Where there’s fear, there’s shame, says a Romanian proverb. What the proverb doesn’t say (and what many of us don’t know) is that the folds of shame hide a multitude of emotional problems and dysfunctional relationships that are passed down from one generation to the next.

One of psychologist Harriet Lerner’s worst experiences of shame was at school, when teachers had the unfortunate idea of holding a “slave sale”[1] in each classroom, with the money raised going to the Red Cross.

At the first day’s public auction, when boys were called to the front of the class one by one and sold to the girls, she offered a considerable sum—the savings of several months—for Donny, a boy she liked very much and who had to obey her orders all day, sharpening her pencils or carrying her books home.

The next day it was the girls’ turn to be bought, and the whole process went very quickly. That is, until it was Harriet’s turn, for whom no boy was interested in bidding even a dollar, the starting price of the auction. Confused by the situation, the teacher tried to lower the starting price, asking if anyone would bid 50 cents or 25 cents. Finally, with Harriet wishing she could disappear, the professor asked pleadingly who would bid 10 cents, adding encouragingly that it was possible for one boy to bid for more than one slave if necessary.

Somehow persuaded, either by the teacher’s words or by the pitiful situation in which the girl found herself, Donny decided to bid five cents. It was no doubt difficult for Harriet’s mother to persuade her to return to school after that nightmarish day when she had felt “ugly, grotesque, light years away from the possibility of being chosen.”[2]

In fact, even in adulthood, the core of shame is the belief “that we are inadequate, defective and unacceptable“, and that we are not worthy of the love and appreciation of others. This is also why, instead of talking about shame and the cluster of negative effects, we crumple up all the shameful things we believe about ourselves and hide them deep down, hoping that no one will be able to find them.

Why not bet on shame

Whatever the trigger, shame is like a magnet that attracts, maintains, and perpetuates other negative emotions. In addition to typical emotions such as envy, anger, and fear, shame can also be accompanied by sadness, depression, exhaustion, and feelings of emptiness, says psychologist Mary Lamia.

Shame can lead to depression, low self-esteem, negative and self-critical thoughts, rumination about failures, distancing from others, and feelings of helplessness or worthlessness, explains psychologist Samantha Stein. Shame can also be associated with perfectionism, self-harm, and feelings of being useless.

A 2017 study found that women report higher levels of shame (particularly around physical appearance and behaviours), but also that feelings of shame are associated with low self-esteem, hostility, and psychological discomfort. Sometimes shame is used to manipulate and humiliate, but it is not uncommon for people to try to motivate and correct undesirable habits by shaming others (we may have grown up with the all-too-familiar line “Shame on you!” from parents, grandparents, teachers or other adults). “Shame is not a ticket to our best future,” warns Stein, pointing to its ineffectiveness in promoting learning.

In fact, studies have shown that shame doesn’t encourage positive behaviour change, but instead encourages people to hide the problem and run away from solving it. For example, people who have recently recovered from alcohol addiction are more likely to relapse (and relapse more severely) in the next 3-11 months if they are confronted with shame.

People who shame others often feel shame themselves, even if the emotion is very well hidden—so well hidden that they don’t even recognise it, says Lamia. For example, a person consumed by shame may try to diminish what they are feeling (whether it is clear or ambiguous to them) by attacking or denigrating another person, thus deflecting their pain.

People who have recently recovered from alcoholism are more likely to relapse if they experience shame.

Shame can be contagious. It’s “second-hand” shame[3] when we feel ashamed of the behaviour, actions or even appearance of someone close to us—things we believe reflect back on us. Parents can also experience shame at their children’s failures or misbehaviour, just as children who are abused, neglected or abandoned come to feel inadequate or inferior, with toxic adult behaviour paving the way for shame to spread into adulthood and beyond.

The dysfunctional relationships that cause shame are sometimes repeated in adulthood, says psychologist Katy Cook. Children who have grown up with critical or manipulative parents may choose a partner with the same attitudes or behaviour, or they may become adults who exaggerate their desire to please their partner in order to avoid rejection or blame. Even in healthy relationships, they may be suspicious or feel like impostors, convinced that they would not be loved if they were fully known.

Just as trauma is not necessarily about what happened to us, but how we react to what we experienced, shame has less to do with the triggering events and more to do with how we interpret them, point out Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin, authors of a book on shame.

Shame is about who we think we are.

