By Adam J. Pearson
Introduction: What is Shame?
In previous articles, I’ve written about the nature of shame, this powerful feeling of deficiency or lack that we sometimes experience at the heart of ourselves. Shame is the name of the void we feel within us, the void that other people’s approval and attention cannot fill. Shame is the void that we try to fill or numb with escapism, distractions, drugs, sex, alcohol, excessive working, overly controlling behaviour, overeating, compulsive approval-seeking, and all sorts of other things. It is the source of our self-loathing and one of the main reasons we find it hard to love ourselves.
As shame researcher Brene Brown perfectly defines it in her fantastic book Daring Greatly, shame is
the intensely painful feeling that we are in some way fundamentally not enough (e.g. good enough, attractive enough, wealthy enough, etc.) and are therefore, unworthy of love and belonging.
In other words, shame is the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, bad about us, or lacking in us. Shame involves the primal fear of being abandoned and ostracized; we are afraid that if people realize how truly defective, bad, or lacking we are, then they will not love us, will disconnect from us, and will leave us alone. Thus, shame is also the fear of disconnection. We all feel like we are alone in feeling shame and are even ashamed of our shame; however, the truth is that nearly everyone feels shame.
As Brene Brown writes:
1. We all have [shame]. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. Here’s your choice: Fess up to experiencing shame or admit that you’re a sociopath. Quick note: This is the only time that shame seems like a good option.
2. We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.
If these words resonate with something in you and you sometimes feel shame too, you’re not alone.
My own writings about shame flow out of personal experience. Their purpose is to share the insights and shame-resilience tools that I wish I had had during the many years in which I did not understand what I was feeling and mistakenly thought I was powerless over shame. In “Finding the Calm Within the Storm: Shame-Resilience in Practice,” I discussed Brene Brown’s method of coping with shame and shared an example of shame-resilience practice from my own life. I also explained why the strategy of seeking approval from others always fails to erase our shame in “Silencing the Praise: Why Seeking Approval Fails to Fill Our Inner Word.”
There is, however, an important issue about shame that I have not yet addressed and that I have found to be an extremely useful idea in my own life. This is the idea that at the heart of shame, there are assumptions, unquestioned and often unconscious ideas about who we are, and that liberation from shame involves bringing these assumptions out of the darkness and into the light. In this article, I want to first say a few words about how these assumptions work and then offer some practical tools for finding them and addressing them within yourself.
The Two Components of Shame: Feelings and Assumptions
Shame, as I see it, has two main parts: a feeling part and a thinking part. Psychologists might say it has both an “affective component” and a “cognitive component.” We can express this point in simple terms.
On the one hand, shame has feeling content. It involves an intensely painful feeling at the heart of our identity, a feeling that we are lacking, not good enough, or fundamentally bad. It involves feeling like there’s something fundamentally wrong with us that separates us off from the world. It involves fears of disconnection, abandonment, and being unworthy of love and belonging. We directly recognize the emotional part of shame when we feel it. It’s easy to recognize because it is so sharp and painful that it jumps out at us.
What we sometimes forget, though, is that shame also has thought content. Shame involves often unconscious beliefs about who we are. When we feel shame, we also accept certain statements about us to be true. We believe certain things about ourselves. Sometimes, these messages remain unconscious and unstated within us. At other times, they express themselves consciously in thoughts that repeatedly play in our heads. Brene Brown sometimes calls these conscious shame messages “shame tapes,” because they seem to loop in our heads like old recordings on a cassette or videotape. Thus, we tend to either not think shame messages at all, in which case they remain unconscious and we just feel their effects, or to find ourselves thinking them over and over again. In the latter case, they can feel like torture that makes us feel miserable and continually disrupts our sense of joy and peace. It’s almost like being bullied from within.
I’ve already talked about the feeling part of shame in past articles, but I want to focus on the thinking part of shame here because, as it turns out, these messages at the core of the emotional component of shame are really assumptions about who we are. When we unquestioningly believe them, we feel the feelings of shame, fear, despair, and deficiency. Therefore, it’s very important to look into these assumptions. They lie at the heart of the void that we want to address and ultimately heal within ourselves.
The Assumptions at the Heart of Shame
The idea that shame messages can be assumptions is crucial because it offers an alternative to the way we usually think about them. We often think that we first see ourselves acting in certain ways and, therefore, conclude that we are a certain kind of person. In the case of shame, we seem to conclude that we are shameful, bad, deficient, and lacking or that there is something deeply wrong or unlovable at the core of who we are. Sometimes, this does happen. However, at other times, shame works in the opposite direction. We first assume certain things about ourselves, and then we act in ways that seem to prove our assumptions right in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sometimes, we unconsciously make these assumptions at an early age as we try to interpret the ways people treat us. Psychologists call these early assumptions “core beliefs” because they become the ‘core’ or our view of ourselves. As the Center for Clinical Intervention puts this point:
Negative core beliefs are the conclusions about ourselves we arrived at when we were children or adolescents, likely as a result of the negative experiences we have had. For example, a child who was constantly punished and criticized may come to believe “I am worthless,” or “I am bad.” These thoughts are what we call negative core beliefs.
