Dealing with shame

It had been requested by the group to look at dealing with shame as a group topic. We began by watching the video clip of Brene Brown talking to Oprah about her research about shame.

Group members responded to this idea that talking about shame is helpful as some of them had experienced that this process for them, of talking about things they were ashamed of was very healing.  People also responded to the idea that shame grows with silence and secrecy but cannot survive empathy and understanding.  We talked about what is the difference between guilt and shame concluding that shame is about our identity; how we see ourselves and also how it extends externally in how we worry about how we are seen by others. We talked about what it is like to grow up with shaming messages or the message that our worth is dependent on us achieving or doing well-it is conditional.

Shame can come as a result of being abused, sexual or otherwise in childhood. Thoughts about this can create a very visceral reaction and people can physically feel sick, disgusted and a sense of revulsion. 

People also talked about things that they had done or said when younger that we now feel shame over, what can we do about this now?  Sometimes we just have to acknowledge that we did some things we wished we had not, but recognise that this is common to every human being. In some situations there is maybe a possibility to say sorry if it is appropriate and may help the other person. However, a sense of shame does not serve anyone, so maybe this same message applies that if we talk about the things we feel ashamed of, this can dissipate the shame. We can accept the error, accept ourselves and move on with the learning and growth from the experience.

It is important to have self-compassion and understand common humanity, (rather than thinking ‘I am such a bad person, no-one else is like me or would do such a terrible thing’) and bring some understanding for maybe why we did things at the time. 

Shame is sometimes connected to responsibility we carry that isn’t ours to carry, other people make us feel bad for things we are not actually responsible for.

Deborah Lee in her book ‘The compassionate mind approach to recovering from trauma’ explains how shame can lead to feelings of anxiety; internal shame because when we are self-critical and self-hating this activates the threat system, causing us to feel anxious. With external shame we are afraid of how we exist in the minds of others. This links back to a basic survival need to belong in a group for protection. When we fear this social loss this activates the threat system again resulting in feelings of anxiety. Lee lists some of the common fears and beliefs we can have when feeling ashamed such as ‘I do not deserve love, kindness and care, or for good things to happen.’ Or feeling weak and pathetic for not being able to ‘get over things and move on with life’. Participants could identify with some of these thoughts.

After the group it was interesting to find an article in ‘Therapy Today’ about shame, saying:

“The way out of shame is to talk about the very issue you are ashamed of with people you trust”.

I guess this helpfully consolidates the conclusions we had come to as a group, when we do find the courage to speak, it is very important that those we speak to are trustworthy.

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