Shame as an underlying issue in many psychological and mental health problems has not been well recognised. Even in the area of psychotherapy it has largely been ignored until relatively recently. Problems originating from the emotion of shame are, however, widespread.
Shame is a hard wired affect that is present in all of us. Shame often gets confused with guilt. It is different from guilt in the extent and intensity of the negative evaluation of the self, which leads to wanting to hide or to lash out and shame others. Feeling shameful is to feel bad, weak, insignificant and not good enough to exist.
Shame is an innate emotion that everybody experiences and often it does not become problematical. However, when the experiences that trigger shame are major and/or repetitive, and they are not noticed and repaired, shame can become debilitating.
There are many areas of the self that trigger shame. Concerns about physical appearance, issues around abilities, strength and size, a sense of helplessness or neediness, feeling defective or different, being seen or exposed and issues around closeness are common triggers. When one feels shame one feels exposed, humiliated or mortified. It is so painful considerable measures are taken to not feel that way again.
Shameful feelings were commonly felt in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes when so many struggled to seek help or to even talk about how hard things were. This was usually accompanied by notions such as “why can’t I cope”, “how can I feel like that” and “how can I complain when others are experiencing so much more or worse.” A myriad of shameful responses about the self are often at play in these scenarios, like “I’m weak”, “I’m needy”, “I’m defective”, “I’m incompetent” or “I’m bad”.
Shame can develop into a problem when events during the developing years damage ones ability to trust others, which is followed by a devaluing of the self. This devaluing of the self is a painful and difficult experience to live with. It creates a sense of being different or defective and sets one apart from others. It is not something that is easy to talk about (in fact to talk about it often triggers more shame) which often leads to the events not being talked about. In these cases the whole or parts of the experience are frequently forgotten or are well hidden, hidden from others and often also hidden from the self. Over time the link between the two is often lost and the precipitating events gone from conscious memory.
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