The Purpose of Shame
What may surprise many people is that far from being a useless, destructive emotion, shame actually serves an important purpose and is part of our survival mechanism. In fact shame is borne out of a deep sense of caring - to feel shame you have to care and without shame there would be no empathy.
At a primal level (from where all our emotions arise), our survival as humans is dependent upon being part of a tribe. To be shunned or ostracized by the tribe would threaten our very survival, therefore we need to ensure our acceptance. Similarly, as human infants we are wholly dependent upon our primary caregivers to keep us alive - we are unable to fend for ourselves for many years.
To ensure our safety, and therefore the continuity of the species, the human body has developed ways and means to maintain these bonds between both our caregivers and the tribe at large. Our body has its own pharmacy and drives our behavior with a chemical reward and punishment system. Proximity to the caregiver promotes the release of a ‘happy pill’ - a blend of dopamine, oxytocin, and our own natural opioids - that rewards us for staying safe. Separation from the caregiver will induce a stress cascade with the release of cortisol followed by adrenaline as the fight or flight response is launched - the body’s ‘cattle prod’ to force us back into the safety of our tribe. So we are programmed at a chemical level to stay close to our caregivers and, like any love-drug, our internal chemicals also imbue us with a sense that these people can do no wrong!
However, humans are human, and parents (however well-intentioned) are not always the ‘gods’ our chemistry may lead us to believe. So what happens when a parent or caregiver behaves in a way that is either hurtful or even harmful to a child? Believing that the caregiver is wrong would destabilize the child’s whole survival mechanism - to break the narrative that “this person is supposed to keep me safe” would lead to a cognitive dissonance that borders on madness. Therefore, it becomes easier to believe that “I must have done something wrong to provoke this” or that “I am a bad person” rather than believe that one’s security blanket is full of holes.
While our fight or flight response would normally drive us to ‘get out of Dodge’ when we are under threat, this is not typically an option for a small child. So we do the next best thing - dive deep inside ourselves and hide. This is known as the shutdown response and it is the home of depression.
It is too scary for children to believe that their caregivers are bad so shame is actually the safest option. Self-blame is the result of the individual trying to gain some control - when something is too big or bad to fathom, if you blame yourself then you are at least taking some action.
While shame clearly served a purpose during childhood, now that we are grown up and know that our caregivers are simply human and have their flaws like everyone else, the shame narrative is no longer useful. However, the emotional programming of the body chemistry and nervous system responses are still wired for the shame response. Now every time we experience criticism, someone raises his or her voice, or we experience behavior that evokes those childhood memories, then the frame of shame locks in. We return to the self-blame narrative and potentially retreat into the shutdown mode that provided us with shelter in the past.
With our adult sense of reason we may try to ‘logic’ our way out of it, but this all too often turns back to the language of self-blame: “you’re being stupid”; “this response is inappropriate”; “why do you always react this way?”.
However, there is a fundamental reason why this reasoning strategy cannot work. Shame is not a thought, it is a feeling. When someone experiences shame it evokes an unpleasant bodily sensation that is typically felt below the diaphragm in the abdominal area. It is a primitive emotion that predates the existence of the ‘logical’ part of our brains. In fact when we experience shame, the areas that deal with logic are suppressed and no wiring exists to relay messages of reason down to the lower areas that are producing these sensations. We cannot think our way out of this maze, so we need to turn to our bodies.
The shame response can be reprogrammed but this can only be done by changing what is going on in the body, and the unpleasant sensations actually need to be online for us to do that. So the next time you feel a shame response, rather than thinking “oh no, here we go again….”, you should welcome it as an opportunity for change.
