Shame is an epidemic in our culture, and more acutely so among those considered by our culture to be outside the norm. Those who are different are often ostracized, harassed or bullied by peers in school.
I’d like to offer some steps in moving past our shame into authentic positive self-esteem and secure connection with others.
Part of the underpinnings of this epidemic of shame may lie in our culture’s investment in an all-or-nothing dichotomous way of looking at reality: normal vs. abnormal, moral vs. immoral, good vs. evil, virtue vs. sin. Anything outside of the bubble of what is moral, good and virtuous must be rejected, whether it is within one’s self or within others.
This cultural construct ignores the beautiful diversity and plurality within our self, our relationships, and nature. Those who do not conform to the appropriate dress, weight and heterosexual “normalcy,” who do not present as appropriately masculine or feminine, or who do not conform to “appropriate” gender roles are repressed or rejected as deviant.
Shame is different from guilt. Guilt has to do with what we have done, and hopefully it leads us to remorse, amends and corrective action. Shame is more globalized and has to do with who we are. Shame is not a feeling, and we may not readily recognize or identify it. Isolation and withdrawal, putting down or harming ourselves (depression, addiction), attacking others (bullying, domestic violence), or avoiding (denial, drug and alcohol abuse, distraction through thrill-seeking) can all be responses to shame.
Like a cancer, shame attaches itself to our psyche and becomes insidious and destructive. Many authors and studies have documented shame’s effects in increased rates of low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, eating disorders, obesity, social anxiety, substance abuse and addiction, domestic violence, and suicide.
• Build internal trust and create of a safe space for yourself. Affirmation and acceptance without judgment are important. Create a refuge within yourself, perhaps through meditation, and a comfortable environment.
• Acknowledge and talk about shame. Come out about your experience; secrecy and isolation only intensify shame. Consider therapy or journaling.
• Shame derives from barriers and difficulties with attachment and affiliation. Get out of your isolation and find ways to reconnect with others. Practice assertiveness. Practice being authentic.
• Focus on positive attachments. Empathy and vulnerability are antithesis to shame, as Brené Brown has said.
• Embrace and celebrate your resilience.
• Learn to challenge your internal critic.
• Shame is visceral; healing often involves reconnecting with our physical bodies. Consider yoga, massage, walking, running, chiropractic adjustments, joining a gym, attention to healthy eating, positive sexual connections, and other physically self-nurturing
The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, by Alan Downs
Generation Bullied 2.0: Prevention and Intervention Strategies for Our Most Vulnerable Students, by sj Miller, Leslie David Burns and Tara Star Johnson, editors
Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise, by Jane Middelton-Moz
Shame and the Origins of Self-Esteem, by Mario Jacoby
Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself From the Judge Within, by Byron Brown
Brené Brown: “Listening to Shame” (YouTube, Ted Talks), “Shame is Lethal,” “Three Things You Can Do to Stop a Shame Spiral” (Oprah interview) and others.
Jason Carrigan is a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist practicing in the Westport area. He is active in the leadership of the Greater Kansas City LGBT-Affirming Therapists Guild (www.lgbtguild.com).
This article was written with input and resources provided by Jeff Peterson, LPC, NCC, with Kansas City Psychotherapy, who focuses on recovery from shame, among other issues. He is also a member of the Greater Kansas City LGBT-Affirming Healthcare Guild.
Additional psychotherapists who are committed to providing culturally competent and affirming services to the LGBTQIA community can be found at healthcareguild.com.