Understanding Shame

We might define shame, as opposed to other emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, shyness and humiliation. The etymological meaning of the word is “to hide” or “cover up”. The experience of shame isn’t an isolated event, but often becomes tied to a set of destructive emotions. This is because shame is often a difficult emotion to communicate, and masquerades as other feelings. To put this in context, the experience of guilt can often be resolved through some form of practical intervention, which may include confession and making amends. However, the experience of shame is in large part tied to the individual’s experience of self and identity. As such shame is linked to an individual’s self-esteem. This situation can in turn lead to chronic shame, which can begin to take over the individual’s life leaving them with a pervasive sense of fear and terror and the inability to live meaningful lives, and the experience of ongoing feelings of depression and anxiety. 

Shame can often play a dysfunctional role in men’s lives. Evidence in this respect shows that men are often more ready in displaying behaviours to conceal their vulnerability and shame about attachment and caring, with these behaviours more likely to lead to violence. In this respect, the differing varieties of shame can be distinguished between being humiliated and shamed by someone else and those incidents in which the person themselves becomes the major source of criticism and assault on their self-esteem. However, what is clear is that shame is often accompanied by the experience of incompetence and feeling less than; with the associated experience of the individual having no responsibility or control over the circumstances they face. This in turn leaves many feeling they have lost connection with what they consider to be familiar and safe in their lives.

5 sources of shame, including:

  1. Genetic and biochemical

  2. Family of origin

  3. Self-shaming thoughts and feelings orchestrated by one’s own narrative

  4. Current humiliating relationships

  5. Contemporary culture

(GOLDBERG, C., 1991. Understanding Shame. London: Jason Aronson.)

Shame can occur at every stage of development, and we might say that this is an inevitable consequence of being alive; in that as children we are almost entirely dependent upon the exact correspondence of our needs and the attentive nurturing care of our caretaker 24/7, the reality of which unfortunately is impossible to maintain. This process can in turn lead to self-blame and self-loathing, which can lead the individual to seek psychological help. The experience of therapy can be shaming in itself for the client too; as they are often confronted, maybe for the first time in their lives with the realization that they have lost any meaningful control in making changes for themselves. I have found in my therapeutic work that being aware of these factors is an important part of understanding the client’s experience of shame and associated issues around depression and anxiety.