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  • Fe Robinson

The burden of shame

A reader asked me recently to write about the burden of shame. It is always a pleasure to write on topics that are pertinent and meaningful to you so do please let me know if there are areas you would like for me to explore.

Shame can be a powerful emotion, and it is not one we generally welcome. It is easy to forget then that like all emotions shame is a messenger, with the aim of helping us to maintain our integrity and safety.

Janina Fisher reminds us that shame is an emotion that causes us to de-escalate situations, it is a survival strategy. The physiology of shame, the way we move our head down, avoid looking at the other, and hide, is generally read as submissive and appeasing. Where we feel we might be attacked or rejected, it can be a way of avoiding these fates. We are essentially seen but not heart, we are compliant. As Schore reflects, shame reduces our exposure and our self-exploration.

Shame is generally not reduced by some of the approaches we might sensibly take to try and help. We can’t reason our way out of it, and confronting our shame responses can trigger yet more shame, in effect we become ashamed of our shame. Love, forgiveness, success and pleasure can all be counter-productive, producing feelings of being undeserving or unworthy, again triggering more shame.

So what to do? Shame is a response we have learned in order to stay safe. Rather than being our enemy, it is a source of self-protection, seeking to look after us. Our way forward is not to perceive it as a burden, but as a past saviour that’s task is now over. When we can befriend the parts of ourselves that experience shame, and that judge ourselves, when we can begin to understand what it was that was happening at the time we learned to be so shame-filled, then we can begin to heal and lessen the burden that we experience.

This work is delicate, and often body based rather than cognitively based. Shame is held in our physical form, we experience it somatically, it hurts. Working in ways that embrace this reality and help us release physically and emotionally are therefore needed. Working yourself with grounding and containing your physical experience can be helpful, and finding a psychotherapist able to work in a way that integrates bodymind as you explore can be very helpful.

Shame is not the problem. It was a solution, and now it may be time to learn different ways more appropriate to your here and now circumstances. If this is the case, do find a psychotherapist you feel safe with to take your next healing steps.


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