Shame is a subject that has been gaining more attention in the field of psychotherapy lately. It is easily mistaken for, and even associated with guilt, but is in fact an entirely different experience. Guilt is the feeling that one has done something bad (a conditional feeling), but shame is the feeling that one is bad at a deep and fundamental level (an unconditional unfeeling). Often, shame exists and manifests in our lives in ways that can’t readily be identified, understood, or explained. Because shame is internalized and integrated into every fiber of our being, we as humans develop elaborate and deeply entrenched strategies (aka defense mechanisms) that we put in place (often unconsciously) so as to protect ourselves from psychological and emotional pain. However, this can lead us to a false way of being, as if we are hiding or protecting ourselves from our true, authentic, hurting Selves.
To explore the causes of shame, however tempting, can be unproductive. Doing so is always a natural inclination for those who think linearly, but it rarely yields any meaningful therapeutic implications to the person. The purpose of working through shame in psychotherapy is not to agree on or come to a cause and effect equation of how specific events yielded certain results or symptoms, but rather to build a tolerance to the pain by delving into the meaning behind it and the implication it has for one’s life. The purpose is not even to get rid of the pain, because to do so would be to get rid of a piece of ourselves that makes us who we are (whether we like it or not). The purpose of working through shame is to learn how to accept it, be with it, and move forward in life with it, so that it can be a part of you without consuming or defining you. In this way it is almost like being in a marriage in that one has to learn to accept and deal with certain things about themselves that they may not like, endorse, or want to deal with. Therefore, rather than trying to explore the causes of shame, it is most helpful to instead start by exploring the ways in which we cope with shame, and how these defenses often lead to further shaming and an inability to lead a full, satisfying life.
Some really basic and general ways that we can protect ourselves from shame are in more commonly known defense mechanisms such as denial, avoidance, suppression, and disassociation (when we literally try to dismiss certain parts of our lives as if they never existed). However, there are more personalized ways in which one can implement their defenses such as in instincts, personality, patterns, means of coping (i.e. exercise, substance use, consumption tendencies, etc.), grandiosity, and most importantly how one treats or thinks about themselves particularly in relation to others. For example, wounded narcissists can frequently put blame on others for certain situations or things in very elaborate ways, as a means of protecting themselves from having to face their own inner turmoil.
Because it is so painful to consciously carry shame, most of us will do almost anything not to have to acknowledge it … sometimes without even knowing it. This is where defense mechanisms, either conscious or unconscious, come into play. For instance, clients can become so overwhelmed by the weight and power of their shame during sessions that they try to protect themselves physiologically by avoiding eye contact, hiding their faces, shifting positions, trembling, or even trying to end a session early. Even in my work with couples, I have noticed how both partners can easily interact with each other in ways that are designed to protect themselves and make it seem like the other person is at fault rather than to actually work on or improve their relationship. As a result both parties fail to really see or hear the other or themselves because they are so focused on self-preservation and “winning.” It is as if their feelings of unlovability, self-blame, or worthlessness are literally too much to psychologically and physically handle or sit with. Therefore, it is very difficult to separate shame from compensating behaviors and from the responsibility for it one externally places on other people and circumstances.
That being said, it is extremely important to understand the why and what of our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings so that we may develop autonomy over our actions and relationships. This is one of the most important things that psychotherapy has to offer: the opportunity to, in a way, become one’s own parent by learning how to comfort and nurture ourselves through painful experiences. Then, we can move forward and change in a meaningful and fulfilling way without taking our issues out on other people. Working with a psychotherapist can help because it gives us the opportunity to present our world to another person in a safe environment, so that they can see aspects of our lives that we are unable to see on our own. Then we can get to the meaning behind our pain, behaviors, defenses so as to increase awareness and autonomy. Too often shame prevents us from experiencing the richness and depth that life has to offer. When we are too focused on avoiding painful feelings, we don’t fully engage with others, ourselves, or the world around us. Facing shame is difficult to do, but it is crucial part of personal growth.