I attended a very useful workshop* at the weekend, looking at working with shame. It was interesting to reflect on the profound effects shame can have on our relationships, both with ourselves, and with other people.
Carl Jung once described shame as a 'soul-eating' emotion. He was not wrong. Shame is an emotion that can be very deeply held. If repeated experiences of being shamed occur, shame can be held as an identity - in effect we believe that we are wrong for existing, as if we are somehow a mistake.
When shame impacts us this deeply, we begin to have distorted beliefs about ourselves. We may believe ourselves to be defective, unworthy, inadequte or undeserving. We question our right to have good things, or even to be here at all. Shame can cause us to lose who we are, and to become a chameleon, continually attempting to adapt ourselves to be what we believe others want us to be. Without a core sense of who we are and what we want, life can become very difficult.
Shame can underpin and contribute to other mental health conditions, fuelling depression, addictions, self-harm including eating problems and anger and violence. As shame causes us to lose our centre and our balance, it puts us at risk of disconnection and isolation. We do not dare show our true self even within our mind, let alone to be seen by others.
So where does shame come from? Often, it is what is called an attachment difficulty. If we consistently did not have our needs met as a baby, we do not have the opportunity for trust to develop, or to learn to regulate our emotions through our carers regulating us initially. At its extreme this may lead to a belief that we are unloveable, and that the world and other people are not safe. This may be compounded as we grow if we do not have clear boundaries that are consistently enforced, at the same time as our carers making sure we are emotionally OK after we make a mistake. We may then begin to believe that we are no good, in fact that we ourselves at the mistake.
It is the early roots of shame that make it a challenge to address. The experiences that set us up to be shamed may have been pre-verbal, and before our conscious memory has kicked in. This makes them harder to access in talking therapy. Fortunately, approaches working with the unconscious, including attachment focused eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), and self-relations therapy, give us therapeutic ways of supporting healing of these early attachment difficulties and letting go of the shame that was never really ours to hold.
If you would like to explore your experience of shame and move towards feeling whole, then get in touch.
*Many thanks to EMDR NE and Nancy Gilbert and Fran Kerr for the excellent workshop