Most of us can remember a circumstance in our life where we felt the sting of embarrassment or humiliation, those unwanted but common experiences that are part of growing up. For instance:

Striking out at the little league game in front of family and friends; hearing about a classmate’s Healing from shamebirthday party and finding out you were the only one not invited; going on an intense amusement park ride with your peers only to “lose your lunch” before you make it out of the gates, in plain view of everyone. We could probably all create a long list of humiliating moments that we’d rather forget.

These are painful moments that make us want to run and hide. And hopefully they are just that—moments, temporary experiences that pass and allow us to move on with our lives.

But some experiences aren’t so easy to rebound from. For example, being the target of bullying or cruel pranks; discovering that vicious rumors have been spread about you; being told by your best friend that you’ve been replaced. When we’re at most vulnerable, the wounds of shame can leave an indelible stain that stays with us throughout our lives.

Over the last couple of decades, shame has moved from the theoretical shadows in the world of mental health to being seen as causative to some types of suffering. The shame experience results from relational-emotional wounding that occurs early in our lives; and when the wounding is repetitive and stays unhealed, shame can become a deeply rooted problem.

The pain of humiliation

“Shame is like a subatomic particle. One’s knowledge of shame is often limited to the trace it leaves.”  ~ Michael Lewis, Ph.D., Shame: The Exposed Self

Imagine, for a moment, you are at a dinner party with friends, coworkers and someone you hope to form a romantic relationship with. And as you’re walking with a full plate of food to find a place to sit, you trip and fall. The food goes flying and the plate shatters. As you get up you can feel everyone watching you. The host rushes over and asks if you’re all right…

In that moment, the intensity of what floods you is overwhelming. Words fail to adequately capture your experience. The room feels like it’s tilting, you feel clammy one moment and flushed the next, you want to hide between the sofa cushions until the party is over. You later put the pieces together of what you felt:

  • Stupid;
  • Hopelessly clumsy;
  • A “loser”;
  • Embarrassed;
  • Humiliated;
  • Deeply ashamed.

And often we describe an action we wanted to take when publicly humiliated. You may have felt like:

  • Running away;
  • Crawling under a rock;
  • Hiding;
  • Disappearing;
  • Turning invisible.

The origins of humiliation and shame occur in relation to others. When locked in a shame reaction, it’s the exposure of being seen in a particular way that is highly distressing. To bring this point home, let’s change the context of this shame-inducing experience.

Imagine, for a moment, the same fall but in a different setting:

You are home alone. You trip over the ottoman and fall. The food goes flying, your favorite plate crashes into a dozen pieces. You land with a thud on the floor. Only you know that you just fell. In this experience, you might be annoyed with yourself for ruining your dinner and smashing a plate. You might even feel somewhat relieved that you didn’t injure yourself. But in this setting, humiliation does not enter your experience.

From a shame-reaction to a shame-based self

“He who is ashamed would like to force the world not to look at him, not to notice his exposure. He would like to destroy the eyes of the world. Instead he must wish for his own invisibility.”  ~ E. Erikson, Childhood and Society

There is a significant difference between momentarily feeling self-critical, coming down hard on yourself for some perceived momentary shortcoming, compared to seeing yourself as inherently flawed. This is what repeated shame does to us as children. Shame diminishes the self, it marks us as less-than.

Why would shame contort us in this way?

Recall for a moment how you felt when I asked you to imagine falling at the social gathering. We imagined that having others witness you take a spill would cause significant distress and make you want to recoil (emotionally and behaviorally).

Now imagine feeling this way because you have certain psychological/emotional needs — needs that make you feel terrible about yourself whenever these needs are seen by others. Being seen feels toxic, needing others feels toxic, and to adapt to the pain of this, you have to close yourself off (to yourself and to others).   

This is what happens to children who receive the message that their needs are inappropriate, excessive or that they are somehow wrong for what they think and feel. It’s under these relational conditions that shame can chip away at the core of who we are.

We all started out completely vulnerable (and prone to feeling shame)

“Shame is a wound felt from the inside, dividing us both from ourselves and from one another.” ~ Gershen Kaufman, Ph.D., Shame: The Power of Caring

We are born into a precarious set of conditions — conditions that make the potential for shame a reality for many of us.

We are totally helpless and therefore dependent on others for our emotional and physical well-being. Childhood, no matter how stable, is filled with considerable frustration. But with “good enough” parenting, we learn to tame our desires, delay gratifications, and deal with inevitable frustration as the reality of what is and isn’t allowed gradually comes into focus.

Ideally, we (as infants and children) are prioritized by those in charge of our care. It is hoped that under loving family conditions, psychological well-being is more likely to take hold.

But many are born into inhospitable conditions: Our caregivers fall ill; they have unresolved emotional issues that overwhelm their capacity to parent; the realities of their lives take a turn for the worse; they visit the traumas of their childhoods upon their children.

Our childhood vulnerabilities have the potential to allow others to have immense power over us: the power to make us feel whole and alive, as well as the power to shame us and shatter the self-cohesiveness that is our birthright.

The long arm of shame

“The experience of shame often reduces the shamed person to speechlessness.”  ~ Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology

Shame typically isn’t something that we can easily identify within ourselves. The self-contortion that shame brings about occurs over a lifetime, and often occurs unconsciously. 

No one (at least no one that I’ve worked with in over twenty years) comes to therapy saying, “I need to work on how shame is impacting me.” We tend to start therapy for specific problems (depression, anxiety, or problems with intimacy, for instance), or because something just doesn’t quite “feel right” in our life. Shame may be at work in these instances but if it is, it’s probably underground.

If you’ve tried to overcome certain issues in your life (either on your own or with a professional) with little success, it might be that adequate attention hasn’t yet been given to how shame may be causing you pain. Although deep-seated patterns are the most challenging to overcome, there is hope for those of us willing to summon the courage to explore the parts of our lives where shame has taken root. 

Until next time,

Dr. Richard Nicastro

(Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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