The Sense of Shame: Shame is one of the most common forms of suffering. In my work over the past decade, I have been touched and saddened by how deeply and chronically people live with the experience of shame. It becomes a part of the texture of our lives.
Something we go hurtling back to with every life stressor. Certainly, we all struggle in different ways, as we experience our shame differently, dependent on our emotional context. But shame is endemic, and we have to struggle with it. We have to think deeply about our personal shame and learn from it, because, without a doubt, some of our shame is helpful. It lets us know the parameters of our consciences.
The feeling of shame helps us catch ourselves when we have let ourselves down. It is a guiding voice inside us, communicating to our consciousness through our emotional senses. The feeling of healthy shame is something we know as remorse, regret or sorrow. We experience it as the sadness and subjective agitation that arises out of our being in conflict with our actions.
Healthy shame is pressure inside us, and as a pressure, it can motivate action, whether it be to apologize, to make amends, to right a wrong, or to promote the impulse to change ourselves in accord with our personal hopes. Shame is partly about morality, and it arises in relation to the shared and contextually based system of what constitutes right and wrong action.
Shame is also, and perhaps more importantly about our personal ethics, which can be based both in a shared morality, as well as in our own personally derived sense of things. Our personal ethics arises out of the context of our own minds and hearts and is generated within the time and space of our personal histories. We feel it as a sense of pleasure on the one hand or pain and discomfort on the other.
We are conscious of it in our thoughts, as we listen to that internal voice which encourages us to go this way and not that. We know it as a nudging towards or away from certain ways of being and relating to the other. Healthy shame surfaces in therapy most commonly through people’s realistic and reasonable experiences of remorse. It is the beginnings of a journey towards self-forgiveness, and it can be used as an ally in our personal evolution. I see it as a good thing, and I support its place in my
Now on to toxic shame. Let’s face it, in terms of the history of humankind this isn’t one of the easiest times to be alive. Whatever your politics, the truth seems to be that we are moving into a time of increasing polarization and othering in the world. Whatever this may mean to you, what it means to me, and what I believe it means to a great deal of people I’ve worked with, is that the conditions of acceptance of humanity are become tighter.
It feels as if there is less room for difference. A sense of belonging is not easy to feel, and we find ourselves as global citizens confronted with the truth that many people just like us are being mistreated on the basis of who they are. We all know that in some way or other, someone people in this world will reject us, shame us, or humiliate us.
Whether it’s the person next door, or someone on the other side of the world, we all know for sure that we are never universally accepted. There is a whole range of emotions which we can feel in response to this, one of which is the sense of toxic shame. Toxic shame is the sense of an inner badness, impoverishment or valuelessness, which flows in us in response to our perception of the judgements of the internal and external world.