Two Faces of Shame: Healthy Emotion and Toxic Internal Experience

By: Saulena Antanaviciene, MSCP LPC

Everyone needs a sense of shame,

but no one needs to feel ashamed.

(Frederick Nietzsche)

It is not easy to define what role in our life plays shame since it is a deep and complex feeling. According to prominent clinician J. Bradshow (2005) shame “is a healthy human feeling that can become a true sickness of the soul.”

So, what is the healthy shame? Healthy shame tells us that to be human it means also to be limited, since not one of us can have completely unlimited powers. Being imperfect and having limitations is our essential nature and problems arise from refusing to accept this truth.

Healthy shame gives us structure and enables us to develop a safe boundary system and allows us to use our energy efficiently. Knowing our limitations helps us not to waste ourselves on goals that we cannot reach or on things we cannot change so it gives us direction in life (J Bradshow, 2005).

Healthy shame plays a significant role in our creativity. R. Bandler wrote that one of the major blocks of creativity is feeling of being right and knowing absolutely everything. When we think this way we stop being curious, seek new information and learn new things. Healthy shame never lets us to believe we know it all (Bradshaw, 2005).

J. Bradshaw also emphasized that without healthy shame we would not be able “to get in touch with our core dependency needs.”  Not one of us can survive without someone else being there for us. Sometimes we all need help and we all have to be able to ask for it. Living in the community we will need to take care of others around us, and we will need to be needed as well. Healthy shame serves as a signal that we need help, love and to be in caring relationships with others (J. Bradshow, 2005). Also, emotional intimacy requires healthy shame “as the root feeling of humility which allows each partner to appreciate and accept the other’s” (J. Bradshow, 2005) limitations and vulnerabilities.

When healthy shame becomes a toxic and life destroying inner experience? According to J. Bradshaw shame has a “demonic potential” instead of a short lived feeling of being less attractive or talented, making a mistake or being limited and not perfect “a person can come to believe that his whole self is fundamentally flawed and defective.” It is easier to understand shame when compared with guilt: Guilt is “I made a mistake” or “I did something bad!” Shame is “I am a mistake. I am bad. Everything I do is defective and flawed.”  Well known researcher of shame and vulnerability Dr. B. Brown said that shame is “highly correlated with addiction, anxiety, depression, violence, eating disorders” and other mental health and emotional problems. She defined shame as feeling which “drives two tapes “never good enough and “who do you think you are.” Shame deeply and negatively affects the part of us that makes us believe we can change and paralyzes our efforts to even try.

Dr. B. Brown also talks about shame being an unspoken epidemic in our society and the main reason behind many forms of broken behaviors, relational and emotional issues. Interestingly, it is extremely rare that my client comes in and wants to know how to manage his or her shame. Typically, we even feel ashamed of feeling shame so we hide it deep inside which can result in more and more isolation. Also, most of us are unaware that shame is a “microstressor” Nr.1 that triggers the stress response in our body. Just feeling shame, cortisol, the stress hormone, is released the same way  as if you just faced very stressful situation (S. La Combe, 2014). That’s the reason way so many times shame and shame attack is confused with intense anxiety or a panic attack which prevents people from getting appropriate treatment and exploration.

How do we develop toxic shame? Shame usually develops in our family system through our attachment relationships with our parents and or caregivers. Our families are where we first learn about ourselves.  It is very difficult for parents who have a lot of shame stored inside not to pass it on to their children. Based on clinical work it was observed that shame-based, needy or dysfunctional parents cannot take care of their children emotional needs which “leaves a hole in child’s soul created  by unresolved grief developmental dependency deficits” (J. Bradshow, 2005). Shame is a consequence of trauma as well.

How do we heal from toxic shame? According to the research of  ACA World Service  Organization (2006) without appropriate intervention shamed children carry a deep sense of inadequacy, embarrassment and they not only feel shame, but they tend to believe “I am shame!” into adulthood. When shamed as adults they may literally vibrate with overwhelming shame and frequently feel the shame burning in the stomach and face. Shame can be so intense that it changes perception and distorts vision. Therapeutic work, safe and supportive environments is necessary to acknowledge, explore and understand shame and shaming effects on our lives.  Since shame often has pre-verbal origins it may be very difficult to express deeply stuffed feelings through words. In my clinical work besides usual talk therapy I integrate expressive art and mindfulness techniques which allows and enables my client to express and let go of accumulated toxic shame.

Adult Children. Alcoholic / Dysfunctional Families. ACA World Service Organization. ACA Annual Business Conference, 2006.

Bradshow, J. Healing the Shame that Binds you. Health Communications, Inc., 2005.

Brown, B. Listening to Shame. TED talk Series, www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYVo

La Combe, S. Shame: Are you easily embarrassed? Here is why. Updated 7/18/2014 www.myshrink.com/counselingtheory.php

Saulena Antanaviciene is Licensed Professional Counselor and a therapist at Elemental Center for Personal Development. She received her Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology from Benedictine University, completed Fellowship Program and postgraduate training in Psycho-dynamic Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy and is active member of Multicultural Psychotherapy Study Group at Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.

Saulena’s areas of interest include anxiety, depression, trauma resolution, effects of dysfunctional families, addictive behaviors, co-dependency, personality disorders and many others. Saulena’s work experience includes working as a therapist with adults, children and adolescents. Saulena integrates variety of expressive art therapy and mindfulness techniques into her clinical work.

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