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Healing chronic shame

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I have found (and research confirms) that when we have greater understanding and gain insight about an issue which creates difficulties for us, we are able to shift our perspective. The change in perspective I observe most frequently is the movement from being our own harshest critic to offering ourselves some much needed self-compassion. With this in mind, I have chosen to write about shame. If shame is a familiar feeling for you I hope you will read on.

We can experience shame as a state, a passing experience felt briefly, or it can be a trait, an aspect of our personality. If one of our traits is to feel shame then we have an ongoing felt sense of ‘there’s something wrong with me’ or ‘I am bad’. This ongoing sense of unworthiness is called core shame or chronic shame.

This post is about chronic shame.

What does shame feel like?

Tomkins (2008) described shame as an ‘inner torment, a sickness of the soul’ which we experience in response, within a relationship or interaction with another, or as an internal response to ourselves. Shame is a powerful agonising feeling which we try hard to avoid or transform. We attempt to disguise our experience of shame with more bearable ways of being. People often talk about wanting to disappear, escape, or wishing the ground would open up and swallow them. Other times we might become angry and attacking, or we might take on an appeasing overly accommodating manner. When we feel shame we conceal it because it holds a double whammy, evoking shame about feeling shame. There’s something confirmatory about our unworthiness simply because we feel shame. Although shame is a felt experience we often have thoughts of failure accompanying the feeling and these thoughts are part of the process of making sense of our experience.

Why do some of us experience chronic shame?

Within the literature about chronic shame theorists concur about shame beginning within our earliest developmental relationship with our main caregiver at a time when we are just forming our sense of self.

De Young’s (2015) definition of shame is that it ‘is an experience of one’s felt sense of self disintegrating in relation to a dysregulating other’. What does this mean?

When our sense of self is disintegrating it feels like we are falling apart, we feel undone, we feel broken, we feel in bits, we are in a state of distress and need soothing. What is a dysregulating other? A primary caregiver who does not attune to us and meet our need for responsive emotional connection is the dysregulating other.

When we are very young and we are met with our caregiver’s displeasure (or worse) feeling shame reflects our parasympathetic nervous system’s response. We experience shame because our emotional connection is broken, our needed attunement is missing, and we receive a contrary response.

We can imagine and understand the impact of the dysregulated other when we compare this to a child’s experience when distress is met by an attuned caregiver’s understanding and compassion. If a regulating response which soothes is provided their bond will be repaired. Then a child with an attuned, emotionally regulating caregiver will learn to self-soothe. Repetition of returning swiftly to a positive feeling following experiences of shame leads to an understanding that such difficult interactions will end positively. This is counter to the repeated experience of shame when the experience is not met with understanding by an attuned caregiver and when distress is exacerbated leading to emotional dysregulation. Core shame arises from this devastating attachment experience. An early foundation of shame is seeded in our implicit memory before our explicit memory is available to make autobiographical sense of these negative episodes. Hence, shame becomes a part of who we feel we are.

Imagine being very little and upset and crying; what you need is to be held, calmed, and reassured. What you get is shouted at and told to be quiet, or you are told to stop being silly, that there’s nothing wrong. Neither of these responses are attuned to your emotional needs but you are too little to understand and make sense in this way. All you feel is the other’s displeasure and because you don’t yet have the capacity to make sense of what’s really happening, you just feel upset and that there is something very wrong. Imagine this happening repeatedly, your only way to make sense of this is to feel something must be wrong with you.

What can help heal chronic shame?

If this sounds somewhat bleak I can offer you hope.

I firmly believe understanding how shame develops is a first step towards healing chronic shame. Understanding that we feel this way not because we are flawed or bad but because when we were small we didn’t get our earliest attachment needs met, makes room for self-compassion. We are able to create some space between our feelings of shame (an experience with its origin in our distant past because someone else didn’t for whatever reason meet our earliest needs) and who we are.

We can create our own narrative which makes autobiographical sense and with growing self-compassion learn to self-sooth when our old wounds are touched by experiences in our present.

Within relational psychotherapy we have the opportunity to experience the attunement of a regulated other when we experience distress. If we share parts of our story which have cemented our shame narrative we can experience being met with care, non-judgement, understanding, and respect, within a therapeutic and healing relationship.

With time, practicing self-compassion, working on self-acceptance and self-love we can heal and change our chronic shame from a trait to something we experience briefly from time to time.