Shame is not a character flaw, but a sophisticated way of surviving betrayal trauma.
When a person is under threat from, for example, a stranger who is about to steal their wallet, or from an angry bear, the flight or flight response to threat is useful and perhaps life-saving. The person runs from the mugger, or gets real big and loud to make the bear go away (depending on the type of bear and the circumstances -this is not official bear survival advice!). But when the threat is coming from a parent or a partner or a best friend, the fight or flight response runs the risk of threatening the relationship. Enter shame (among other things like dissociation and confusion).
Shame minimizes threat to the relationship by causing the person feeling shame to become small, to take on all the badness so that the perpetrator goes unquestioned, and to sometimes put the person feeling shame into a sad, slumpy posture that could make the perpetrator feel more tender toward them.
But wait, how is this a sign of goodness?
Shame is a sign that you have a good nervous system and a good mind operating together to do the best they can to help you survive even the most difficult situations. As painful as shame is, sometimes it may be overwhelming to imagine losing the relationship, and so shame is a safer option until the idea of losing the relationship becomes bearable. In the case of childhood abuse, losing the relationship is a major survival risk, and so shame is a much safer option, at least until more independence is possible.
Does this mean I should be ashamed of myself?
Abso-frickin-lutely not!! The moment you start to respect your nervous system and mind, and respect that they have given you shame in order to survive and protect your relationships, my hope is that your shame will actually start to go away.
Am I still good if the shame goes away?
Yes yes yes! You are still good and also a lot more of life becomes available to you. There is more color, more sound, more belonging, more adventure, and more trust in healthy relationships, to name a few.
This week's belonging reminder:
With his slumpy posture and self-deprecating attitude, Eeyore has always been a character who tends to embody shame for me. Here is a clip of Eeyore’s friends discovering his hidden magic.
This week's practice suggestion:
This is a challenging one, so I urge you to practice it repeatedly. The next time you are feeling shame, look for its hidden magic. Do this for at least the next seven times you feel shame. Don’t give up until you have discovered something about shame’s magic or about how shame is a sign of your goodness.