How We React To Shame And Why We Keep It Hidden

Many codependents that I deal with have real issues with shame that was acquired in childhood. Initially, this starts with adaptive protection measures that children use to cope with a toxic environment and parents who do not distinguish between behaviour and the child. Shame grows and festers so much that it affects all adult interactions and daily occurrences. Due to this, we do our best to hide shame, bury it or project it. It goes to the very core of who we are and is responsible for much dysfunction in the lives of all who feel it. It is not just hidden from others but also from ourselves and we bury it so deeply that our defenses against shame are largely unconscious and reactive.

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Shame is often felt as a warning or threat that triggers the body’s defense system, leading to withdrawal (flight), attack (fight) or avoidance (freeze). With healthy shame ( a slip or transgression), which is short-lived, we can recognize shame for what it is and adapt our behaviour accordingly as it is in our conscious awareness. Toxic shame, we avoid and have well-set behaviour patterns to ensure it stays hidden. These are often habitual and well below the level of consciousness.

One of the ways we keep shame hidden is through the implementation of so-called “shame screens” that disconnect us from the experience of shame but can also amplify or minimize it depending on which strategy is used. None of these strategies address it, unfortunately.

Moving away: when people defend against shame using this method, they withdraw emotionally, physically and psychologically. They become secretive ( often hold secrets) and attempt to become invisible. They often isolate themselves and take space from loved ones and friends.

Moving toward: using this method, people become compliant and start to people-please. They look for approval and become submissive and sacrifice their own needs to stay connected. This is the method that codependents often use. This method often keeps people trapped in unhealthy relationships with a primitive need to maintain connection.

Moving against: to escape a sense of shame, these people try to overpower others with rage, violence and harm. This is to make them more powerful and the victim less so. They often use shame to fight shame but also place a barrier to intimacy and closeness.

Compensation: In an attempt to avoid feelings of shame, some will employ compensation strategies such as grandiosity, perfectionism, arrogance and indeed narcissism. They feel they do not need others and refuse to meet the needs of others.

Defenses against shame are very typically learnt in early childhood as creative solutions to unbearable feelings. They develop into habitual patterns of thinking, acting and behaving whenever shame appears. It is thought that these patterns lead to direct behaviour or “ scripts”, which come forward depending on the level of shame and who is present when the shame is felt. There are thought to be four core defensive scripts against shame, withdrawal, attack self, avoidance and attack other. All of the scripts described carry specific internal thinking and behaviour and can be seen as a result of employing “shame screens”, mentioned above.

People often come into therapy with little idea that their issues are due to the feelings around shame. Many have very little understanding of its impact and how to deal with it. Many feel shame talking about shame and try to justify their idyllic childhood. Shame is often hidden and harder to explore than some other emotions and clients often express rage, self-blame and guilt before shame. Therapists need to be careful not to reshame a client which is easy to do while talking about it.

There is a process that therapists will go through to bring the shame into conscious awareness and help the client to deal with it. Firstly, the therapeutic relationship must be safe and secure and an environment of trust built so the client feels accepted and tolerated when the shame is shared. In therapy, this is the most important aspect of dealing with shame in session. Without this, shame will not be dealt with or ignored. Many clients will not realize that shame is an issue so it might then be useful to discuss and educate concerning the origins and acquiring of shame and how this affects people generally. A gradual process of revealing shame, the defenses used and reapportioning of shame can follow.

Therapists will try to identify and work with negative self-talk, self- beliefs and the impact of shame. This will be the core of any approach used and the key element will be to bring it into conscious awareness so it can be dealt with in a sense of empathy and compassion for self and others. It is often stated that the antidote to shame is a healthy sense of realistic pride in who we are and what we have achieved. This needs to be reclaimed and pleasure taken in accomplishments and competency.

4 Thoughts

  1. Shame is the biggest hurdle for those of us with trauma from childhood sexual abuse. I personally took the avoidance approach to shame and hurt, and at 56, I’m finally learning how to stop being secretive. I’m learning to reintegrate relationships and hugs and take off the perfectionist mask. Thanks for a great article.

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