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The Many Faces of Shame


When you hear the word shame, the first thing that likely comes up is an image of some intense scene with crying and shutting down.  This happens with shame, but there are also lots of ways shame shows up that aren't so obvious.  Becoming familiar with shame, its impact, and its many faces can help you break the cycle of suffering it ignites.

Let's start with a definition of shame.  Shame is the feeling you get when you perceive that your worth or basic sense of goodness is threatened.  It's about your identity, who you are as a person.  This is distinct from guilt, which is the feeling you get when you perceive that your behavior was out of alignment with your values.  In a world in which you are perfectly self-aware and grounded in your goodness, these feelings would act as alarms bringing your attention to your behavior so that you can change course and/or repair anything that you have done that was harmful.

In most cases, however, the impact of shame is usually one of more suffering.  An article in a local paper recently was saying something to the effect that people should have more shame, then they would behave better.  Unfortunately, like I said above, this is only true when you are perfectly self-aware and grounded in your goodness.  Otherwise, the most common impact of shame is that you become less responsible, literally unable to respond.  Shame will typically shut down your thinking, your heart, and even your physical body to some degree.  When unconscious shame is consistently present, it will push you towards defending, puffing yourself up, focusing on yourself at the cost of others, and numbing behaviors like - alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, overworking, T.V., filling every spare moment with checking your phone, and so on.  Given that these are pretty common behaviors around the world, my guess is that we already have more shame than we can manage.

Shaming happens daily in systems, in personal interactions, and inside yourself.  When you are in a system that prioritizes profit, things, tasks, or even service to others over your own well-being, a subtle or not so subtle shaming and feeling of shame is likely the result.  For example, recently I was travelling by air.  I was travelling with an airline I had never been on before.  When I sat in coach, I had to make myself quite a bit smaller physically to fit into the seat (and I am not a very big person).  This particular airline had clearly worked to squeeze every bit of space out of its plane.  The arrangement of seats sent a clear message that people don't matter as much as profit.  This is a pretty mild example in the big scheme of things and at the same time it reveals the pervasiveness of inhumane systems that give rise to a sense of shame.

The easiest way to spot shame in an interpersonal interaction is by noticing when you are defending, spending most of the time in an interaction talking about yourself, or remaining silent when you would like to share.  Shame can show up in the simplest interactions.  For example, someone sees you working and says, "Hey, don't get so stressed out, this is no big deal."  S/he may be trying to contribute to your sense of relaxation, but you hear an accusation and begin giving all the good reasons you have for feeling stressed out.  

In your internal dialogue, shame shows up most often in the form of "shoulds".  Each time you tell yourself that you should or shouldn't be a certain way, shame is likely present.  Here are some shoulds you might recognize:

  • I shouldn't be so sensitive.

  • I should be able to handle this.

  • I should be stronger.

  • I shouldn't be such an idiot.

  • I should be thinner

  • I should be a better parent (counselor, nurse, supervisor, teacher, etc.)

When you try to make a change in your life from a sense of shame it takes you in a self-defeating circle, forever trying to get away from what you don't like.  Lasting change grows out of your excitement and aliveness around creating something you care about.  Lasting change moves towards something life-giving in a grounded and empowered way.


Choose one of the three places that shame can show up (in a system, with others, with yourself) to pay attention to for the week.  Watch for symptoms like shrinking, numbing out, shutting down, shoulds, and defending.  Next week's Connection Gem will focus on how to intervene with shame when you notice it's present.

For comprehensive research on shame check out the work of Brene Brown:


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Bringing Light to Shame
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2 Responses

  1. Jun 22, 2015

    This describes perfectly why prison is such a debilitating system. It takes people who are already vulnerable and often come from shame-based family systems, and puts them into an inescapable environment where every daily interaction seems designed to induce more shame. Just going in as a visitor several times a week is starting to affect me in ways that I don't have the internal resources to counter-act. I look forward to the next gem.

  2. Jun 24, 2015

    Yeah, I can see how that would start to affect a visitor as well.

    I can only imagine the system in prison, but I did get a glimpse of this when I was in the detention center for two days in AU. Even though the guards were very friendly and kind, the system still was set up in a particular way that didn't tend towards wholeness.

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