The Dirtiest 5-letter Word: Shame

Shame is a prominent emotion, possibly the most prominent to come in to our office. Because shame thrives in silence and secrecy, many of our clients don't know or see it.

When shame is so prominent, we may see feelings of disconnection, feeling unlovable, harsh self judgement, a lack of empathy for oneself, addictions, and relationship patterns that harm connections and create disconnection. Because shame is so powerful, we see a lot of our clients seeking evidence to support that they are indeed unlovable, deserving of harsh judgement, disconnection and a lack of compassion.

Part of the work we do is witnessing and shining a spotlight on shame, and showing love, care, compassion, empathy and connection. Many therapists have different experiences with the word love, whether that be due to our histories, beliefs about the word love, or beliefs about love in the context of professional relationships. Ultimately, though, therapists often love and deeply care for their clients. In an environment of love, care and connection, we can untangle and understand the roots of shame. Basically, we call out shame.

The goal of working with shame in therapy isn't necessarily to banish shame forever (not sure if that's possible!), but to be able to talk about shame, notice when and why you're feeling shame, understand your shame's birthplace, develop the tools to challenge shame, not allow shame to dominant your life, your relationships, and your decisions, and lastly get to a place to possibly even laugh about shame. The ultimate goal is to dismantle shame.

Brene Brown has done a tremendous amount of work around shame (we highly recommend you check out her TED talks and books). She cites Linda Hartling's work around the Strategies of Disconnection, which Brown refers to as “shame shields”.

Here are the shame shields, which is how we protect ourselves from shame, but unfortunately through that process facilitate, nourish and grow shame:

Moving away: withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets

Moving toward: seeking to appease and please

Moving against: trying to gain power over others, acting aggressively, and using shame to fight shame

Brene also explores shame resilience and what can increase shame resilience, including: empathy; courage; compassion; connection; understanding shame; understanding triggers; contextualizing; normalizing; reaching out to share experiences (increasing connectivity); and honestly speaking about shame and expressing feelings and needs in relation to shame.

We want to ask you a few questions:

1) What shame shield(s) do you use and how do you respond to feeling shame?

2) When did you learn to use those shields?

3) What activates your shields?

4) How have those shields protected you?

5) How have those shields harmed you?

6) What would it look like if you were to talk about your shame?

7) What impact could reducing shame have on your life?

8) What would it look like if you approached shame?

We recognize this is not easy work, but we also know it's possible and that you don't have to do it alone. Brene Brown has said that “shame is a universal experience.” And connection is a universal need.


Side note: Prior to Linda Hartling and Brene Brown, German psychoanalyst Karen Horney brought feminism into psychoanalysis and challenged freudian understandings of gender by focusing on social and cultural factors (rather than innate factors). In 1945, Karen Horney developed a theory of personality and interpersonal relationships into three "neurotic trends." Horney believed that a basic anxiety develops in childhood is connected to a sense of helplessness, influenced by how well or not well a child's needs are met. This eventually turns into a “basic attitude toward self and others” that help us adapt and survive to a hostile world and life situations. The three neurotic trends are self-effacing type/moving towards (the compliant type), expansive solution/moving against (the aggressive type), and resigned solution/moving away (detached type).

Blog authors all hold positions at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective (G&STC). For more information about our therapists and services please contact us.