The origins of Shame
Shame is a survival tool. Shame is the feeling our body gives us to let us know we are at risk of being rejected by our tribe, that we might be ousted from our community. To our instinctual bodymind this is equivalent to death, as historically we couldn’t survive alone outside of the safety of a tribe. So shame is a way of telling us what not to do, so that we can stay acceptable to our community and therefore survive. It’s giving us life saving moral feedback.
When we do something that risks this rejection our body gives us the feeling of shame to motivate us to make amends, to apologise, and to never do it again, so that we don’t have to feel the shame again. It is built like this for a reason. When it does this, it’s healthy, and can give us good social guidance. However, this can go wrong in two key ways.
One key way shame goes wrong is when the shame becomes not about what I have done, but about who I am fundamentally. Rather than “I did something bad” it becomes “I am bad” It feels like nothing can make it right. I can’t not be me, so there’s no making amends that could right things - being sorry for my very being, my mere existence is one option but this doesn’t seem like it will help as I can’t stop it (although I might turn myself into pretzel soup by trying!) If shame goes global like this, the only option is to hide ourselves to avoid the risk of ‘being found out’ for the bad rotten or irredeemably flawed individual that we are. It is a matter of survival so this is NOT easily overcome. Once shame takes a hold like this, we are actually no longer capable of making reasonable amends, and unfortunately, we are so busy protecting ourselves that we can no longer access the version of us that will do right next time, so we can tend to repeat the same mistakes again and again, until we heal the shame.
The second key way that shame goes wrong is when we feel shame about things that are not actually shameful. A shameful action is one that genuinely risks us being ousted from our tribe - one that is socially unacceptable in our community and risks rejection. The problems come when we feel shame when the risk of rejection just doesn’t fit the facts. We believe that things are unacceptable that are actually perfectly normal, natural, and understandable. Most of what we feel ashamed for is simply NOT going to get us rejected, much less killed. So the shame response is not accurate to the situation and is not giving us reliable guidance. This most often happens when we are trained by intolerant, over-reactive, shaming, abusive, critical, rejecting, or (intentionally or unintentionally) neglectful parents. Most of the time this will be because our own parents are carrying unhealed shame, and they shamed us in a way to project their own sense of ‘badness’ and ‘wrongness’ onto us instead, passing the baton of ancestral wounding for us to carry it for the next leg of the eternal relay race. Eternal only until someone becomes conscious enough to end it.
Shame and relationships
Culturally, shame is taboo. We have many complex cultural dances designed to avoid feeling shame. Socially complex dances that maneuver shame out of the emotional space. We are usually taught these dances before we can even name our shame. They find their way into relationships without us even noticing.
Shame can feel like “I’m not good enough” and it can feel like “I’m too much”.
Often, but not always, the masculine (in men or women) feels “I’m not good enough”.
This can sound like: “I can’t make her happy”; “Nothing I do is ever right”; “I can’t please her”; “She always wants more”; “She’s never satisfied”; “She keeps criticising me, telling me all the ways I’m falling short, all the things I’m not doing right”. And then relationship feels like a burden, like a trap, and like something to shed to be free to be as you are without the constant reminder of all the ways that you’re not good enough.
For the feminine (in men or women) the wound is “I’m too much”.
This can sound like: “He can’t handle me”; “I’m too intense for him”; “My emotions are too strong for him”; “If he really saw the full force of my passion or my love he would be scared off, repelled, freaked out, and he would leave”; “If he really saw the full force of my fear, my grief, my shame, he could not show up and stay present with me in that”; “I’m too full on for him”; “I’m not simple, or small enough for him”; “I’m overwhelming and smothering him”.
When both parties in a masculine-feminine polarity relationship are coming from these wounds intimacy is impossible.
Healing these wounds takes care, and often needs to be witnessed in a safe way. This healing is not only possible, it is inevitable - it is only a matter of when you will make the choice to heal it… now? After a few more relationships fail? Next lifetime? It is up to you!
The most insidious negative influence on relationships, is the effects of hidden shame. Shame is at the core of the most destructive behaviours and dysfunctional dynamics in relationships (for example, shame is a wound at the root of the narcissistic defense, and codependency).
If you have unprocessed shame lurking unacknowledged and unhealed in your unconscious, this WILL impact your relationships: the only question is HOW. (There are a few common ways this will look depending on how you have personally adapted to manage your own suppressed shame.)
