Developing a New Understanding of Shame
In the past, numerous writers including John Bradshaw, Pia Mellody, and Claudia Black, to name just a few, have developed the terms healthy shame and toxic shame. In most respects these definitions make good sense – the term healthy shame defining the feeling that occurs when a person has done something that goes against his or her values and beliefs, leaving that person feeling badly, and toxic shame being the festering internal belief that one is inherently flawed or defective. More current terminology developed and described by Dr. Brené Brown re-labels what most of us have been calling healthy shame as what it actually is, which is healthy guilt. Guilt implies: I did something regrettable and I feel badly (or guilty) about my actions. What has heretofore been termed toxic shame is what Brown simply calls shame, a term that seems a bit less shaming, n’est ce pas?
In reality, there’s not much difference between how Brené Brown is conceptualizing guilt and shame and how many clinicians have in the past conceptualized healthy and toxic shame; she is merely changing (and clarifying) the names we attach to a couple of concepts that are very different yet easily confused with one another – especially by clients who are dealing with one, the other, or more usually both. One of her best explanations of shame and what it means in people’s lives appears in her book, Daring Greatly (p. 61). It reads:
We all have shame. We all have good and bad, dark and light, inside of us. But if we don’t come to terms with our shame, our struggles, we start believing that there’s something wrong with us – that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough – and even worse, we start acting on those beliefs.
To further explain she quotes from the Harry Potter book series, specifically a conversation between Harry and his godfather Sirius Black. (This conversation succinctly conveys the thematic crux of the entire seven-book Harry Potter series.)
Sirius told Harry to listen to him very carefully, then he said, “You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
Even if you’re not familiar with the Harry Potter books, that statement likely resonates. Sirius is explaining to his godson the difference between feeling guilt and feeling shame, and that one emotion is a good thing to feel – powerful motivation for being a better person tomorrow than you were today – while the other is just a cesspool that can suck the emotional life from you.
Shame vs. Guilt: Terminology for a New Generation of Clinicians
Some clients talk about the “tapes” that play in their head. Others talk about “the shitty committee” that holds uninvited discussions in their head. Still others talk about the gremlins that live in their skull and scream “You suck!” at them 24/7. (Harry Potter had Lord Voldemort, the most evil creature that ever lived, bouncing around in his head!) Whatever terminology it is that clients choose to use, they are telling us where their shame lives and how it affects them. Usually these tapes/committees/gremlins are installed when essential dependency needs are denied in childhood. Neglectful and/or abusive parents, teachers, siblings, and others are typically to blame (though pointing this out early-on in therapy does little to help a suffering adult client). The point here is that pretty much every client a therapist sees has shame to some degree, more often than not to a significant degree. If they didn’t, why would they be in therapy? People who feel worthy of love and belonging don’t often end up in treatment, while shame-based people do. So helping clients recognize, understand, and overcome shame is one of the most powerfully important things a therapist can ever hope to accomplish.
Shame-based clients (read: all clients) enter treatment feeling as if they are not good enough and any/all of their negative life experiences serve to reinforce this “fact.” Yes, clients typically arrive with multiple clinical issues, but shame underlies nearly all of them. These are people who’ve been wounded in ways that leave them believing, deep down, that they are unworthy of love, affection, and happiness. And when that’s the message reverberating in a client’s head, that individual is going to have a tough time living a wholehearted life. Let’s face it, shame-based people are much less likely to fully express their true selves, and much more likely to have lives that are, at best, less meaningful, less rich, and less interpersonally rewarding than they’d like. And at worst, shame-based individuals become mired in addiction, violence, isolation, relationship dysfunction, anxiety, depression, and various other manifestations of deep emotional pain.
Unfortunately, the feeling of shame does not encourage or motivate positive change. In fact, Dr. Brown’s research found that the feeling shame actually corrodes people’s hope and belief that they can change and do better. Eventually, as the inner life of shame-based individuals continually leaves them feeling isolated and unlovable, they begin to behave in ways that leave them in just that situation – isolated and unloved. In other words, shameful feelings and beliefs don’t lead to change; instead, they lead to behaviors that reinforce those shameful feelings and beliefs. So when people make mistakes, come to terms with the fact that they have behaved poorly, apologize, and work to behave differently in the future, shame is not the motivation. Guilt is.
As mentioned in a previous blog, earlier this year a contingent of addictions and mental health treatment specialists from Elements Behavioral Health facilities gathered at The Ranch treatment center near Nashville for three days of training in Dr. Brown’s recently developed Daring Way™ shame resilience curriculum. We are now working to implement this curriculum into all of our treatment centers. Brown defines shame resilience thusly:
Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy – the real antidote to shame. If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. Self-compassion is also critically important, but because shame is a social concept – it happens between people – it also heals best between people. (Daring Greatly, p.76)
In short, developing shame resilience is a process of learning to recognize shame and shame triggers, learning to “reality-check” internal shame messages, and reaching out to supportive others by sharing one’s story and experiencing empathy. This, of course, is easier said than done, as feelings of shame are something most folks try very hard to avoid, hide, not feel, not acknowledge, etc. Because of this, shame-based clients tend to isolate and keep secrets, or they become people pleasers, or they get really aggressive (using shame to fight shame). Often they rather adroitly rely on all three of these defense mechanisms depending on the situation. Unfortunately, the mechanisms that shield people from shame also prevent meaningful interpersonal connection. As such, shame-based clients must learn to do three things:
- Practice courage and reach out.
- Talk to themselves the way they would talk to someone they really love.
- Own their story.
After more than a dozen years of in-depth research into shame and shame resilience, one of Brown’s most important findings is that not discussing a traumatic or shaming event or confiding it to another person can be more damaging than the actual event. Similarly John Briere, based on his long history of childhood trauma research, has consistently stressed the idea that it is not any specific trauma that causes the most stress and damage to a child, but rather how it is handled (or not handled) in the family. As such, and this is certainly no surprise to the therapy profession, when traumatized people share their most difficult experiences – the experiences that leave them feeling defective, unworthy, and unlovable – even long after the fact, their stress levels decrease and their overall mental and physical health improves. So it seems the old 12-step adage, “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” is far more than just a well-worn phrase.
In future blogs I hope to discuss specific techniques and exercises that are effective in developing shame resilience. These blogs will be based, in part, on the experience of Elements Behavioral Health therapists as they implement Brown’s Daring Way™ methodology into existing and evolving behavioral health curriculums. It is my hope that you will find the Daring Way™ journey that I and my fellow clinicians are embarking upon to be both interesting and useful.
Weiss LCSW, R. (2013). Developing a New Understanding of Shame. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 23, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2013/12/developing-a-new-understanding-of-shame/