Researcher, Brené Brown, calls shame the ‘master emotion’ because it is present in almost every experience of trauma, disempowerment and exclusion. Whether we have caused someone else harm, someone has caused us harm or we are experiencing mental health issues, shame is the voice in our heads that tells us we are unworthy, disgusting, terrible or irredeemable. It thrives on secrecy and will do anything it can to stop its story being shared.
Why shame is difficult to work with
As shame likes to remain hidden and unnamed, it is also a notoriously difficult emotion to work with. One of the reasons for this is that shame attaches itself to our identity. Brown says the difference between shame and guilt is that guilt is, ‘I did something bad’ and shame is ‘I am bad’ (The Gifts of Imperfection, p.57). In other words, shame ties itself into our fundamental sense of self.
Where shame can be found
We can see examples of shame everywhere:
- A person with an eating disorder is likely to have deep feelings of shame about their body, as well as their complex relationship with food.
- A student who is being bullied may feel ashamed that they are weak or unworthy and believe that in some way, they must deserve the treatment they are receiving.
- People trying to leave an abusive relationship may feel shame that they have allowed themselves to be treated so badly. They may also feel shame that they haven’t protected their children or are unable to provide for their children once they leave. (Of course, this isn’t true or valid but shame often makes us take responsibility for the behaviour of others.)
- A person who has caused harm may also feel shame for their behaviour. Sometimes this is masked behind anger, denial and blame. It can take time for people who have caused harm to move through these emotions to recognising that what they are feeling is shame (and they may never get to this point) but this is where the true change starts to happen.
- A person who has experienced childhood trauma may hide their experiences as they feel ashamed or they may believe that on some level the abuse was partially their fault.
- A person from a marginalised group may have been made to feel shame in relation to their identity, culture or socioeconomic circumstances. Often this shame is internalised and may be triggered long after the person has learned to celebrate who they are.
The upside to talking about shame
The upside to talking about shame is that once we understand that the people or students we are working alongside are experiencing shame, and we support them to recognise, name and explore it, it can be one of the most powerful ways to help people shift their behaviour and thinking.
Learning to recognise and work with shame can be an incredibly useful skill in the toolkit of any social worker, teacher, counsellor or psychologist. In the coming months, the author of our upcoming Exploring Shame cards, Michael Derby, will share some tips and strategies for recognising and working with shame with clients and students. Watch this space!