How to handle the damaging cycle of Shame

We all feel some level of shame for something – either something from the past or something in our current lives. The danger with shame is that we can mistake feeling sorry for a mistake – guilt, repentance, remorse, regret etc – with shame. On the other side, we need to feel something when we really have made a mess, something that motivates or pushes us into correcting our mistakes, and doing better. Imagine this:

(a) some people have so much shame, they are totally paralyzed by shame

(b) other people have so little shame, they have no capacity for empathy or deep human connections

The middle ground is where we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, feel less ashamed, without being totally shameless:

  • we accept that we have been shamed for some things all our lives, and it has affected us
  • recognize that we cannot live in a state of shame, because it is painful and lonely
  • start owning the things that we have been shamed for, and re-writing the script on them

My favourite researcher, Brené Brown, researches shame and vulnerability. Brené puts words, feelings and reactions to those small responses and short phrases that people respond to you with that make you feel guilty, ashamed, anxious, stressed and/or humiliated. In the The Call to Courage, Brené says that Shame is such a formidable foe, because it keeps us terrified of speaking it; which gives shame time and space to grow in silence. So, shame needs silence and silencing in order for it to thrive and negatively affect our lives. As soon as you can start putting words into the things that make you feel shame, shame loses a lot of its power.

Shame and the Brain

Our brain has 2 parts:

(1) the prefrontal cortex, where we think, organize, rationalize our experiences and thoughts – for example, we have met a girl/boy we like; can we trust them? shall we follow up and ask for a date? wait and see if they ask us first? pretend we are not interested to avoid being hurt? or shall we send a friend to investigate if our love interest is committed to someone else?

(2) the limbic system, where we make quick decisions – for example if we are attacked, we have to make a quick decision; shall we fight? Shall we run? Or just freeze so the attacker thinks we are dead and leaves us alone?

Too much Shame hijacks (2) the limbic system, making us react with our emotions and feelings before we have had time to think through our reactions and the consequences of our reactions. People who have experienced persistent exposure to shame in their childhood, experience shame as trauma. If something shaming happens to us, we are unable to stay in the rational part of our mind which means we react with our feelings as they unfold.

Shame as Childhood Trauma

For children, shame is the threat of being unlovable, which is a real physical trauma because we feel rejection physically. The constant threat of being unloved leaves us eternally afraid of rejection. Remember when you were sad, weeping and wanted a hug from your mother or father and did not receive it? Remember the physical stress you felt?

As we get to teenage years and start to explore who we are, and where we fit in the world; if we are otherwise surrounded by a society and institutions that continually tell us that we are worthless because of something we are, or something we did, or something that happened to us – then we grow up with the trauma of being worthless. Even if we are brought up in the most supportive, loving family of origin.


Imagine a simple scenario where you were often compared to a sibling who was smarter, quieter, stabler, more considerate etc than you. What happens is; although you love your sibling, you start to resent them for being the one that reflects your weaknesses. You also feel anger against your parents for failing to see you as enough. Just the way you are. You know that you are expected to love your siblings and parents, so, you do not want anyone to know how you really feel. You pretend to love them, just as the neighbours love each other. So you feel ashamed for:

(i) being worse than your sibling (that is what you have been told)

(ii) feeling anger and resentment for your sibling and parents – who you love most of the time

(iii) not being able to say exactly what you feel, when you feel it, because you are afraid that if you say what you feel; you will be rejected.

(ii) pretending to feel something you are not feeling (our inner selves hate when we are feeling one thing, and being forced to pretend to feel something else.)

Now, imagine you meet a spouse that loves you. Everyone can see that your spouse loves you, except you. You keep wondering:

  • why would she love me?
  • when is my spouse going to find out that I am not good enough (what we were told as children, when we were being compared)
  • why is my spouse pretending to love me? I am unlovable! ( being negatively compared to someone makes us feel unseen and unloved.)

The perceived attack

So one day, your spouse innocently jokes about how bad you are at something minor, like doing the dishes.

“Oh honey, you are so bad at doing the dishes..!” they laugh.

You feel anger rising, blinding you – and before you know it, you reply that if your spouse is the dishwashing-master of the village, they can do the dishes themselves. You match out. At the door, you observe yourself turn around; and you hear yourself shouting

by-the-way, you are a terrible driver! But do I ever tell you that? Noooo because I am kind bla bla bla…”

which ends with

“…if you are the Greatest Of All Time at all things, you can drive yourself to the hospital appointment that I had promised to drive you to. I cannot be near you right now!..”

You hear the door slam behind you.

See how quickly that escalated.

In an hour, you are wondering what the hell is wrong with you? Why you reacted the way you did? How to take it all back and speak to your spouse? If your spouse really loves you, coz you are such a mess?

In above example, your mind recognized the pattern of comparison that hurt you as a child and your limbic system reacted on your behalf – to protect you, it screamt

“danger! danger! we are being compared again! it hurts! it’s going to hurt! run! run! Run!”

The shame-cycle closes into itself

Because you cannot just turn around and walk out without a word, your mouth said the words you were thinking in your fear and shame.

Later, you are ashamed that you did not handle that situation better. You are angry at yourself. Also, you have just confirmed to yourself that the childhood comparisons were right – your are not good enough. You are not worthy. It is a damaging cycle.

Being Vulnerability is How to deal with shame

The solution is as mentioned in the beginning – a little vulnerability and a willingness to speak out about your shame, guilt or pain. To train yourself to use your rational mind (1) in situations such as the one above.

Your rational mind would have thought in slow motion:

“wow! I’m feeling compared, but to whom? It scares me that my spouse may not love me if I am not better at doing dishes. I am feeling as I felt when I was a child.. I am afraid.”

If you have understood your shame and are working at healing, you would probably inform your spouse of your feelings, thoughts and reactions. From a place of trust – where you believe in the love your spouse has for you, and the potential your relationship has, if you would just speak up.

“That felt like a comparison and it made me feel [whatever you are feeling]. I am not good at doing dishes, because I never did it that much when I was growing up. I was not allowed to do it, because my parents felt that my brother/sister did it better. But I thought that I can learn to so I can help you out…”

Or something in similar words, that opens up any relationship, for both of you to share and heal.

I believe that life is much more fun, if you have someone loving your faults, that it is when you are alone, hiding your faults in your empty house.

Have you dealt with something that used to shame you into anger, sadness or other negative feelings and reactions? How did you deal with the shame?

2 thoughts on “How to handle the damaging cycle of Shame

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