The Silence of Shame
By Lucie Kavanagh
I define 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.
– Brene Brown
When I was asked to write this article, I was really pleased knowing that there was so much I could say on the topic of the impact of shame. Shame is something that, through therapy and treatment, I have realised I carry a lot of. I was relishing the prospect of hopefully using my experiences to help others. But then it became difficult. Nothing sounded right. Talking about shame, it seems, is just as hard in a general sense as in a personal sense. Using examples was the best way I could think of to sum up the damage that it can do. The silence. The emotions hidden away. The self-blame that can so easily become self-hatred. But when it came down to it, I just couldn’t do it. From second guessing myself to getting emotional to switching off from it…the words just wouldn’t come. And then I realised…the article writing was a perfect example of the impact of shame. It silences.
Psychology tells us that we feel guilt over our actions (or inaction) whereas shame is centred on who we are. Shame is a direct attack on ourselves and it tends to have a snowfall effect, going far beyond the event or trigger that caused the feeling and encompassing all else. We can go from “why did I say such a stupid thing” to “why am I such a stupid person who says insensitive things and hurts other people” in a matter of minutes.
Shame, sadly, is a default in many situations as well as a direct consequence of trauma. In my own life, trauma in childhood is like a little dot on a map (a town called “Shame”?) with roads leading outwards, increasing in width and leading to the next. Childhood trauma. Mental health problems as a teenager. Feeling different. Unable to fit in. Mental health problems as an adult. Financial problems. Job loss. Feeling like a failure. At each juncture the dot carries the previous pain and mixes it all together.
Shame is destructive. When the list of things we can’t talk about to others becomes too big, our relationships are directly affected. People we are close to start to sense the gaps, the inconsistencies, the silence around certain topics and of course, the damage to ourselves that we struggle to cover up. Misunderstandings happen as a result. Whether we want or choose to, we push people away. I have seen this happen all too often in my own life and of course, the loss of the intimacy of these relationships becomes another point of shame on that map.
As previously stated, shame is a silencer. In DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy) we are told that shame is associated with not wanting to be rejected by people we care about (hence not talking about the things we are ashamed of) and the way to challenge it is to talk to someone we trust and tell them about what we are ashamed of. Brene Brown writes that shame simply can’t survive if a story is heard with care and compassion. I believe these things. But I also know how excruciatingly painful and frightening it is to even envisage sharing the things that cause shame, more so, to those we are close to.
If you are ashamed of something, please talk about it. Find someone, a trusted friend or even a counsellor, and air the things that cause the shame. It might be the most frightening thing you ever do but it could also be very healing. The experience of having someone listen and not react with the anger or condemnation that you expect is so powerful. If it’s too hard to talk about now, write it down and wait until you can either show it someone. Just get it out of your head and find the support to look at it. It might not be yours to carry. It might never have been. Even if it’s coming from an action you feel ashamed of, our behaviours all stem from what we knew or didn’t know at the time. No action gets to define your whole personality. Don’t be afraid to look at it and then look at who you are; it doesn’t have to be all the same thing. Likewise the behaviour of another person. No one gets to tell you who you are or who you should be.
It might be hard to believe but underneath the shame, there is the person that you are…not who you could have been or want to be, but who you are now, today. You don’t deserve to have him/her covered up by things that you would never have chosen and never wanted to carry. Whether verbally, or in writing, art, or any other form you choose, use your voice. Use it to connect to the world. Use it to see yourself.
Hey, but I don’t care cause sometimes
I said sometimes I hear my voice, and it’s been
Here, silent all these years
Tori Amos “Silent All These Years”
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following