Kevin Roberts grew up in an alcoholic family and struggled to feel good about himself in the wider world, especially in school. He was often blamed for things that went wrong, both big and small, and over time he became convinced that there was something inherently wrong with him. He covered up his deep feelings of unworthiness by striving to be a perfect student.
“I was always trying to find a way to stand out as intelligent,” says Roberts, now 44. “I was always the first to raise my hand in class — to the annoyance of my peers — and in junior high I once plagiarized a poem for an assignment, then tore out the page on which it appeared in a book in the school’s library.”
Outside of school, Roberts scrambled to avoid scrutiny. He was withdrawn, never inviting his classmates over to his chaotic home. He felt ashamed, isolated, and uneasy.
In college, his hustle for academic attention, paired with his deep desire to hide the other aspects of his life, started to take a toll. He began to experience intense headaches, stomachaches, and panic attacks, which he now believes were the result of an exhausting quest to hide his true self. He experimented with a variety of techniques to reduce anxiety, including yoga and biofeedback, and those exercises helped a bit. But the root of the problem eluded him until he was in his mid-20s and attended a meditation retreat. There he began to examine the role shame played in driving his behavior, and how it had come to dominate his life.
In the wake of this eureka moment, Roberts began to develop strategies for dealing with this powerful negative emotion. Since Roberts, who lives near Detroit, experienced shame alongside physical symptoms (as most people do), he began to pay attention to those sensations; when they cropped up he used breathing techniques, meditation, and positive self-talk to combat his flagging sense of worthiness. Within a few years, he was starting to see possibilities for his life opening up in ways that had once been inconceivable.
“Shame used to run my life, out of a need to constantly prove myself,” says Roberts, now a counselor and author of Movers, Dreamers, and Risk Takers: Unlocking the Power of ADHD (Hazelden, 2012). “Now I can identify shame and allow it to pass through me without getting trapped in it.” Today he leads shame-recovery groups, in which the biggest reward, he says, is being able to help others out of their own shame spirals.
Roberts’s story is an example of why it pays to take a close look at the overwhelming, and often hard-to-spot, role that shame plays in our lives. This emotion, which Jungian analysts have dubbed “the swampland of the soul,” makes us feel like we are worthless. To compensate, we scramble to cover up our perceived flaws by engaging in a long list of broken behaviors, including blaming and shaming others, perfectionism, lying, and hiding out. (Very high levels of shame are associated with more serious problems like addiction, eating disorders, and suicide.) Shame, in other words, causes us to act in ways that keep us from so many of the good things we want in life — a feeling of forward movement, freedom from fear, a sense of agency.
The Catch-22, of course, is that shame creates emotional patterns that make us reluctant to face it down. After all, who wants to look inward when what’s staring back is a painful emotion that makes us feel unworthy and unlovable? Ultimately, though, avoiding or suppressing this universal feeling can result in long-term emotional and physical consequences that trump the short-term discomfort that accompanies self-analysis and honesty.
“Catastrophizing about what could happen if we talked honestly about our fears is actually more painful than grabbing the hand of a trusted companion and crossing the swamp,” writes preeminent shame researcher Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, in The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Hazelden, 2010). And what we have to gain can be truly life changing: When we build shame resilience, we disengage from the emotion’s destructive messages, unleash our personal and professional potential, and experience more connection and joy in our lives.
Luckily, there are strategies we can use to traverse this murky terrain and regain our sense of worthiness.
What A Shame
At its core, Brown says, shame “is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
“We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring.”
We tend to associate shame with a major trauma or a defining negative event — an abusive childhood, a painful addiction, a seemingly intractable pile of credit-card debt — but the experience of feeling unworthy is universal, no matter what hides out in our past. Everyone, save for sociopaths, experiences some degree of shame. And this messy emotion turns up in the most “familiar places, including appearance and body image, family, parenting, money and work, health, addiction, sex, aging, and religion,” writes Brown. “To feel shame is to be human.”
In fact, the dark emotion originally served to keep our species safe. “Shame was the evolutionary way of us trying to hide our flaws from others,” explains Kristin Neff, PhD, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind (HarperCollins, 2013). “If the others knew these flaws, they would kick us out of the group, and evolutionarily that meant death.”
This might be why some people still believe this negative feeling “keeps us in line” by serving as a type of emotional course correction, or even a teaching tool — think dunce caps or sitting in the corner. Research, however, has shown that shame does just the opposite: It clouds good judgment, skews perception, and drives destructive and unhealthy behavior.
Fear of exposure is one reason so many novels sit, dusty and half-written, in desk drawers. Their authors don’t lack for creativity; they are afraid their ideas will be scorned. A sense of unworthiness is also part of the reason that employees don’t speak up in meetings, that friends offer disingenuous apologies (or an outright lie) when they forget a lunch date, and that family members blame each other for their own crummy feelings.
“For shame to exist, you need secrecy, you need silence, and you need a perception or the reality of judgment,” says Darcy Sterling, PhD, a clinical social worker in New York City who focuses on building shame resilience with clients. “Shame can only survive and incubate if we don’t speak about it — that’s where it derives its power. If we talk about it, and our own personal experiences around shame, it’s like pulling the plug on it.”
