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What is the Purpose of Shame?

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Shame is one of the most dehabilitating emotions that humans can feel. The very nature of shame makes us feel as though we want to hide and get away, it can even make us feel as though we want to disappear.

We will explore the definition of shame, where shame comes from, types of shame, characteristics of shame, and how to treat shame.

What is shame?

Shame is a natural emotion that can be triggered when you have experienced a situation that has made you feel as though you are fundamentally flawed. Oftentimes other emotions can show up while feeling shame, such as:

  1. worthlessness

  2. not good enough

  3. not attractive enough

  4. not smart enough

  5. not masculine and/or feminine enough

Where does shame come from?

The origin of shame comes from the innate need to be a part of a tribe. During primitive times, it was necessary to not only be a member of a tribe but to also be accepted by them as well. When an individual was kicked out of the tribe, he/she would most certainly die.

While in today’s modern culture not belonging to a tribe does not necessarily mean a death sentence, it can still lead to feelings of worthlessness, rejection, and isolation.

This can lead you to seek acceptance in unhealthy ways such as engaging substance abuse, engaging in risky behaviors, and making poor choices to avoid being kicked out of your tribe.

Other factors that could lead to being kicked out of a tribe are having a mental disorder or having been the victim of abuse as there is an implication that that person is somehow flawed and not suitable for acceptance. This is in spite of the fact that this isn’t true.

Profound shame results when you’re first rejected by your tribe then you are rejected by those outside of your tribe and you finally begin to reject yourself as a result. This leads to a profound feeling of shame that can affect some or all areas of life and can even inhibit your ability to function in daily activities. It can even lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Some types of shame:

  1. Societal shame If you don’t follow the general rules dictated by your society, you risk being rejected

  2. Shame based on race/ethnicity/socioeconomic background If you do not fit into a certain class or racial group, you risk being rejected

  3. Shame based on appearance and/or behavior (i.e. fat shaming, slut shaming) If you do not look a certain way, you risk being rejected

  4. Shame for having a mental and/or physical disorder If you do think not think, feel, act nor function in a certain way, you risk being rejected.

  5. Community shame If you do not believe similar beliefs to the groups in which you are a part, you risk being rejected.

  6. Shame caused by trauma If you have experienced something that has threatened your life and are no longer able to function the way you once did, you risk being rejected.

Characteristics of shame:

  1. You believe that you caused the traumatic event to happen/it is your fault Oftentimes people who experience traumatic events as children blame themselves. A child, by nature, has a difficult time conceiving that the adults in his/her life could be flawed as they must rely on them for survival. If they believed that the adults in their lives were flawed, they risk rejection from their tribe and risk survival. As a result, the tendency is for the child to blame themselves. If the child has continued exposure to this dynamic, he/she is likely to develop this outlook that can carry over into adulthood. This is why shame can be so difficult to treat and could turn into symptoms of trauma and/or PTSD and can be difficult get past.

  2. You believe you are fundamentally flawed When you are exposed to certain words, phrases, or types of treatment enough it is simply a matter of time before you begin to believe these messages. Our brains are wired to be programmed and it simply takes repetition for the programming to occur. This is why cults not only exist but also thrive. If you’re told that you are not good enough many times and in enough ways, it is inevitable that you will eventually believe it.

  3. Self-shame usually follows other types of shameThere are a variety of ways in which we are exposed to messages about how we should think, how we should feel, how we should look, and who we should be. Social media, magazines, music, movies, etc are all geared towards selling their product(s) and their strategy is to capitalize on our innate ability to feel shame when we feel left out. If you are exposed to a certain advertisement enough, it can be a matter of time before you break down and buy the product just so you won’t feel left out.

How to treat shame:

  1. Normalize it When you understand that shame is a natural emotion and that most people struggle with it at some point in their lives, it begins to take the sting out of experiencing it.

  2. Talk about it If the nature of shame causes us to run and hide it makes sense that the way to treat it is to come out of hiding. Talk about your feelings with a trusted friend, a mental health professional, or someone you trust. The more you talk about your shame, the less power it has over you.

  3. Practice receiving and giving compassionate touch According to Polyvagal Theory – a theory that says that much of our emotions are a result of what’s happening on the inside – it is through compassionate bodily touch that our nervous system begins to calm. Laying your head in your partner’s lap while he/she strokes your hair while you talk about what is shaming you or putting your hand on someone’s knee to know they are being heard are good ideas to facilitate this process.

  4. Bring your attention out of your head and into your body When you are experiencing feelings of shame, it is very common to get stuck in your head, get caught up in your thoughts, and it could lead to anxiety symptoms. It is suggested that you begin to touch various parts of your body (i.e. lightly touching your shoulders, legs, feet, etc) so as to direct the attention away from overthinking (the head) and allowing you to be more present in the moment. The more present we are the less room there is for overthinking. We are also able to think more clearly and able to feel better because of it.

In psychotherapy, profound shame is oftentimes one of the most difficult emotions to treat as it tends to rob you from being able to think clearly and therefore, leaving you feeling stuck. This can, in turn, make the shame even worse!

If you are feeling stuck and you’re not sure what else to do, there is hope. Contact Blue Sage Counseling and Wellness today and get connected with one of the best therapists in the Charlotte area and begin feeling better now.

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