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The Purpose of Shame

More than any other painful emotion, shame will stop you in your tracks.  That's what it is meant to do.  Shame is an alarm that is trying to send you a message.  The message is:  "Hey, stop, check in with yourself.  Your behavior may be out of alignment with your values."

Unfortunately that is not the message that most of us have associated with shame.  Growing up, others give you messages like, "If you were a nice girl, you would…", "Little boys don't cry.", "Good children don't behave that way." etc.  Over time you internalize these messages and this becomes the way you talk to yourself when shame comes up.  Of course, the specific words and topics change, but the message is the same.  The underlying message is:  You are not innately good.  Your goodness depends on how you behave.  If you behave in the wrong way, you are bad.

When shame comes up and you repeat this toxic messages to yourself (either consciously or unconsciously), you spiral down into a heavy, frozen, or collapsed state.  This is a miserable state and takes longer than you would like, to recover from.  Interrupting this spiral means hearing the true message of shame.  Hearing this message means engaging in a new internal process.  Such a process might sound something like this:

"I notice shame coming up.  I feel contraction in my body and my heart freezing up.  My mind starts to blank out and I can barely notice what is going on around me.  What just happened?  I was feeling open and playful and then my partner snapped at me.  Some part of me interpreted his angry comment as a sign that I was behaving out of alignment with my values.  Let me take a moment to notice, was I?  Hmm, from my side I wasn't.  I wonder if he perceived me violating one of his values?"

This internal process may take an hour or more.  In addition you might need to something to support your physiology coming back into balance like exercise, deep breathing, drinking water, etc.  Once you are reconnected with yourself, you are ready for the next step.  With reference to our example above, the next steps are expressing your experience honestly to your partner and asking what was going on for him when he made the comment.  It might sound something like this:  

"When you told me to 'back off', I felt stunned and shame came up for me and I am looking for empathy and also for clarity about what was going on for you?  First, would you be willing to say back what your understanding about my experience in that moment?"

The dialogue would hopefully continue with empathy and honest expression going back and forth and repair as needed.

In summary, to change your relationship to shame, you can follow these steps which are illustrated in the example above:

  1. Mindfully name the experience of shame as it arises.

  2. Name what just happened that triggered the shame.

  3. Ask yourself the questions:  Did my behavior violate any of my values?  Did my behavior violate the other person's values?

    1. If the answer is yes, to either of these questions, then take steps to repair.


You can begin to change your relationship to shame by taking a moment now to recall the last time that shame came up for you and then reworking the experience using the steps above.

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1 Response

  1. May 16, 2014
    Bill Burgel

    Your desccription of shame and the process by which it "takes over" is very accurate. Thanks for your willingness to sit down, think about these things and write succinctly and intelligently about this issue. It helps me.

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