People who seek help for various forms of depression and anxiety have one thing in common: they all have chronic or intense experiences of shame.  For instance, a child is humiliated when bullied or sidelined because of learning or social difficulties; an aging man feels inadequate for his waning energy when he no longer feels in control of his life; a woman confronts shame in hostile or conflicted relationships with family members; and a young girl is cornered when submerged in the pressures of a society that classifies beauty as slimness, fairness, and (bodily) hairlessness.


To be human is to have experienced shame in one form or another. I know I have felt it. In fact writing this piece exposes my thoughts and evokes a blended vulnerability and fear.  And in my experience as a therapist, I have seen it in everyone with whom I have worked:  the feeling that they are not good enough or worthy of understanding or acceptance. That they do not deserve to ask for what they need or create the space to be as they are.


Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is a feeling derived from an action that is deemed wrong. In measured and proportionate doses, guilt is essential for the development of conscience and identity. Shame, on the other hand, is a feeling state derived from a judgment of one’s inherent self-worth. It’s a judgment one makes on oneself about being ‘not good enough’.


Acid attacks, honor killings and other forms of abuse are an extreme form of ‘shaming’ used as a social tool for oppression, but social interactions that are designed to evoke shame are commonplace in our daily lives both in the public sphere and in the privacy of our homes.


For example, street-based harassment in the form of predatory stares or expressions of disgust is a type of shaming in the public realm: it reduces a person to the sum of her body parts, negating her intellect, talent or aspirations.  In the home, the habit of comparing one child to another in terms of talent, looks or achievement conveys to the child that he falls short of measuring up to a standard.  This trend, of course, continues into adulthood where daughters-in-law are compared with one another to ensure conformity to a family’s norms.


For girls, limiting access to education or opportunities, and curtailing her mobility ensures her dependence on a man/family not just for her identity but also for her survival. This sends the message that unless she is tied to a man or a family, her life is insecure.  Shaming is by no means limited to women and children. Young boys are shamed for showing helplessness or despair and exhibiting “feminine” traits like creativity or pleasure in domestic activities. Perhaps the most brutal of them all is the link between a man’s honour and the extent to which he can control – and limit others’ access to – the women in his household. Hence, if a woman steps out and away from the narrowly defined boundaries of what is “appropriate”, it is her husband, father or brother who is shamed.  These are just a few examples that come to mind.


These patterns of social interaction are designed to provoke feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy.  The message is that if you do not fit a narrowly constructed definition of how one ought to look or act, you are not worthy of attention, approval, affection or opportunities.


Dr Gershen Kaufman (1989) writes “Shame is important because no other affect is more disturbing to the self, none more central for the sense of identity. In the context of normal development, shame is the source of low self-esteem, diminished self-image, poor self- concept and deficient body image. Shame itself produces self-doubt and disrupts both security and confidence.  It can become an impediment to the experience of belonging and to shared intimacy. In the context of pathological development, shame is central to the emergence of alienation, loneliness, inferiority, and perfectionism.”


Shame is not just a passing feeling. But it becomes ingrained in us. How we see and feel about ourselves, how we experience relationships, whether we are able to nurture and care for our loved ones is all derived from a sense of worthiness.


Shame stands in the way of caring for ourselves, caring for others, and engaging in self- improvement. Shame stands in the way of feeling good about ourselves or showing our true selves. It stands in the way of doing what we feel is right. It inhibits the path to being creative and innovative and taking risks. The fear of failure holds us back because failure will reaffirm that we were never good enough to begin with.


And perhaps most importantly, shame stands in the way of love. Let’s examine the much-repeated mantra “one cannot truly love another person if they do not love themselves.”  The fact is, at the core of love, is a deep feeling of worthiness and acceptance.  How will my expression of affection be meaningful to the other if I do not value my words, beliefs, feelings or actions? How can I withstand another’s disappointment in me or frustration in the relationship if I am crippled with self-doubt? How can I trust that the other accepts me as I am when I myself want to disown parts of me?


A sense of shame is evoked when we fall short of expectations.  The more narrowly defined those expectations of acceptability and worthiness, the less the chance we will be able to meet them.


Yes, the notion of the self may be a western phenomenon, while eastern traditions and societies frame the argument through a shared notion of ‘we’.  But I ask, how can there be a feeling of ‘we’ when shame clouds our ability to feel a sense of belonging or mutuality. Shame disrupts ‘we-ness’.  A healthy sense of ‘we-ness’ only emerges after the ‘I’ is at peace and at ease with its being.


Of course societies and families need standards and rules about how to treat one another, show courtesy and respect, and make room for differences. But do we really need to have strict and narrowly defined rules about a person’s worth? Do academics or social achievement, career, marriage, child bearing choices, living arrangements, or attire say anything significant about a person’s character and merit?  Within the casting of gender and role, the attributes that make us uniquely us are often lost in the web of rules we impose on others and ourselves.


The truth is, we are not perfect.  As humans, we are deeply flawed and wired for struggle.  Part of that struggle is getting to know ourselves better, and accepting that there is both goodness and badness within us.  But it is also about understanding that when misfortune occurs, it is not a reflection of our inherent unworthiness.  It is life.


Brene Brown, the author of  The Gifts of Imperfection, writes, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”


To overcome shame means to give ourselves permission to express ourselves, act in accordance with our values and priorities, be unique and creative, to aspire and dream, to take risks and accept failure and not take it personally. To rise above shame is to learn, to grow and to try again.

1 Comment

  1. Haris Says:

    This is a great article – well-written and true-ringing. It really addresses what shame is and what the pain is all about.

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