Shame—What is it?


It’s like there is a hunter (shame) over your shoulder, and the hunter is always coming.  And they’re going to…find out that I am flawed and defective.  They’re going to find out that I am not what I look like I am.

–John Bradshaw,

“Healing the Shame That Binds You”, PBS Special 1987

No mental health provider, psychologist, counselor or medical doctor will debate or argue that there are many different psychological and emotional issues, personality disorders, and chronic human struggles in life.  None of these disorders have the most confusion, deceptively negative influence and residual toxic power as Shame—none!

Shame is one of the most traumatic emotionally “charged” states of mind, fraught with irrational beliefs and emotionally paralyzing experiences for people of all ages beginning at about five years old.  This insidious emotional experience has no regard for education, ethnicity, economic status or gender.  No-one is exempt or immune including myself from the hunter (shame) constantly terrorizing our emotional, psychological and relationship world.  One of shames strongest leverages and emotionally despairing states of mind, is the unspoken fear of being exposed as “not good enough, smart enough..etc…” Shame keeps the suffer in a constant state of hyper-vigilance for fear of being “discovered.”

My professional and personal experience is that shame is widely misunderstood, avoided and typically misdiagnosed as a minor mood swing.  No doubt shame is not a comfortable topic or light-hearted subject for anyone, therefore is rarely discussed.  I have been working as a psychologist for a quite a while (over 30 years) and the subject is never short on information or suffering.  My clients look at me like I have three heads when I ask, “Tell me about the role shame has played in your life?”   Some common responses are, “What’s really is shame? Or I don’t have any shame issues?”  First, I clarify to my clients that shame is not guilt.  Guilt is action related to consequence, which is related to one’s moral, ethical values and behaviors.  Shame is quite another beast.  Shame is a chronic emotional state that functions independently of one’s moral or ethical belief.  I ask my clients to consider for our discussion and frame of reference this definition of shame:

A primary emotional wound, not a secondary belief,
nor based on a particular action, a paralyzing emotional,
mental, psychological state of mind
that distorts a person’s view of themselves in their world and
with others, preventing them from developing a loving sense of self and
impairing the individual from developing trusting, secure, safe relationships for
fear they will be and/or discovered as a phony, a fraud, and/or an imposter.

This baseline definition/understanding of shame helps you and me to better understand why we might randomly feel so negative, suddenly lacking self-confidence and overly critical of ourselves and others.  My on-going emotional, psychological and practical understanding of shame is not from a textbook but rather from over forty thousand (40,000) hours sitting face to face with people, who are agonizing to get a “grip” and peace of mind from their shame cycle.

Shame is its own challenge not a secondary psychologically issue.  I have found that if a person’s internal sense of self is covered in “mud” (i.e., shame) that will cause many secondary emotional conditions (i.e., panic, depression), self-sabotaging actions, impulsive and addictive behaviors (i.e., drug abuse, gambling, eating disorders).  None of which are just limited to excessive drinking/illicit drug use, compulsive shopping/spending, work-holic, people pleasing, video gaming, chronic and inappropriate sexual behavior, smoking, reckless behaviors and many more self-defeating behaviors.  Shame has its insidious influence and driving force in countless self-defeating, self-doubt and avoidant lifestyles.  In my book, The Shame Factor—Heal Your Deepest Fears and Set Yourself Free, the dynamics of shame are explored in great detail considering all the different psychological, emotional, relational and physical challenges that this emotional malaises can effect, influence and in some cases control an individual.

What I have noticed with the challenge of identifying, understanding, treating and healing our shame cycle is to recognize some common emotional and psychological elements.  These elements can be triggered and active in a person’s life at any age, circumstance and relationship. Below are five characteristics of the relentless cycle and tyranny of feeling and experiencing shame on a daily and sometimes, moment to moment basis.

Five Common Emotional Features of Shame

  1. Shame Is the “Emotional Cancer” of the Heart and Soul.
  2. The “Big Secert of Shame.
  3. Shame is and Inside Job, Not Something Outside of You.
  4. Chronic Fear of Not Feeling “Good Enough.”
  5. Shame’s Emotional Super Glue: Addiction Mixed with Shame.

#1. Shame as Emotional Cancer is very-powerful analogy to illustrate the psychological dangerousness of this insidious dis-ease.  Just as cancer rebels against the body, shame rebels against your emotional well-being and peace of mind.  Any type of internal psychological rebellion against your healthy developing self-esteem is never an easy issue to address or to see clearly.  Emotional cancer can literally kill you (for example, drug overdose) or can sabotage your career, love life, family, finances and health.  The sufferer can be oblivious, unaware and assumed that their untreated shame is a personal character flaw.  Regardless of its insidious and intrinsic nature, shame is an issue that is treatable, it must be addressed head on in order to move forward toward your goals and passions.

#2. The “Big Secret” of Shame is emotional and psychological blackmail.  The salient feature of being tortured by your shame is you might truly be unlovable, flawed, disposable and/or replaceable.  The deep-seated unspoken fear that your co-workers, friends, colleagues, social circle, romantic partner, children, and clients will discover that you are a “fraud.”  The nagging voice in your head (the hunter/shame) keeps telling you that eventually everyone will find out about your lack of ability, talent and anything else that makes you feel constantly vulnerable.  Your unspoken “secret” is an emotional state of feeling terrorized which over the years becomes your internal psychological state and your sense of self, shame-based personality.

#3.  Shame is an Inside Job, not outside of You.  Shame can be temporarily abated with self-less acts of kindness but only momentarily.  The awful feeling of shame is not decreased with any type outward behavior.  It is immune and resilient to any type of superficial healing actions directed at it.  Shame can only be treated, healed and removed from within you.  The inward approach is the only way shame can be ultimately removed as an unseen roadblock in every areas of your life.  Pulling shame by the roots out of your life is courageous but worth the effort.

#4. Living with the Chronic Fear of Not Feeling “Good Enough.”    Shame chronically slices away at person’s ability to develop any degree of self-acceptance, self-liking and inner confidence.  It is exceedingly difficult to trust others or believe in others when you are keeping your big unspoken secret that silently screams that you are a “fraud” (imposter syndrome).  Secondly, the emotional terror and despair of “what if..,” someone finds out that you are not perfect, good enough?  This emotional cycle over time becomes an automatic reflex to any situation that you do not feel safe, secure or familiar with.  Shame keeps its victims in a very narrow space of life and happiness.

#5. Shame’s Emotional Super Glue: Addiction Mixed with Avoidance.   The issues surrounding shame tend to be the least understood, least diagnosed, and least discussed in the many different modalities of mental and psychological healing.  Shame breeds avoidance from an early age which can lead to addictive and compulsive behaviors.  Many compulsive behaviors such as excessive activities, non-stop working, chronic need for stimulation, people pleasing are all connected to the unconscious avoidance of feeling the terrible and paralyzing effects of untreated and unexposed shame.

These five emotional features of uncovering the insidious nature of shame in your life is a great start to setting yourself free from the tyrant within and become the person you have desired to be and enjoy.  Please see my book, “The Shame Factor—Healing Your Deepest Fears and Set Yourself Free,” for further details, references and practical approaches for treating, healing and removing shame from your life today and for all the days ahead.