It isn’t conscious, so it can’t be named. You may not even know how your own secret shame is impacting your relationship. It can be confusing because of that, and issues arise seemingly from nowhere with no clear way to have open hearted communication about what is happening in the dynamic. And yet it is like a drip that might be harmless when it only lands on your skin once, but can become excruciatingly painful if it keeps dripping on the same spot for long enough… gradually the impact of shame can go from being barely noticeable and innocuous, to being the reason that your entire relationship seems to be inexplicably falling apart.
It just feels so awful and can be hard to put your finger on why. It can destroy relationships.
Relationships that might otherwise thrive.
Shame is such a taboo subject, and because we keep it in the dark we actually give it more power: we reinforce it. When there is hidden shame in relationships there is automatically going to be separation. You are not seeing the part of me that I keep hidden. And I keep that part of me hidden for the sake because I fear that if I show that part of me, I will be rejected. And if I get rejected, from the perspective of the bodymind, that is tantamount to death, because I don’t survive alone. To risk vulnerability can seem life threatening. So from a very primal, instinctual space, I would do anything to keep that from happening.
Including pushing you away to a safe distance. Even though by doing it, I’m depriving myself of the opportunity to be seen, known, and loved. When keep that part of me hidden, there is no possible chance for genuine intimacy, because the parts of me keeping that hidden, are parts of me that also block my essence. They keep me in defence and protection, which means I can’t be seen for me.
You see the masks.
You see the walls.
You see the ways I compensate.
You see the ways I perform.
You see the ways I deflect.
You see the shiny distraction making do where my essence should be.
And the really sad thing is, that all these things, even though they are designed to make me acceptable, actually lead to me getting the very thing I feared to begin with: getting rejected. Those nobel protectors, however highly skilled they become, are only ever mimicking my essence. However great and lovable they may be, and however good their intentions, their impact will be the opposite of these intentions.
Because nothing that I try to be, or pretend to be, or make an effort to be, could ever really truly be as gorgeous, as compelling, as magnetic, as who I am in my essence. So actually, I’m setting myself up for the very rejection I fear.
Of course we don’t want to be with the fake version of people - we want the real authentic and messy deal! The authentic me with all the imperfections is so much more attractive than the shiny me that I’ve presented to the world, regardless of how well polished it may be.
Not to mention, that some protective behaviours in relation to shame can be pretty destructive and can result in us shaming other people. So when we have unhealed shame, in relationships we become less safe as partners. When we can’t face our shame, we will inevitably (although often unintentionally and unconsciously) shame those we are around as a way of projecting it outwards - making it so that the OTHER is not enough, rather than ourselves (which we secretly believe and fear).
If it’s hidden, you may not know about it directly… but it will show up in your behaviour, and in the defences that are in place to guard you from being directly aware of it.
Imagine a situation where a partner opens up about something vulnerable that they feel shame about. If you haven’t accepted your own shame, you may notice:
Feeling or thinking you are superior because you have solved/healed/transcended that issue
Thinking about how you would or could have done better or different than they did
Feeling an inclination to tell them what they should have done, what you would have done, or advising them about how to do better
Feeling uncomfortable, as if their shame is contagious
Feeling disgusted or repulsed at their display of vulnerability
Feeling detached, numb, or indifferent towards them in their vulnerability
Hearing your critical voice directed at them
Feeling irritated, contemptful, or annoyed with them for their vulnerability
Feeling apologetic, as if you are guilty or personally responsible (even though it doesn’t involve you)
Feeling an impulse to fix them so that they come out of the feeling
Feeling an impulse to reassure them to create the opposite feeling in them
Feeling powerful because you have more perspective or insight than them
Feeling prideful that they trust you enough to open this up with you
Feeling better or stronger than them because they are displaying vulnerability while you are together and strong
Judging them or their behaviour
ALL of these can work to avoid shame, keeping your own shame out of consciousness. If you do these things, or experience these things from partners, there is a reason why. Babies don’t do it. You learnt to do it. For a reason. The reason is more often than not, your own hidden shame. And usually, we attract partners with similar levels of shame, so if you see it in our partner, its a pretty good idea to check it out in yourself.
When you can bring your own shame into consciousness in safe spaces, you no longer need to use up all the energy keeping it out, and these defenses drop away by themselves. These voices you hear inside, these feelings that close your heart, can soften by themselves when the shame they guard is welcomed.
So if we love, and want to have safe intimate relationships, taking responsibility for healing our shame is imperative. Although this is not all it takes, it is absolutely necessary for creating relational safety that we heal our inner shame.
This brings so much peace - the mind is stiller, calmer, and kinder.
Intimacy is now possible.
