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  • Grace Dowd

Identifying Shame

Do you ever feel like you are inherently wrong? Like no matter how hard you try, you feel like you are the problem in all relationships? Maybe you feel like no matter how hard you might try, you will never be a good enough friend, employee, spouse/partner, or child. This is most likely shame that you are experiencing. Shame is one of the most pervasive and destructive feelings and beliefs that we may experience in our life. It wreaks havoc on our nervous system, cognition, and relationships.

Shame Vs. Guilt

Many people often clump together shame and guilt, though these are two distinctly different experiences. Guilt is a very normal part of life, and can even be a healthy feeling to experience, whereas shame is our greatest liar about who we are as people.

Guilt is what we feel when we have done something wrong. We may experience remorse and symptoms of grief over our actions and guilt is what mobilizes us to seek repair with others.

Shame is a core belief about ourselves that says you are what’s wrong. Shame has no regard for the fact that all humans make mistakes and are deserving of grace. Shame is a complete liar that constantly tells us how inadequate we are, no matter how hard we try.

What is Shame?

You may be dealing with chronic shame if you find that your inner talk is highly critical of your whole person: your choices, personality, looks, and interactions. Struggling with perfectionism is a good indicator that shame may be at the root. Many individuals who struggle with shame also may be experiencing anger, substance use, feelings of embarrassment, self isolating, and feeling like an outsider. Shame is the greatest liar - and yet, our most shameful parts are the ones who need the most grace, tenderness, and self compassion.

Why Shame Happens

John Bradshaw said it best in his book Healing the Shame that Binds You, “It is important to note that the need to find the Inner Child is part of every human being’s journey toward wholeness. No one had a perfect childhood. Everyone bears the unresolved unconscious issues of his family history.”

There are many reasons for shame, and many hypotheses regarding why and how shame happens. An individual's history can play a large role in their experience of shame, as well as their personality and temperament. Those who have a history of childhood trauma and abuse are most often dealing with negative core beliefs and chronic shame. Even those who look back fondly at their childhood may have “the need to find the Inner Child.”

In the field of psychology and social work, there is what is known as the locus of control, which simply means, are circumstances based on internal or external factors? When we have experienced trauma and abuse in childhood, we often place the blame on ourselves. We have a very strong internal locus of control. As children, we can’t comprehend that our caregivers are capable of hurting us, therefore the only rational solution must be that we are bad.

Coping With Shame

We want to cope with shame, rather than shun the parts of us that carry it. We want to tenderly nurture the ashamed parts of ourselves with the love that they always deserved. These parts most often carry some very real wounds and these are some very simple tips to begin your journey of self compassion.

1. Accept the inner critic as a wounded part of ourself. We learned that criticism from somewhere.

2. Begin to nurture that inner critic - creating affirmations that fit your needs can be an appropriate way to change those negative core beliefs.

3. Talk to those you trust. It can be helpful to have an outside perspective, and even more helpful if it is with a nonbiased third party, such as a therapist.

If you are struggling with chronic shame, you are not alone and there is help available.

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