“Shame”- from the Old English word scamu, or sceomu, meaning “feeling of guilt or disgrace; confusion caused by shame; disgrace, dishonor, insult, loss of esteem or reputation; shameful circumstance, what brings disgrace; modesty; private parts.
Recently I’ve had a spate of clients looking closely at the patterns of shame in their lives. Can you remember an experience where you felt shame? Maybe it was a feeling of heat behind your cheeks. Maybe your face turned red. Maybe your palms began to sweat. Maybe you felt nauseous, shy, or alone. Shame presents in a myriad of different ways.
So what is it, exactly? As with any emotion, there’s the physical manifestation as well as the psychic (mental) experience. Physical symptoms we’ve already briefly looked at: heat, feeling flushed, sweating, nausea, goosebumps… all signs of arousal of the nervous system. The psychic effects of shame are a little more varied. On the more mild end of the spectrum, sometimes one can feel shy or hesitant to share their experience. Moving towards a more pervasive experience of shame, there can be isolation, humiliation, and withdrawal. At its most toxic, early and continued shame experiences can perpetuate a shamed-based belief system about the self, which includes core messages of unlovability and brokenness.
One of the etymological roots of the word “shame” means “to cover”. This is interesting when applied to looking at the ways in which shame can serve to repress emotional expression. Shame-based conditioning is extremely effective. It’s easy to see this with young children, who tend to use the power of shame in groups to teach each other about social norms (like not picking one’s nose in public, or farting loudly, for instance).
It becomes more problematic, however, when a young child internalizes messages of shame (incorporates them into his or her belief system about himself or herself). From this place, a child may believe that he or she is broken, damaged, unloveable, or intrinsically “bad”. Ultimately, a shame-based belief system limits access to one’s emotional experience and expression. The effects of this can be far-reaching, from challenges in relationship, to addictive patterns, to depression and anxiety. When a child is repeatedly told that their feelings are bad or wrong, when they are shamed for their experience and told that it is not acceptable or ok, they internalize the belief that they too are bad, wrong, and not ok.
The tricky part about working with it is that it can feel shameful to talk about an experience of shame! This is where therapy can be particularly helpful. To even begin to explore shame, it is necessary to have a space that feels safe and free from judgement, with a trusted other. Maybe it’s not a therapist. Maybe it’s a lover, partner, or best friend. And then maybe, one can start to unwind the binding effects shame has. And one can rise.
You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? 'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high, Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you? Don't you take it awful hard 'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise That I dance like I've got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame I rise Up from a past that's rooted in pain I rise I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.