The Shame Experience
Everyone experiences shame in slightly different physical and emotional ways, but some key elements underlie the phenomenon. There are almost always physical manifestations — common ones include flushed cheeks, dizziness, tunnel vision, an inability to focus, a loud rushing in the ears, chest constriction, and not being able to make eye contact. These symptoms are akin to the sensation of panic, which, like shame, triggers a fight-or-flight response in the body. Physically, we interpret both as the threat of danger.
The emotional experience of shame is fueled by negative self-talk. The messages we tell ourselves in these moments, says Brown, are always a variation of “never good enough.” In The Gifts of Imperfection, she identifies some of the many forms these messages can take:
- I’m flawed.
- I’m not: good/pretty/talented/successful/rich/masculine/feminine/tough/caring/pretty/skinny/creative/popular enough.
- Who do I think I am?
- No one can ever find out about _______________________.
- I’m going to pretend everything is OK.
- I can change to fit in if I have to.
- Taking care of them is more important than taking care of me.
“Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us,” continues Brown, “making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.”
The end result, says Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety (Da Capo, 2012), “is that we feel bad about who we are. And in a preemptive strike, rather than waiting to be shunned, we hide” or engage in other distancing behaviors. “Then we think we aren’t deserving of good things; we become very negative about ourselves and our world gets much smaller.”
To compound matters, says Neff, people often have a lot of self-judgment about their shame, and it becomes a nasty cycle: An emotional wave washes over you, you blame yourself for getting stuck in a spiral of unworthiness, and then you feel even less deserving. Shame feeds shame. But by cultivating resiliency we can interrupt this negative emotional loop.
Building up our defenses against shame entails recognizing when we’re feeling the emotion, moving through it, and ultimately coming out on the other side with more courage and compassion. Here’s what those things look like in practice:
Recognize. When you’re aware of being in a shame spiral, you can be deliberate in your response to it, says Brown. One of the easiest ways to know when the emotion has taken hold is to identify the physical signs that accompany it. Remember that these will be slightly different for everyone, but they often resemble the physical changes associated with panic.
Next, try to identify your default emotional reaction when you feel ashamed. According to Linda M. Hartling, PhD, director of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, a global network of academics dedicated to promoting human dignity, these are the three most common ways people defend themselves against this uncomfortable feeling: moving away from others by withdrawing, being silent, and keeping secrets; moving toward unhealthy relationships by trying to appease and people-please; and moving against others by being aggressive and trying to restore one’s dignity by overpowering others (fighting shame with shame). Simply being aware of your typical knee-jerk reaction increases your chances of pausing, reflecting, and learning to recognize your specific shame triggers so you can respond in a more positive and intentional way.
Share. Since empathy is an antidote to shame, sharing your story and receiving empathy in return can help dissolve this painful feeling. “One of the most powerful aspects of recovery from shame is when we realize that we’re not alone,” says Joan E. Mullinax, a therapist in Houston, who leads shame support groups. “When we see that we are human beings like everybody else, we feel worthy of being connected to everybody else.”
Authentic sharing requires vulnerability, however, and that can be anxiety inducing — especially if you’re discussing something you haven’t told many people. So choose someone you trust. It can also help to clarify what you expect ahead of time: Perhaps you ask a close friend to just listen and not offer advice, or you request that the person not try to talk you out of what you’re feeling — No, really, you’re a fantastic singer and sounded great at your brother’s wedding! — or otherwise inadvertently disqualify your emotions. Feeling heard is important here, and so is using the word “shame” — not “guilt” or “embarrassment.” By naming this insidious feeling, you’re taking away some of its
Build self-compassion. It’s much easier to be vulnerable and share our shame feelings when we engage with the world from a place of worthiness, says Brown. “And part of the process of cultivating worthiness is through self-compassion — treating ourselves the way we treat other people we love and respect.”
One self-compassion-building exercise that Neff recommends is locating where the sensation of shame manifests in your body. “It could be a pit in your stomach, or a whole-body kind of numbness or ache,” she says. Then place a hand over that area or over your heart and direct comforting, affirming energy to that part of the body. This might feel goofy at first, but there’s a physiological reason the exercise works. “Self-criticism and shame tap into the threat defense system, but self-compassion taps into the care-giving system,” Neff says. “When you put your hands on your heart and say kind things to yourself in a soft voice, you reduce your cortisol levels and release oxytocin and opiates.”
If you still feel silly doing this exercise and find yourself laughing, go with it. Laughter can also help alleviate shame. “Humor takes us out of feeling like a personal target and gives us a broader perspective,” says Hartling. “It also gives us energy and can open us up to connections with other people,” which is its own powerful tool for transforming shame.
Regardless of where you are in terms of building shame resiliency, go easy on yourself; it’s an ongoing practice — even for experts like Brené Brown. Just before we spoke, she’d misplaced her wallet. “I eventually found it,” she says, “but I was like, ‘I’m such an idiot.’”
Steve, her husband, said, “Whoa! What would you say to me if I lost my wallet?”
“I said, ‘OK, point taken,’ and he said, ‘No, I want you to say it.’ So I told him I would say something like ‘You’re under a lot of stress, Steve. You’ve got a lot going on and you need to give yourself a break. You’re human.’ And he said, ‘There you go.’”
She laughs, adding, “It was a total ‘Researcher, heal thyself’ moment.”
Illustration by Jon Krause