Out of all the problems and conditions I see in my practice, I believe shame is the worst and the most difficult to heal. Shame is different from guilt, although both feelings are unpleasant. Guilt can actually lead to good, helping us to change direction and turn from the behavior that caused the guilty feeling in the first place. But shame is about who I am as a person. Guilt is about something I did; shame is about who I am. Guilt says, “I did something bad,” while shame says, “I am bad.” I think of shame as a toxic tar baby that keeps us stuck in self-defeating behaviors. Researcher and author Brené Brown states that shame is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
There is a field of study that looks at the neurobiology of shame and gives us insight into its origins. From birth we are hard-wired to interact with and depend on our caregivers. We start learning immediately which behaviors will elicit care and comfort from them. We seem to know that without a family or a tribe, we will not survive. When we are shamed we experience a fear of being rejected that behavioral scientists call survival terror. To defend against this terror, we develop an inner critic, usually in the voice of the critical parent(s), that keeps us in line, and from experiencing more rejection. This inner voice keeps us behaving in ways that the parent wants, so that we will not get more shame. By adulthood, that inner voice has become our own, and we take it and run with it.
Dr. Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems therapy, explains that we carry around multiple parts of our self. There is the internal critic that tells us how bad we are, and the young part of our self that believes this voice. Usually there is a third part that will do anything to get away from feeling shame, often engaging in behaviors that bring about more shame. For example a person who is experiencing what Brown calls a “shame storm,” might get drunk or engage in risky sex to try to get away from the feeling of shame. Of course that only serves to perpetuate the cycle of shame.
The Bible has much to say about being freed from shame. It tells in Psalms that God does not want us to live in shame and describes Him as “the One who holds my head high.” In the book of Romans we are told that when we come to Christ we are no longer under condemnation. God accepts us unconditionally into His family.
If you have been living with toxic shame, there is good news. You can learn to silence that inner critic and see yourself in a different light. Thanks to neuroplasticity, your brain can learn new ways of thinking and behaving. A therapist, a pastor, or a good support group can come alongside you in a journey of self-exploration. You can be set free!