We all experience guilt and shame. 

Both guilt and shame make you feel self-conscious.  However, you may not realize that guilt and shame are distinct.  Guilt is the feeling you get when you realize you did something wrong, either intentionally our unintentionally.  Shame is the feeling you get when you see yourself as wrong or bad for having done something wrong.

Clearly, shame is really corrosive.  It’s about you internalizing being wrong to your core. It impacts your self worth and blocks the ability to correct course or build a more positive self-perception. By being ‘wrong’ you are incapable of changing or doing better.

Shame is harmful in general, but particularly problematic in your romantic relationship. If you see yourself as wrong/bad, you’ll want to run and hide.  You will fear that your partner will not love you once they know how awful you are. This fear stops your ability to show vulnerability to your partner. When you can’t open up, you can’t create the intimacy that is needed for a relationship to thrive.  If shame is pervasive, even kindhearted constructive criticism will reinforce your feelings of inadequacy, and make you lash out or shut down emotionally. You may also engage in subtle and not so subtle ways of sabotaging your relationship because of your negative self-perception.

Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, well-known shame researcher and author, has this to say about the conditions that make shame grow, and how to stop it:

If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same about of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. 

Brené Brown

In this quote, Brené is very clear that the antidote to shame is empathy. 

It would be great if you noticed shame said to yourself: ‘I see some shame here. I’ll choose empathy instead’. Unfortunately, ‘choosing’ in that way would reduce the process of empathy to an intellectual exercise. It would be your ego trying to will shame away. True empathy requires recognizing and accepting what happened.  Empathy is the natural consequence.

In my client work, people arrive at a place of empathy all the time. Empathy is experienced as a visceral/somatic experience.  You know in your body when you are experiencing empathy. It’s effortless. You aren’t forcing it, and it’s not just an intellectual construct. You are able to revisit a memory that made you spiral into feelings of shame, and it won’t trigger a shame reaction- without intellectual effort used to override what comes up.

The process I use with clients is EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques, AKA Tapping). The EFT process is brilliant at creating the kind of effortless empathy I speak about.  It gives a deep yet gentle way to explore all the influences holding shame in place.  Shame is complex and has many influences like cultural norms, messages from childhood, or experiences you had earlier in life, and so much more.  Some of these are so deep that we’ve hidden them from ourselves.  Tapping will build a deeper understanding about what made you (and others) react.

To really navigate shame it can be extremely helpful to work with a skilled practitioner.  Shame feelings run deep and we want to hide, even from ourselves. It helps to get someone with skill and perspective.  Still, you can discover a lot by using EFT by yourself.

In my next blog, I’ll illustrate some journey of working on shame for myself in a recent session. It’s a personal journey, and yours will certainly be different.  I’ll offer some thought starters to get you finding ways to bring the same into light for yourself.