To a child or young person, these beliefs seem to make sense during those experiences because they are probably unable to explore other explanations for what is happening to them. These negative core beliefs are thoughts that are usually deep-seated, firmly-held, and strongly-ingrained in our minds. They are evaluations of ourselves and our worth or value as a person. These beliefs say, “This is the kind of person I am.”
The feelings we associate with shame thus stem from core beliefs, which are assumptions about who we are. What can these basic assumptions look like? They can be beliefs like:
- “I’m stupid..”
- “I’m useless.”
- “There’s something wrong with me.”
- “I’m not smart enough.”
- “I’m worthless”
- “I’m not good-looking enough.”
- “I’m not good enough.”
- “I’m not important.”
- “I’m unlovable.”
- “I’m fat and ugly.”
- “I’m unacceptable.”
- “I’m good for nothing.”
- “I am evil.”
It’s easy to see how believing these assumptions can lead to the feelings we associate with shame. If I believe that I’m fundamentally not good enough, then I feel that I am lacking the things that would make me good. I come to feel like I don’t deserve love or am unworthy of being loved or fitting in. I become afraid that whatever love I seem to get will be easily lost. What if they see how I really am (translation: how shame says I am) and abandon me? Thus, the feeling part of shame is deeply connected to the cognitive part of shame. The painful emotions we feel are linked to the statements we assume and believe about ourselves.
Discovering and Questioning the Assumptions
If we are used to hearing the shame tapes of these messages playing over and over in our heads, then we can start to recognize them for what they are–assumptions–and then use the shame-resilience process on them. If you already know what the assumptions at the heart of your shame are, you can immediately skip to step 4 in the process below.
What do we do, though if we don’t know what the assumptions are? What if our shame beliefs are still unconscious within us? Thankfully, there are techniques we can use to bring them to light.
The next time you feel a shame storm brewing within you, try this. You’ll recognize that shame is coming up when you feel certain painful feelings coming up within you; these can be feelings of low self-esteem, self-doubt, fear of failing, fear of being abandoned, self-hatred, helplessness, hopelessness, or simply feelings of being deficient, lacking, or not good enough. Once you are aware that you are in shame, you have made a powerful first step: you have recognized the feeling part of shame. This is step 1.
Step 1: Recognize feelings of shame when they arise. Know when you’re in shame.
Step 2 is to look deep into the feeling instead of trying to run away from it, reactively lash out from it, repress it, escape it, or deny it. This can be scary to do because shame is itself a form of fear. However, looking into the feeling won’t make us feel anything that we aren’t already feeling; it won’t hurt us any more than we are already hurting. Instead, it will help us liberate ourselves from the feeling by uncovering the messages that are at its core.
We need to put the shame message on the table, to-to-speak, so that we can work with it. We need to make it conscious so that it doesn’t run our thoughts, words, and behaviour without us even realizing it. You may find this process uncomfortable, but you can reassure yourself that it is only a temporary step in a larger process that will leave you feeling much more comfortable than you did before.
You can find the assumptions by asking yourself a question:
Step 2: Ask yourself: When I feel these feelings, what messages am I believing about myself?
Trace the feeling back to the message that caused it. Here are a few examples:
- If I’m feeling afraid that I’m going to be abandoned because of my appearance, then the shame assumption might be “I’m not good looking enough.”
- If I’m feeling like there’s nothing good about me, then the assumption might be that “I’m bad.”
- If I’m feeling like I have no purpose or abilities and am helpless, then the assumption might be “I’m worthless” or “I’m useless.”
- If I’m desperately trying to hide what I believe are my flaws, then the assumption might be “there’s something wrong with me.”
- If I’m trying to seek approval from others, the assumption might be “I’m only good enough if people praise me.”
- If I’m afraid of not standing out, the assumption might be “I’m plain and uninteresting.”
- If I’m afraid of losing control, the assumption might be “I’m powerless.”
- If I feel a desperate urge to protect everyone around me, the assumption might be “I’m vulnerable” or “I need protection.”
- If I’m feeling clingy or needy, the assumption might be “I need to hold on so I don’t get abandoned” or “I need to cling to this person because they haven’t realized that I am unlovable.”
As you can see, these messages can be quite dark. When you reveal them after years of unconsciousness, they can be quite shocking. It takes bravery to look at them. When you speak these negative thoughts, you may feel like you’re in a vulnerable position. This is perfectly natural. However, if you have made it this far in this article, then you already have the courage to face these messages and a wish to be free. That willingness is all you need. The discomfort of this step will tempt you to give up the process, but stick with it. The rewards of doing so are nothing short of the relief, self-love, and freedom for which you yearn.