One of the greatest antidotes for shame is social connection with a trusted partner, friend, or family member - someone that you know will not judge you. Animals can also be wonderful allies on this journey if there is a trusting bond between you. Here’s how it works:
When we experience those feelings deep down below the diaphragm and find ourselves wanting to shut off from the world, this means that a primitive part of our nervous system has been activated (the dorsal branch of our Vagus Nerve for any anatomy geeks out there!). This is a remnant from our reptilian ancestry that sends us into a state of paralysis in the face of a threat - reptiles effectively play dead in the hope that the predator will pass them by. In order to bring us out of this state, we need to get a little ‘kick’ from our sympathetic nervous system to mobilize us back into regular mode. Then, we need to come back into social connection to reassure ourselves that we are still part of the tribe - this is where the mutual gaze of a trusted friend or even a pet comes in.
Eye contact serves to bring our parasympathetic nervous system online which signals to the body that all is well and the threat has passed. Physical contact can also be reassuring - the touch of a hand, or a calming hand on the shoulder. Airing and sharing the underlying issue and shining a light on it is also very powerful if you feel safe to do so.
In the words of Carl Jung “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size” - by constantly suppressing the feelings of shame, they will remain a part of your emotional pattern and will become amplified over time. Darkness is obliterated by light and when you finally share your burden of shame, its power will be removed forever.
Here are some steps to help you on that journey:
When you feel triggered into a shame state, become aware of the sensations you are experiencing. Perhaps it is a queasy feeling in the gut, tightness around the solar plexus area, or butterflies. For some this may be followed by a slide towards a shutdown response. Become familiar with these sensations, analyze and catalog them as they will be your cues that the system is online and available for reprogramming.
Keep the body in the present
As those feelings start to appear and you feel like you want to disappear, bring yourself into the present moment. Here are some ways to do that:
- Bring your awareness to your feet on the ground or your pelvis in the chair
- Tap or pat your arms or legs to bring awareness to your periphery
- Regulate your breathing pattern by breathing in to the count of 4 and out to the count of 4
- Hum so that you can feel the vibration of your lips and throughout the whole body
Find a trusted friend with whom you can make eye contact - ideally, prep them beforehand so they know to be there for you. This can also be done with a trusted pet whose non-judgmental gaze will be equally soothing. The physical contact of the touch of a hand or stroking the pet can further strengthen the connection.
Airing and sharing
If you feel comfortable to do so, sharing your thoughts verbally can also be useful as long as there is no judgement from the other party. The tendency to suppress or repress the underlying thoughts only makes them stronger.
Repeat these sequences whenever the feelings of shame arise. Remember that reprogramming our emotional responses is no different to learning how to ride a bike or play an instrument - repetition and practice get the job done! There is a famous saying that refers to how the body programs itself: “What fires together wires together” (Donald Hebb). If you always repeat the pattern of shutdown when the shame response is triggered, then the body will get very good at doing it! By choosing an alternate response, with repetition the body will wire the new sensations to the trigger of shame.
These are some basic steps you can take to overcome feelings of shame, but if those patterns are deeply entrenched, then it would be wise to seek the guidance of a mental health professional to help you on the journey. Modalities such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming) and Somatic Experiencing have shown to be very quick and effective methods of re-framing the shame response.
When shame is allowed to persist it infiltrates so many aspects of our lives and how we respond to others, and can stop us from fulfilling our greatest potential as human beings. Shining a light on shame, naming it, and re-framing it can free us from this unnecessary burden and allow us to reconnect with a sense of joy and purpose. Remove the frame of shame and paint yourself a new portrait instead.
The Big Picture
Shame frames us into a self-perpetuating loop where self-blame, self-sabotage, and generalized anxiety abound. The internal narrative of shame will turn “I did something bad today” into “I am a bad person”. It lowers self-esteem so we expect to do badly, then when we do, shame says “I told you so!” and the cycle continues. However, shame is a protective mechanism that at some point in our history kept us safe - it had a purpose. When we understand how and why our shame patterns began, we can begin to unravel the programming that keeps us in the shame frame. By deleting the old programming and introducing a new pattern, we can break out of the frame and paint a new portrait that shows our fullest potential.