One of the most pervasive yet underrecognized issues that I witness in my therapy practice is shame. It is common for people to use the words “guilt” and “shame” interchangeably. Guilt is the healthy and appropriate response when we have done something wrong. Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling and belief that there is something wrong with us. First and foremost, shame is the result of relational wounds. When our early relationship with one or both of our parents is marked by a consistent pattern of misattunement, this can lead to an experience of not being known and feeling alone and unlovable.
In her book, Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame, Patricia Young, PhD., defines shame as “an experience of one’s felt sense of self disintegrating in relation to a dysregulating other.” She goes on to say, “When we are at our most vulnerable, our experience of being an integrated self depends on the emotional attunement or ‘regulation’ we receive from those closest to us. A ‘dysregulating other’ is someone close to us whose emotional responses leave us feeling fragmented instead.”
Many clinicians believe that a variety of mental illnesses are the result of childhood relational trauma. Shame often originates from unresolved childhood relational trauma. As those who struggle with chronic shame can attest, this is one of the most viscerally unpleasant and intense human experiences. Evolutionarily, it is akin to being separated from the herd. Since we are hardwired for bonding, the experience of shame is interpreted by the brain as a threat of severed connection. Those who experience chronic shame have learned that close relationships are not safe and the risk of being rejected or “found out’ is simply too painful.
The ways that we defend ourselves from feeling our own shame can lead to all sorts of relational problems. John Bradshaw, the author of Healing The Shame That Binds You, says that rage is the most common way that we hide our shame. Rage is often confused for anger. For many years, I believed that I had an anger problem. When I would feel rejected, ignored, and dismissed, I would become angry and lose my temper. I would then blame my rage, which is an acting-out behavior, on others. Blaming others was another way that I learned to deflect the intense pain of feeling shame. I no longer felt inadequate when I would rage.
When I discovered that acting-out with rage was a defense against feelings of incompetence and inadequacy and a fear of being “found out”, I realized I had work to do. It was difficult for me to come to grips with the fact that, in an effort to protect myself, I was hurting those closest to me. After seeking my own therapy, learning to be more self-aware, practicing mindfulness, and having the humility to accept correction, my acting out behavior began to decrease. Working towards our own recovery and healing is never easy, but it is necessary if we want strong and rewarding relationships.
The remedy to shame can often seem scarier than the experience of shame itself. We need to expose our shame by sharing it with someone we trust in order for it be healed. This can bring up untenable fear that we will be rejected. Shame takes root and thrives in darkness, secrecy, and isolation. Patricia Young says that shame is destroyed by “light and air”. Since shame is, by definition, a relational wound, it is then healed and redeemed in the context of a trusting and supportive relationship. When I first learned this, I was filled with hope, awe, and wonder. Sharing our shame in the presence of someone we trust brings it to the light and gives us a space safe enough to be fully known.
I have seen a common misconception that clients assume that therapists have “perfect” mental health and have not struggled with shame because of their vast knowledge of neuroscience, psychology, and the human condition. None of us, even therapists, are immune from the pain of emotional and relational wounds. Knowledge is not enough for healing to take place and we cannot heal on our own. Being in the loving and supportive presence of someone we trust is necessary for our growth and healing.
In other words, feeling safe is a prerequisite for healing. One of the most holy and powerful moments of healing for me came when my therapist shared how his struggles were similar to mine and that he needed to work through his shame as well. In that moment, I went from feeling disintegrated and alone to experiencing a feeling of integration and wholeness. I remember feeling like I was actually “normal”, that there was nothing “wrong” with me, and that I was worthy of love. It is my hope to offer my clients a safe space where they can feel known and to accompany them on their own journey towards healing and wholeness.
Chris Ellman MSW, LCSW, SATP, CSAT Candidate