Bringing the Exile Home
Shame is a wound of not belonging. It leaves you feeling like an exile; a stranger in a strange land. Shame might come as a result of feeling different or not understood in your family. Shame is also connected to childhood abuse or neglect (You can read my blog on Shame in Complex PTSD here). Or, perhaps you were excluded, belittled, or bullied in school due to social or cultural differences. An important key to healing from shame is recognizing that inside of your embarrassment, sense of failure, or experience of rejection lies your undeniably legitimate human needs.
Most importantly, shame does not happen in a vacuum. This wound occurs in interpersonal and environmental contexts. Therefore, healing needs to occur not only within the self, but also within a social context. We all need to feel connected to others. We need to know that we are not alone in this the imperfect journey of being human.
“When we feel heard and welcomed by another, we have the opportunity to reclaim a sense of belonging. This foundation of being seen and understood helps each one of us become more of who we are meant to be. Through this process of belonging and becoming we take one important step closer toward healing from shame and reclaiming our wholeness.”
–Dr. Arielle Schwartz
According to emotions researchers Sylvan Tompkins and Donald Nathanson, the emotion of shame occurs as a result of the thwarting of positive emotions; or an experience of rejection when we reach out for connection. Like when a child expresses excitement to a parent who responds with disinterest, shame occurs when our joy goes unmatched, when our gifts are not received, or when we take a risk and experience failure.
Shame is an interpersonal emotion and shows up as embarrassment, humiliation, and shyness. Shame causes us to blush, look away, hide our face, and collapse our posture. It is an act of turning away from something deeply desired.
Shame is certainly connected to overt experiences of childhood abuse or neglect. However, shame is also the result of an accumulation of small and subtle rejections of your authentic self-expression.
Of note, Tompkins and Nathanson suggest that shame has an evolutionary purpose. This emotion holds the remnants of our unextinguished longings.
If we stop reaching out to others we reduce our risk of shame. However, the story cannot end there. We must not give up.
Defending Against Shame
In his book, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of Self (1992), Nathanson offers a four-quadrant model of understanding the ways that feelings of shame can show up. This diagram is based upon two polarities represented by the vertical and horizontal lines. The vertical dimension represents how we relate to shame itself. On one extreme we respond with withdrawal and isolation. In this case, we abandon any hope of finding satisfaction of our needs through resignation. At the other end of this continuum, we respond with the compensatory strategy of avoidance. Here we reject the notion that we cannot get our needs met, and displace our needs by seeking satisfaction through alcohol, drugs, sex, or food.
When our genuine needs for connection are thwarted, it is common to feel angry. In a healthy relationship, our anger is recognized and received as part of a repair process that can ultimately deepens our authentic relating. However, when our healthy anger is further rejected, then we tend to act out in unhealthy ways. This polarity is represented by the horizontal line in the compass of shame diagram. Our aggression may manifest as an attack on self in the form of self-harm or self-criticism. Or, aggression can be directed as an attack on other in the form of blaming and lashing out.
When left unhealed, shame can lead to a wide range of symptoms including depression, addictions, low self-esteem, perfectionism, and interpersonal problems. Healing from shame involves finding ways to meet our legitimate underlying needs in a healthy, satisfactory manner.
Healing from Shame
The experience of shame is universal. We can all relate to this emotion. We all must seek to find healthy ways to meet our needs for connection, love, excitement, and joy. Here, I offer 3 practices to assist you with healing from shame:
- Legitimize Your Needs: An important key to healing from shame is recognizing that inside of your embarrassment, sense of failure, or experience of rejection lies your undeniably legitimate human needs. Shame is deeply connected to feelings of unworthiness. Tell yourself, that your longings and desires are important. Notice any tendency to dismiss yourself. Tell yourself that if something is important to you…than it is important!
- Find Healing Relationships: Shame is a wound that developed in interpersonal and environmental contexts. Therefore, healing needs to occur not only within the self, but also within a social context. Initially, this may occur in a one-on-one relationship such as in therapy. However, you eventually need to feel like you belong to a community. Ultimately, you can learn that when your needs are denied by one person, you can find other people that actually meet your needs for connection, love, excitement, and joy. You can find people who meet you with enthusiasm now, even if you weren’t celebrated as a child.
- Build Tolerance for Shame: While initially, we may want to reduce our experience of shame, ultimately, it is important to increase our capacity to tolerate the healthy risk of reaching out to loving and compassionate people. Yes, this might entail the risk of rejection or of failure; however, with sufficient support, these risks are worthwhile. Brene Brown reminds us that we must dare greatly; that the courage it takes to risk feeling shame is well worth it. In other words, you must tolerate shame in order to reclaim your essential aliveness. You can build tolerance for any emotion by bringing in support and finding the tolerable edge of your comfort zone. Explore reaching for connection in small ways. Yes, some rejection is inevitable…but you will be okay, and perhaps become stronger as a result.
In his essay on Shame, Ostrofsky (2003), suggests that the positive lesson of shame is humility. This allows us to look honestly at our own reliance on defenses against shame and to approach ourselves and others with greater compassion. We learn to offer loving kindness to our feelings of humiliation and embarrassment without the need to run away, attack ourselves, or attack others. There is a true gift that comes from fully seeing or being seen by another. When we look at each other with unconditional acceptance we invite each other to come out of hiding. Yes, being witnessed can feel vulnerable and can touch off feelings of shame. It may be risky, but you are worth it!
Heal and Learn with Dr. Arielle Schwartz
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About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Althea press, 2016) and co-author of EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology: Interventions to Enhance Embodiment in Trauma Treatment (Norton, 2018). She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.