We know it’s important to be connected to our feelings. When feelings go underground, they don’t disappear. They operate unconsciously, perhaps contributing to our anxiety or depression — or just a vague sense of discontent. Oftentimes, we can’t put our finger on what’s causing us to feel disconnected, isolated, or less alive.
There is one human emotion in particular that often hides out, living in a half-dormant state that reduces our joie de vivre (joy of living) and is prone to being activated when conditions arise that activate it. This is the human emotion of shame.
Of all our human emotions, perhaps shame is the most hidden, the most tricky, and the most difficult to work with. Workshop leaders Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin refer to shame as “a powerful, universal, mysterious emotion” that is “incredibly painful and destructive.” Everyone is prone to experience it. And for many of us — if not most of us — it has had a debilitating effect on our lives.
The best definition of shame that I’ve encountered comes from researcher and author Brene Brown. She defines shame as “The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
It is interesting that Brene Brown connects shame with relationships. Gershen Kaufman makes the same point in Shame: The Power of Caring, referring to shame as “the breaking of the interpersonal bridge.” Shame shapes and colors how we relate to people. If we believe that we’re flawed, defective, or unworthy, this gnawing sense of shame deeply affects how we relate to people — or don’t relate to them.
Oftentimes our lives become constructed in a way to avoid having to face this intensely painful emotion of shame. Surveys have suggested that public speaking is more scary than dying for many of us. We’d rather die of cancer than die of embarrassment.
Feeling unworthy shapes our personality in different ways. For many people, it means not showing who we really are. We don’t raise our hand in class, even when we know the answer to our teacher’s question. We hide our true feelings and needs. We don’t show up in an authentic way in our relationships. We’re terrorized by the conviction that if we were to show any vulnerability — feelings such as sadness, fear, or hurt — we’d face the dreadful fate of being laughed at, humiliated, and rejected.
Others are quick to raise their hand in class — and later in life — quick to offer their opinion about things, even when their beliefs are erroneous and convictions misguided. Their ego and personality are infused with a bravado or arrogance quietly designed to cover up their underlying shame (certain politicians come readily to mind!). They seem supremely confident as the power of their personality is compellingly persuasive, but the overconfident bravado is concealing a deeply held, hidden shame. For those who are discerning enough to see through it, the emperor has no clothes.
Perhaps you’ve never considered the power of shame to shape who you’ve become. A friend recently told me how she remembered being a happy, confident, effusive child until she was four years old. Then one day as her mother was dressing to go to the hospital to give birth to a second child, she told her daughter she had something important to say to her: “You are a spoiled child. From now on, you must not expect so much attention from you parents.”
Not even knowing what it meant to be “spoiled,” my friend went into shock. She began to doubt and suppress her true feelings, and to ponder how she might reshape herself to meet her parents approval, Sadly, the interpersonal bridge had been broken by her mother’s shaming rejection, which squashed her spontaneity and arrested her development.
She happily told me how it was freeing to discover how shame was the unrecognized feeling that had been holding her back. Bringing attention to the shame enabled her to release something inside herself and newly affirm herself. She realized how the background feeling of shame did not represent who she really is — it was conditioned in her from how her mother related to her — or didn’t relate to her. This insight opened a new world of possibilities — to discover and allow herself to be who she really is, including reclaiming the spontaneous, childlike part of herself.
As you pause to attend to your inner world, do you notice a background feeling of bewilderment, sorrow, lethargy, self-doubt, social anxiety, or some other uncomfortable feeling? There could be various reasons for this, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual. But consider whether the word “shame” resonates for at least some part of what you are experiencing inside — that painful sense of feeling that there’s something wrong with you. If so, it might serve you to further uncover and explore the shame that was conditioned in you and is not who you really are. This might be a step toward liberating you to more fully embrace the beauty, spontaneity, and goodness of who you really are.