Unlike guilt, shame is not necessarily about a particular behaviour, but about who we think we are in the deepest recesses of our being, says Harriet Lerner.

Whether triggered by a person, an event or an inability to live up to the standards set by ourselves or others, shame makes us feel incomplete and the most common response is to hide or wear a mask. The result is that we feel more shame, isolate ourselves or develop addictions that numb our feelings.

Linda Hartling, a specialist in relational-cultural theory, says that we use three relational strategies when faced with shame: we run away from others, isolating ourselves; we move  towards others, trying to gain their approval and please them; or we position ourselves against others, trying to manipulate them by using their feelings of shame.[4]

How do we build resilience to shame?

Building resilience to shame is an antidote to the pain of feeling unloved and unworthy, so it is a step towards promoting our physical and emotional wellbeing.

Even if we never become immune to shame, we can increase our resilience by learning how to deal with it constructively and by learning from shameful experiences, says Brené Brown, PhD, a social work professor and researcher at the University of Houston.

After years of studying shame and its effects, and interviewing hundreds of women to better understand the issue, Brené Brown has identified four elements of shame resilience.

Identifying shame and its triggers. Shame is felt physically and emotionally, but only women with high levels of resilience were able to describe its physical reactions (nausea, dry mouth, tense abdominal muscles, etc.).

Recognising physical reactions to shame can help us to be more aware of what is going on in our thoughts and emotions, so that we can respond with awareness and regain control more easily. Identifying the triggers of shame also gives us the opportunity to step back and reflect on what is happening, rather than reacting instinctively. In her research, Brown has found that women most commonly experience 12 shame triggers: physical appearance, motherhood, family, raising children, money and work, mental and physical health, sexual relationships, aging, religion, fitting into stereotypes, speaking out, and overcoming trauma.

Practising critical awareness. To understand how shame works, we should think of it as the lens of a camera zooming in, says Brown. When we’re ashamed, the camera frame is narrow, so everything we see is our problem. By widening the frame, we begin to see that others are going through the same problems and fears, and we feel less alone. When we step back completely, a picture emerges of how personal experiences are shaped by political, economic, and social factors. Critical consciousness (or critical perspective), according to the researcher, is the belief that we become stronger when we notice the connection between personal experience and these factors.

Willingness to connect with others. If we fail to build bridges with those around us, we remain entrenched in shame, and secrecy further fuels shame. In this spiral, isolation deepens. Conversely, if we talk about what we are experiencing and reach out to others for help (and are willing to offer help in return), we weaken the power of shame and increase the potential for change.

Openness to talk about shame. Talking to someone about a shameful experience can be a painful exercise (as can listening to someone’s shameful story), but communication and empathy are powerful ways to build resilience. By its very nature, shame forces us to hide it, but not talking about it only helps it to survive.

In discussing how shame, silence, and secrecy reinforce each other, Harriet Lerner uses the example of the shame of ageing, which is felt most acutely by women. Long humiliated for going through a process from which no one can escape, women have learned to lie or hide their age. But to remain silent about our age is in fact to admit that it is a shameful subject. For her part, Lerner believes that her age is just a piece of information that helps people to place her in time and history, and she doesn’t hesitate to reveal it whenever she gets the chance. She is not ashamed of her age, just as she is not ashamed of her profession or her marital status, and says that one of her goals is to get older. The achievement of other goals depends on the achievement of this goal.[5]

Shame remains a distressing emotion that affects the way we think, feel and act, so any small change can build resilience and lead to bigger changes. If we don’t know where to start, perhaps we should look at the shame of others (even if our first reaction is to avert our eyes), listen, empathise, and accept—and in doing so, bring the first rays of light into the dark corner of shame that makes us drive through life with the handbrake on. 

Carmen Lăiu is an editor of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network

[1]“Harriet Lerner, ‘The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self’, Perennial Currents, 2005, p. 158.”
[2]“Ibid, p. 159.”
[3]“Ibid, p. 160.”
[4]“Brené Brown, ‘I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”’, Avery, 2007, p. 179.”
[5]“Harriet Lerner, op. cit., pp. 174-175.”

“Harriet Lerner, ‘The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self’, Perennial Currents, 2005, p. 158.”
“Ibid, p. 159.”
“Ibid, p. 160.”
“Brené Brown, ‘I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”’, Avery, 2007, p. 179.”
“Harriet Lerner, op. cit., pp. 174-175.”