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  • Writer's pictureEve Kagan

Working with Shame

I talk a lot about shame with my clients. I see shame as the core of so much of our suffering and pain.

What is shame?

Shame is the painful feeling connected to the belief that we are worthless, that we do not deserve connection, belonging, and love. Shame speaks to us of our failure. Shame tells us that we are defective, damaged, bad.

Shame uses the language of never and always. Shame says, “You will never find someone who loves you. You will always be alone. You will never succeed. You will always be different. You will never get it right. You suck and you always will.” Ouch. Shame is a cruel emotion that keeps us hiding and disconnected.

Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, but they are unique emotions. Guilt is focused on a specific behavior. With guilt we think, “I did something bad.” Guilt can be motivating; it can fuel change and new behavior. Shame is focused on the self as a whole. With shame we think, “I am bad.” It stops us in our tracks. Where do we go from there? Shame is not helpful or proactive — shame tells us there is no possibility for improvement, so don’t bother.

Shame is toxic because it shuts us down. In shame we feel trapped, isolated, and deeply flawed. Shame feeds off of silence. Shame tells us not to tell anyone, not to be vulnerable, not to be discovered or seen lest we be further rejected for our weakness.

How do we work with shame?

Notice it

We can’t work with something we can’t see. The first step with shame is to notice it. How do you know when you are feeling shame: what are your clues that shame is speaking to you?

Explore it

Shame wants us to turn away. What if instead we turned towards shame with nonjudgmental curiosity. What does it say? What does it feel like? Where do you feel shame in your body? What triggers shame for you?

Share it

Working with shame requires us to break its silence, to tell its story. Reaching out to trusted supports who will meet us with compassion can help us work with shame. As Dr. Brené Brown states, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”

Curiosity & Compassion

Curiosity and compassion are keys to unlocking the chains of shame. If someone came to you with their shame, shared how embarrassed or defective they feel, how would you respond? Would you criticize and berate them? Would you reject them? Or would you offer them your attention and kindness, perhaps even thanking them for trusting you enough to share? What would it be like if we offered this same curiosity and compassion towards ourselves? I encourage you to try it.

I hope understanding more about shame will allow you to break the silence and turn towards yourself with kindness.

For more information about shame, visit here.

For more information about therapy with Eve, visit here.

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