Shame is perhaps the hardest emotion to feel. Shame is so often the last thing to make it out of the shadows on the healing journey. I’ve seen so often that even some of the most advanced practitioners and space holders still have a shame demon lurking unseen and playing out unconsciously. People will bravely say “I will face my fear, express my anger, feel my grief” while implying in silent parentheses (just so long as my shame stays back there… anything but that!)”
There is such fear about revealing our shameful secrets because we have every reason to think we will be rejected for it. We can’t risk that, so we keep it hidden, which also keeps it from being healed, and keeps it driving unconscious behaviors to avoid feeling it - the very behaviours that keep shame alive in other people. We criticise, we judge, we blame, and in more overt or covert ways, even through a little roll of the eyes, a sarcastic joke, or a momentary micro-gesture of disgust or contempt: we shame one another.
Feeling shame is the worst. It hardcore sucks. You feel some godawful combination (depending on the exact flavour of shame) of feeling sick, disgusted, frozen, tiny, engulfed, overwhelmed, twisted in knots, squirming to get out of your own skin, nauseous, and just icky all over. You want to escape, to die, to be swallowed whole, to disappear, be obliterated, or annihilated, just to not be here feeling this. If you don’t relate to any of this, then your defenses are all in working order - the very nanosecond that this feeling starts, the defense kicks in to mean you never even feel it. It stays there to be felt another day, but so long as your defences stay in top condition, that day never comes, so it compounds, getting scarier and hairier by the day.
This is a systemic issue - it is NOT YOUR FAULT. You didn’t create it. And yet, it is all of our responsibility, collectively. The responsibility to hold our own shame with compassion makes it possible that when others open up their own shame in our presence, we can hold that with love too. Until then, we are doomed to shame other people to avoid our own shame, however subtle. It is only by holding loving and compassionate spaces where it is genuinely safe to bring shame out of the shadows that this can be healed as a collective. We can go first, and then give others permission to follow the lead. This is how we can heal our society and communities, by starting with ourselves. We liberate so much creativity and energy by doing this, and finally have a chance for genuine self love, and free ourselves up to give our gifts in a deeper way.
I have literally been jaw droppingly horrified at some of the (so-called) teachings on how to ‘handle’ the inner critic.
Utter disrespect in the dress of healthy leadership.
I have heard people teach that you need to tell your inner critic to “just shut up”, to “learn who is really in charge and get in their place”, “tell it it is wrong, and you won’t listen to it” and “put it on a leash”.
How would you respond to someone treating you like this? Exactly. Beating someone into submission only works for as long as you are there to enforce it, but it will bounce back stronger than ever the second you turn your back. And let’s be honest, if you were present all the time this wouldn’t be a problem to begin with, so that is gonna happen. Ignoring someone who is trying to communicate something important will only make them shout louder. Telling them they are wrong without first understanding their perspective will only create conflict. More inner conflict is NOT going to help!
What these ‘tough love’ ‘tell it whose boss’ approaches fail to realise, is that the inner critic HAS A GOOD INTENTION. It is actually trying to help. It wants to keep you safe, and usually, what is is trying to protect you from, is further shame. Be better so you can avoid external criticism. Be prepared so you can avoid external rejection. Be perfect so you can never again feel the pain of not feeling good enough. It makes sense in this context, that your inner critic deserves not only respect for working so hard to keep you safe, but a goddamn medal, because it has been doing all of this despite no appreciation whatsoever, and a whole lot of resistance.
And I get it - that part of you wishing the inner critic away is trying to protect you too - it has a tough job. It can see that the way that the inner critic is going about its job is also causing collateral damage, and is inadvertently having the impact of creating more shame internally. And the only way it can think of to solve this problem is to overpower the critic. Which won’t work! How frustrating. How exhausting!
Don’t you think your inner critic is frustrated with that, too? But this is the way it learnt. It’s the only or the best tool it currently has. If the war rages on, it would be crazy for it to put down its weapons. While there is still shame in the system, it simply isn’t safe for the critic to stop.
Thankfully, there is a better option than the tough love approach. A method that welcomes the critic home as an unsung hero, gives it better tools, but more importantly can actually heal the underlying shame that it is protecting you from feeling so there is nothing left to protect you from. Once the war is over, the weapons get laid down gladly.
