Shame & Mental Health

Its not very fashionable.

Its something we don't feel comfortable talking about- and we often don't recognise it.

Most of us don't even want to admit to experiencing it.

It can make us feel powerless, isolated and alone.

The affects associated with shame can flood our bodies with powerful chemicals.

We want to run and hide.

In Understanding and Treating Chronic shame, social worker and psychotherapist,  Patricia DeYoung argues that shame often lies at the heart of mental illness. Its mostly unavailable to conscious thought and certainly to verbalization. We often don't know or understand our shame experiences. Shame just "is," and we are in it - alone and helpless. Being ashamed can itself be shameful. 

Shame is one of our first social emotions. It can be a tool for molding social behaviour and bringing us back to social norms - but italso has the effect of isolating and stigmatising. Far from allowing repair and renewed closeness, shame sends its victim into a spiral of negative affects, flooding the body with powerful chemicals and leaving the sufferer feeling alone and worthless. For young children, the feelings aroused when they are shamed by a parent are often too powerful to process. These intrusive and overwhelming bad feelings can then be split off from conscious thought and remain underneath,  because that is the only way to survive. These unintegrated feelings then carry on inside us, flavouring our relationship with ourselves and our expectations of relationship with others.

Growing up with a history of being shamed can leave a legacy - a crippling sense of worthlessness which can come to underlie most of our feelings about ourselves. As we are often unaware of its presence, it unwittingly controls how we respond and interact - how we manage relationships and how we deal with the ordinary ups and downs of interacting and being part of the social world. We need to learn how to handle everyday hurts, disappointments and yes, humiliations in order to have relationships that last. This can't happen if we have been so shamed in childhood that being shamed as an adult brings us back into contact with the powerful unintegrated feelings that we never learnt to process.

When I first started thinking about shame, I was surprised at the number of books written about it - why hadn't I heard more? Its not something that is talked about very much, even amongst mental health professionals. As DeYoung puts it "For three decades I have been asking clients what brings them to psychotherapy, and not one of them has said, "I need help with my chronic shame....It can be deeply shaming, just to admit to feeling shame."

It takes a lot of work just to get to the point of naming our experience.....and finding out where it came from can take even longer.

As Deyoung points out, chronic shame is generated from relational trauma in our early lives. Chronic, lifelong shame isn't something that can be cured. Its not something that we can even control. But awareness can help. Forming an attuned, non-shaming and non-judgemental relationship with a therapist can go a long way towards helping us live our lives with joy and freedom, alongside our less-than perfect histories.