What is shame? Are we stuck with it?

I’m writing this post, because shame is an emotion I always struggle to put into words, but I see a lot of clients whose lives are being affected by it, and thought I could have a go at making sense of what shame is, and how it causes us to behave.

I don’t think babies feel shame; they wee and poo and cry when they want to, without any idea that they are making their parents tired and fraught.  But by the time they are toddlers, shame has already crept into their lives; they will put their hands over their faces if they are being told off,  they will curl up in a ball if they are caught doing something they are not supposed to do.

Shame seems to be a reaction to being judged.  It’s a feeling we learn to have, not something we are born with.  So if we tell a child not to jump in the muddy water because he will be wet all day at school,  then there is no reason for him to feel shame.   If, however, a child is told that he is a ‘filthy, useless……..’ for getting dirty, then he will start to believe that about himself, and will begin to feel nervous and ashamed, just for behaving like a normal child.  And that sense of shame stays with a child.  If as children we are told we are, ‘a waste of space’, ‘not pretty like your sister’, ‘the plodder in the family’, then we carry those feelings about ourselves into our adult lives, and we bring that shame about  ‘who we have been told we are’ into our relationships; and it causes problems!

Shaming a child out of expressing his or her emotions, can also cause us as an adult to feel ashamed to talk about our feelings and our needs.  If as a  child we have been told to ‘turn the tap off’ when we cry, or to ‘stop being a baby’ when we are upset,  we may find in an adult relationship that we are unable to express sadness,  or even to know what our feelings are.  We may feel hurt by our partner’s words, but not know why, or be able to explain it to them, or we may get angry as a defence against the shame we feel.  It may be the result of being bullied, or even just regularly teased, over-criticised, made fun of, not listened to, dismissed, as a child, but being ridiculed or treated without respect as an adult, can cause us shame too.   When we ‘freeze’ and feel unable to speak in public, can’t accept praise from our partner, worry constantly about how we look, ‘bottle it’ at the last moment, when we are about to shoot at goal, and pass the ball, I suspect it’s all about shame; about not wanting to fail, to take the risk, to ‘look a fool’.

We tend to think that’s ‘just who we are’, that we can’t change as adults, but Steve Peters, who wrote The Chimp Paradox thinks otherwise, and his book is worth reading.  His idea is that ‘we can only do our best’.  We need, in fact,  to stop measuring ourselves against other people, and focus instead on what we want to change, and the small steps we can take, one by one, to make change happen for us.  You may say ‘oh just another self-help book’, but Steve Peters is the psychologist  who guided Victoria Pendleton and the British cycling team to Olympic victory, and who is currently mentoring Liverpool FC, so the guy has quite a track record.

So no, I don’t believe we are ‘stuck’ with our shame.  I’m not saying we can get rid of it completely, but once we understand where its roots lie for us, and work out how it is preventing us from feeling free to change, then I think most of us have got a pretty good chance, slowly but surely,  of stopping shame controlling who we want to be.