Are you ready to go to the true roots of this dynamic, once and for all healing the shame, and retiring the critic with honourable discharge? Perhaps it can even take on a new role so its skill and energy can be put to a use that really serves you. My own inner critic is a bad ass inner-coach now! It has amazing attention to detail, can see myriad creative ways I can keep improving, and cheerleads me enthusiastically every step of the way. It is awesome. I truly love this part of me and it wholeheartedly welcomes my leadership as it collaborates with me for our joint intentions for my thriving. If your inner critic could do anything, if it didn’t have to stay in that role any more, what would it want to do??
Let’s make that happen.
My conscious and intentional journey with my own shame healing began in 2016 after a devastating heartbreak had me do a deep dive into my own wounds and my shadow. I began excavating from the deep recesses of my unconscious all of the contributors to that breakup, which included my unseen shame, along with, of course, his.
It’s been subject such fascination for me, especially because of its taboo nature and because of other people's deep discomfort in being around shame, even other people's shame, or in hearing people talk about shame. I’ve even seen this resistance to conversing about shame in an academic setting - that cognitive defence clearly not trustworthy enough to guarantee safe passage through such terrain without the risk of feeling it.
Now more and more, that is being challenged, and I've been lucky enough to come across some amazing teachers, the most influential being IFS trainer Toni Herbine-Blank, and Robert Augustus Masters (author of many books, most relevantly Emotional Intimacy, and founder of the Center of Transformation where I trained under him).
What I notice is that there is no limit to the depth of this journey. I am still having insights, revelations and deepenings into my relationship with those shamed parts of me and the nature of shame. I've been blessed with enough grace that when adversity comes my way I can plummet for all of the gifts, and I usually find these times of challenge potent in terms of creativity and inspiration. They give me the gift of an opportunity to go even deeper within myself to find those parts that haven't yet been loved.
There’s such richness in my relationship to those shamed parts of me. The relationships that I’ve cultivated internally with these parts of myself are growing ever deeper as I spend more and more time getting to know them and they keep teaching me so many nuances and subtle ways of appreciating these nuances that continually layers richness onto my experience of life.
I'm so grateful to my shame, because it's made me a better person.
I'm grateful to my shame for continually requiring my presence.
I’m grateful to my shame for compelling me to continue to move deeper and deeper within myself to motivate me to shine the light of consciousness further and further inside illuminating everything there.
I'm so grateful to the protectors of my shame, because they've helped me to excel in areas that I may never have cultivated without that driver of shame.
I'm grateful to the protectors of my shame, for all the ways that they have come to contribute to the kaleidoscope of my personality: for their humour and their quirks.
Most of all, I am grateful to my shame, because this quagmire of icky goo, for all its sticky, yucky, challenging mess, is the route to self-love.
Shame is so often the point at which we get stuck.
The point which we give up.
The point at which we turn back.
The point at which we collapse and wallow.
Yet for those who meet it instead, on the other side of that is such sweet acceptance.
Such complete belonging.
Such peaceful authenticity.
It makes the whole journey, not just worthwhile, but exquisite. Blessed.
So few people really achieve deep self-love because shame creates boundary around what can be loved - a barrier that limitation where the love can reach. The parts of us creating this wall say “Don’t go here” “Unbearable pain will come if you go there” “You’ll be overwhelmed and you’ll be destroyed” “You might even die, or go crazy, or….” “Anywhere but here, anything but this, just turn away!” And they form layer upon layer of fear (“Danger! Turn away for safety!”) anger (“Fuck off! Turn away or I’ll destroy you!”) depression (“There’s no point going there. Turn away because it wouldn’t help anyway”) and maybe you can add your own to the list.
Parts that are cut off from love are used to being rejected by us internally, used to being kept out of the light, and sometimes believe that they deserve it, that this is further evidence of their unworthiness, unacceptability, unlovability, and intrinsic badness, wrongness, lack, or flaw. It's those parts that are cut of from our love, that need it the most. Without those parts on board, life will feel empty to that extent. To the extent that we have parts of ourselves ostracized like this, we will feel incomplete. And will look to other people to fill that for us, to show us we’re lovable, to validate us, to complete us.
Even now, alchemised by fresh heartbreak, I find liberation in coming home to myself more deeply than ever. I find sweet gratitude on the other side of grief.
Gratitude for the love that can never be lost.
For the love that is unconditional.
For the love that was here all along.
For the love that is here as long as I allow it to be - as long as I deem myself worthy to receive it I am open to feel what is already here.
For awakening to the truth that, on the other side of shame is unconditional love and the only reason it feels like we need another person's love is because there are parts of us we don't feel able to love ourselves.
In meeting and loving those parts there is freedom that creates opening for the love that was longed for all along.
I feel full.