Shame. Just the sound of the word is heavy. Shame. It is laden with debilitating emotions which cause most individuals to recoil at its emergence into our lives. Renowned researcher and author Dr. Brene’ Brown has courageously tackled the topic of shame and brought it into the comforting light of conversation. Dr. Brown defines shame as the following:
“The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
In examining the definition of shame more closely, it is important to focus on Dr. Brown’s words. When individuals internalize the belief that they are flawed and unworthy, they begin the process of self-shaming.
Self-shaming is the cognitive and behavioral practice of self-devaluation which manifests as the result of feeling shame or being shamed by someone or something.
When we consciously articulate these shame-based thoughts, we might be shocked at their severity. In Letting Go of Shame, Ronald Potter-Efron and Patricia Potter-Efron list the following examples:
- I am defective (damaged, broken, a mistake, flawed).
- I am dirty (soiled, ugly, unclean, impure, filthy, disgusting).
- I am incompetent (not good enough, inept, ineffectual, useless).
- I am unwanted (unloved, unappreciated, uncherished).
- I am weak (small, impotent, puny, feeble).
- I am bad (awful, dreadful, evil, despicable).
- I am pitiful (contemptible, miserable, insignificant).
- I am nothing (worthless, invisible, unnoticed, empty).
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Although self-shaming is experienced cognitively and behaviorally, it begins by showing up in our lives predominately through our life-messages. Life-messages are an individual’s internal dialogue or messaging composed from each person’s unique life experiences and perceptions of them. Life-messages come from external and internal sources of influence or impact. Life-messages are powerful. They form our personal truths about ourselves and our inner-personal value.
In my years of therapeutic practice working in the areas of abuse and trauma, clients usually enter therapy with a lengthy history of self-shaming. However, it is not unusual for any individual who has endured or been exposed to any kind of adverse childhood/adult experiences or unhealthy relationships to internalize their shame in the form of self-deprecating life-messages.
Shame From Comparison To Others
Many Hazelden authors agree that shame-based thoughts tend to be permanent and pervasive. Some identify additional features of shame-based thinking:
- Negative explanations of another people’s behavior
- Dire predictions
- Selective focus on negative aspects of events
- Doubt in coping skills
- Rigid rules about how people should behave
Trigger Self-Shaming Life-Messaging Include The Following:
- Children who are bullied or cyber bullied self-shame with life-messages such as: “I am stupid. I am ugly. I am fat. No one likes me.”
- Partners who are in or who have been in toxic, dangerous, and abusive relationships message themselves: “I am not good enough. I don’t matter. Something is wrong with me. It’s all my fault.”
- Individuals raised by abusive, critical, unstable and neglectful parents and guardians’ self-shame with messages such as: “I am not enough. I am not lovable. Why am I here? Who would want me?”
- Abuse or trauma victims carry intense self-shaming life-messages including the following: “It is all my fault. I am to blame. I am nothing. I don’t belong here. I feel dirty. I feel invisible.”
How Secrecy & Blame Plays A Role In Shame
In addition to the painful nature of self-shaming, one of the most insidious and injurious characteristics of self-shaming is that is shrouded in secrecy and silence. Because we do not feel safe to share our self-shaming for fear of being further judged, blamed, or shamed, we keep it to ourselves. Within the confines of our emotionally fragile landscape, we unintentionally reinforce and condition our feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy through the repetitive nature of self-shaming and through the repression of our truths.
In my research for my book, one of the most consistent findings in a two-year qualitative study of “Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving From Brokenness To Wholeness,” was the shared secrecy and silence in which the daughters contained their self-shaming. Because of cultural, ethnic, spiritual, societal, and traditional norms regarding mothers and motherhood, the Daughters were not able to disclose their debilitating life-messages: “I am not enough. I am not wanted. I don’t feel worthy of love. I feel invisible. I know I do not matter. I’m ugly. I shouldn’t be here.” Because of the stigma and shame associated in speaking up about their mothers’ abuses, the daughters’ self-shaming became a part of their being. It is important to note that for those individuals who are able to joke or jest to others about their self-deprecating life-messages, it is often a mask or a defense mechanism which serves to further diminish their value and in turn intensify their worthlessness.
In closing, self-shaming does not discriminate. Most of us experience feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness from time to time. Sadly, many individuals are defined by these feelings, quietly suffering and desperately searching for someone or something to fill them well of worthlessness. By increasing our understanding as to what self-shaming is, we can then begin to acknowledge its presence in our lives.
This is where healing begins.
Steps To Healing Using Reflective Exercises:
Utilizing any writing modality which is comfortable for you, begin writing down your self-shaming life-messages. You can make a daily journal that includes notes on when you have experienced any self-shaming in your day. This helps you identify your culpability and where work is needed.
- Take note daily, every time you hear yourself self-shaming in your mind.
- Take note daily, every time you hear your words in conversation self-shaming.
- Think back as far as you can regarding your life experiences and write down any and all messages, regardless of severity or intensity.
- Start the process of shifting to positive, when your thoughts or words start to shame.
Take your time. Honour your voice and your truth.
Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children
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