyone and everything, we might find we stop blaming the world for our misfortune . . . which we realize was just a way for us to defend against healing and moving through the gauntlet of shame.
So yes, we have obstacles, yes we have suffered, yes we have some tough healing to do. Yes we are angry and full of rage, yes we didn’t deserve it and yes we have every good reason to be exactly as pissed off and resentful as we are. At the same time, we have every reason to take responsibility for and transform our current state and reclaim our lives. We overcome shame by noticing and admitting our dynamics, processing hurt feelings, thinking differently to gain positive new perspectives, and acting in ways that build resources to improve our lives. All these obstacles require that we endure the uncomfortable lies and mediocre ways of being we have learned and are now unlearning. This way we learn to tolerate goodness until it becomes a new normal.
Tolerating newfound goodness from the graveyard of shame can be difficult because it pushes our buttons; it flies in the face of who we have believed and witnessed ourselves to be. This is part of why we sabotage and try to keep our world small: so we don’t have to deal with the distress of cognitive dissonance, of moving beyond our self-image, which only keeps our world small and suffering large.
Another reason we might not want to confront goodness and abundance is that we might have to stop complaining and condemning as much. Yet another reason is because we might wake up to the fact that we have been sabotaging ourselves for a long time, maybe years or decades. And this sad realization can sink us into grief or even depression. So, coming out of shame is no small task and if the going gets too rough or we can’t seem to break through, it’s probably best to seek the support of a therapist.
Once we see the dynamics of shame’s one-two punch—how it diminishes our lives and then perpetuates that poverty—we can set out with courage and confidence and appropriate humility to purge the toxic emotional backlog, rewrite the narrative for our self-care and care of others, and inhabit a new life of prosperity. Heck, one day we might even help others heal from their own toxic shame. If you or someone you love suffers from shame, I hope this writing has helped you.
About The Author
Jack Adam Weber, L.Ac., MA, is Chinese medicine physician, having graduated valedictorian of his class in 2000. He has authored hundreds of articles, thousands of poems, and several books. Weber is an activist for embodied spirituality and writes extensively on the subjects of holistic medicine, emotional depth work, and mind-body integration, all the while challenging his readers to think and act outside the box. Weber’s latest creation is the Nourish Practice, a deeply restorative, embodied meditation practice as well as an educational guide for healing the wounds of childhood. His work can be found at jackadamweber.com, on Facebook, or Twitter, where he can also be contacted for life-coaching and medical consultations.