Step 3: Articulate the message. Put the assumption into words.
Once you find out what you’re assuming or believing about yourself by looking into the feeling, the next step is to put it into words as I did in the examples I gave above. Turn the belief into an “I” statement of the form “I am_________” or “I need to ______ because I am _____.” This may seem like a simple thing to do, however, recall that even the act of articulating the assumption shifts you from a position of powerlessness to a position of power. It takes an unconscious belief and makes it conscious, it makes an unqestioned belief questionable. When you articulate the belief, you find that you now have something to work or play with. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do next.
Step 4: Question the assumption.
When you have expressed the assumption in words, you can now bring your full attention to it by questioning it. At this stage, it may be helpful to write the assumption on paper so that you have a visual of it before you.
In many cases, these core beliefs have remained unquestioned in us for years. As assumptions, we simply assumed they were true. However, we want to be free from their influence over our lives and the painful feelings they engender, so we will now question them.
If you’re wondering what questions to ask in order to inquire into whether or not the belief is true, try these. These questions are my rewordings of four questions that were originally written by the American speaker and author, Byron Katie. Consider the assumption in front of you and ask yourself:
Question 1. Is this belief true?
Question 2. Can I know absolutely that it’s true?
Question 3. How do I react, what happens, when I believe this assumption about myself?
Question 4. Who would I be without this belief about myself? Can I find a single stress-free reason to keep this thought?
Then turn the thought around (e.g. if the thought is “I’m not pretty enough,” turn it around to “I am pretty enough”). Then find three examples of how the turnaround is as true or truer than the original thought.
You can either simply reflect on these questions by thinking slowly and carefully about them or write answers to them. It’s important to be as honest as possible and not to censor your answers. Let whatever comes to you flow out. As you speak the assumption and question it, its hold over you begins to decrease. In fact, a transfer of power happens from the assumption to you. You take back the power you originally gave to the false belief about yourself. In Brene Brown’s shame-resilience process, she calls this step “practicing critical-awareness to reality-check the shame message.”
Because these beliefs are core beliefs and are so deeply ingrained in us, you may have to question them on more than one occasion to release their hold. This is because they may come up again as matters of habit. However, by questioning the assumption using the above steps or by going through the steps of Brene Brown’s shame-resilience process, you gradually turn shame-resilience into a new habit. For the first time, you feel like you have some power over the feelings and messages of shame that arise within you and you begin to have your first taste of freedom from the painful feelings they engender. This is an ongoing process for all of us and the fruits of these techniques absolutely make them worthwhile.
Conclusion: Liberation from Shame
The assumptions that we discover at the heart of shame are not unchangeable and permanent; they can be questioned and even relinquished. We can free ourselves from them and replace them with healthier, more accurate, and more positive views of ourselves. We don’t have to be chained to shame; we can liberate ourselves from it, if not once and for all, then again and again whenever shame arises within us. We can learn to forgive ourselves for adopting these beliefs about ourselves because they were really innocent mistakes; we didn’t know better at the time.
Moreover, because our actions and experiences often flow from our beliefs, examining these core beliefs and practicing shame-resilience can have a transformative, life-changing effect. I know this is what it had for me and continues to have whenever I feel shame arise and call upon the power of these simple tools. Shame may make us feel like we are alone, but the research shows that it’s common to nearly all of us. We’re all in this together. So, let’s have the courage to face our fears, examine our core beliefs, and support each other with empathy when we see each other struggling through our personal shame storms. Above all, when you’re feeling the isolating emotions that shame can evoke within us all, remember that you’re not alone. I’m right there in the arena next to you.
This article is part of a series on shame, vulnerability, and resilience.
For an orienting overview of my writing on shame and shame-resilience, see “The Prison and the Key: Why I Write About Shame.”
For a discussion of why seeking approval fails to silence the voice of shame, see “Silencing the Praise: Why Seeking Approval Fails to Fill Our Inner Void.”
For a detailed and practical explanation of shame-resilience, see “Finding the Calm Within the Storm: Shame Resilience in Practice.”
For reflections on the power and vitality of vulnerability, see “When We Feel Vulnerable, We Feel Alive: Reflections on the Power and Vitality of Vulnerability.”
For another author’s take on extreme people-pleasing and its effects, see “From Parent-Pleasing to People Pleasing.”
For a short discussion of vulnerability in romantic relationships, see “Love Fueled by Resilience: Reflections on Powerful Relationships.”
For a guide to liberating yourself through the transformative power of forgiveness, see “Forgive and Be Free: The Liberating Power of Forgiveness.”