Everyone of us has experienced shame; from the warm wash of embarrassment to a scar that sears the heart like Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Downton Abbey’s Anna spoke of the sting of shame: “My shame has no where to hide. I’ve been spoiled.” Psychologist Brene Brown believes that shame “is an unspoken epidemic and the secret behind many forms of broken behavior” (Mar, 2012). Gershen Kaufmann, research pioneer on this same subject agrees: Shame is the affect which is the source of many complex and disturbing inner states: depression, alienation, self-doubt, isolating loneliness...compulsive disorders, splitting of the self, perfectionism, a deep sense of inferiority, inadequacy or failure, the so called borderline conditions and disorders of narcissism (1989).
Shame is no small thing. Unlike a fly in the coffee that can be plucked out, it’s more like creme that colors the whole cup.Yet shame isn’t all bad. Ignatian spirituality calls it the “grace of shame” because it keeps us humble. It also signals us to set boundaries. Functioning as a normal human emotion, shame flashes a yellow light when we cross a line that compromises our core values. That’s not a bad thing in a shameless society with blurred lines. But when shame saturates our self-image and seals our identity, it becomes “a state of being” that is toxic and dehumanizing. (Bradshaw, 1988, p vii). Unlike guilt that says you’ve made a mistake, shame says you are a mistake.
Shame’s sources are several. Society layers us with powerful lenses. Our worthiness can be based on money, class, status, race, roles and even norms. Citing Boston College researcher John Mahalick’s study on gender norms, Brown says women are to “do it perfectly and never let them see me sweat,” while men are never to be “perceived as weak” (ibid). But society isn’t the only culprit. Graceless religion rates us with strict rules, dysfunctional families heap on secrets that we're told to sweep under the rug, abusive trauma taunts we’re victims without a voice.
Like Anna said, the 'go to' solution is hiding. Shame, the first feeling word in the Bible (Genesis 2:25), sent Adam and Eve into hiding from God (Genesis 3:9-10). From rationalizing and denying to projecting and blaming, we’ve been hiding behind fig leaves ever since. Lewis Smedes says that grace is the solution to shame (1993, p 105). Secularizing grace, Brown says empathy's the antidote: “Put shame in a petri dish and it will grow in secrecy, silence and judgement. But expose it to empathy and it can’t survive” (ibid). What are some tips toward healing our shame?
In summary, despite little clinical literature on the subject of shame (Wheeler,1999), Yale psychologist Helen Block Lewis found that when shame was ignored in psychotherapy, client problems were prolonged or worsened. But when shame was recognized, treatment was shorter (1974). All the more reason to take Anna’s feelings of shame seriously. Because hiding can hurt us.
Bradshaw, J. (1988). Healing the Shame that Binds You. FL: HC, Inc.
Bradshaw. J. (1993). Bradshaw On: The Family. FL: HC, Inc.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly. NY: Gotham.
Brown, B. (2012). Retrieved January 29, 2014, from http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html?source=facebook#.UuUlM07IGGB.facebook
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and Society. NY: W.W. Norton.
Kaufman, G. (1989). The Psychology of Shame. MA: Schenkman.
Lewis, H.B. (1974). Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. NY: IUP.
Smedes, L. (1993). Grace and Shame. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Wheeler, G. (1991). Self and Shame: A Gestalt Approach.