psychotherapy for shameEmotion Regulation: Shame

Jul 13, 2014 12:38 am | Mirel Goldstein

Most of us have experienced feelings of shame at some point in our lives…feelings of wanting to hide, wishing we didn’t exist, feeling painfully exposed to others and their judgments. For some, the sense of inner badness can even be so strong as to make a person feel toxic to others, as if others could become contaminated just by being close to them. For others, the shame might come at a time when we feel we don’t fit in- when we feel too awkward, too ugly, too fat, or too shy…somehow painfully set apart from everyone else. Shame might also show up when we feel like we aren’t living up to our own internal standards, when we make mistakes, act on desires that feel “forbidden”, or come across clumsy and unpolished.

One of the problems with shame is that it makes it hard to think, especially for those who already have difficulty with emotion regulation. There is something about the vulnerability of a shameful moment- that rush of heat through the body and the wish to hide or escape- that can flood us with such an intense impulse to do something to make the painful feelings go away. Shame can instantly transport us into an  “emergency response mode” in which we find ourselves unable to use our thinking minds to process the situation. And, because the shame is so painful, once the feelings subside enough for us to think through the situation effectively and try to get some perspective on it, we often avoid going back to the situation to think it through. Shame is a strong breeder of avoidance. We’d rather just forget about whatever it was that we felt so ashamed of. And of course this leaves us vulnerable to future shame attacks, because the source of our shame and the ability to tolerate it remain like shadows in the dark…shadows that would no longer seem so threatening if we could simply shine some light on them.

Many of the behaviors that people use to manage or escape feelings of shame also lead to more shame, as most of us know is the case when it comes to addictive behaviors and the shame cycle involved. Behaviors such as eating, using substances, self-harm, compulsive shopping, angry outbursts, and avoidance help us escape the immediate feelings of shame, but often lead to even more feelings of shame and of being “out of control” once the immediate tension is released and the behavior is over. Many people try to manage the feelings of hyper-arousal that come with shame (feeling flooded, adrenaline rushing through the body, anger, etc) with behaviors that can release the tension in the short-term, but that lead to a crash of hypoarousal/sadness/numbness, and more shame, afterwards. Trying to get into a “window of tolerance” is hard when it comes to shame, because shame is often intolerable at any level.

So what are some healthy ways to deal with shame? A DBT skill called “opposite action” teaches us to do the opposite of what we feel like doing when we are having an intense emotion; in this case, the opposite of the urge to hide is to “come out”. Sharing our shame with a safe and trusted other is often the last thing we feel like doing but an important antidote nonetheless.

Brené Brown’s Ted Talk, on vulnerability, is a great resource for getting up the courage to do this. Talking to other people, even just being around other people, and talking about the shameful event, are all antidotes to the urge to hide and the secretiveness that breeds even more shame. But we have to be careful to find the right people to talk to, and the right places to open up, because opening up to people who will invalidate us will likely lead to more shame. Most of us have a sense of who it might be safe to open up to, as well as those people in our lives who usually make us feel worse when we’re already feeling bad about ourselves, but sometimes we don’t listen to those instincts and we seek out people who will confirm our worst fears about ourselves. Learning how to break that cycle and seek out healthy attachment figures and validating supports is an important step in breaking away from shame. Another helpful skill is learning to validate ourselves. Validation is very soothing and can help restore our ability to think when we feel the rush of shame through the body. Validation is a simple way of getting our “language mind” online and using words to bring us down from a hyper-aroused emotional state. A great resource on self-validation can be found here: Self Validation.

What step are you going to take right now to break your shame cycle??