Shame as Self-Care
October 1, 2014
Fighting shame, quote We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known - quote by Brene BrownOriginal Photo (without quote) by: Moyan Brenn

The implication of this title is an odd and seemingly unbridgeable contradiction. I recently heard the phrase at a professional workshop given by a Jungian analyst. I don’t know who originated it; otherwise I would gladly attribute it to the owner. I say “gladly”, because the phrase has given me plenty to think about.

Shame as Self-Defense:
I had already started an article on shame before I went to the workshop. I was very well aware that shame sets in during childhood as a defense against parents who are failing us but whom we have to continue to look up to for our survival. If they think we are bad, we must be. If they think their needs are more important than ours, then they must be. If they let us know through their behavior that we are unimportant, we must be. If our physical and/or sexual boundaries are violated, it must mean that we are not worthy of having them. In that way we can keep our parents as the omnipotent beings we need when young.

Other causes of shame are less generational and more social in nature. If our family was exposed to disaster, poverty, war or other hardships and was left alone with these struggles without help from the rest of society or the world, we internalize messages that are similar to the ones above. We must not be worthy; we must be unimportant.

Shame is a Form of Fear:
At the core of shame is the fear that we are fundamentally not OK, that God (if we believe in God) made a mistake and left us wanting, that others seem to be able to cope with life but we can not. It is the sense that something is wrong with us, that we should not have particular feelings or thoughts. We are sure that other people would loath us if they really knew our inner world or some of the things we have done in life.

Shame and Consequent Coping Mechanisms:
As we grow into teenage years, shame leads to numerous coping mechanisms. We may identify with our parents and lead similar lives. We may become more successful than they are in order to hopefully make them proud and finally gain the approval we have been missing. Or we may rebel and make contrary choices in an attempt to distance ourselves from the poison we inherited. In all scenarios we most likely will employ some strategy that helps us numb the effects of shame.

If you have been around AA for a time you may have heard the saying that “alcohol saved me from suicide”. Shame is so devastating to our soul that we try to avoid this demon at all costs. Any addiction will do. Any preoccupation helps. Busyness is a welcome relief.

Of course, these strategies, born out of the desire to survive, just continue to pile up more shame and therefore increase the need for more numbing. They ultimately hasten the death of our soul if not our actual body.

Taking the Shame out of Shame:
If we want to survive we must stop the run-away train of numbing at some point and face the demon shame. We have to realize that this demon was conceived as a helper, a crooked little angel that enabled us to survive. And here is where the phrase I heard at the workshop mentioned above really made sense. We developed shame as a way of caring for ourselves! At the time when we invented this way of self-care we were too young to have the resources to move away from our parents or from a world without support.

However, as adults we can move away from any generational dysfunction we inherited and we can get support in the world. When we do, we find that we can finally move into the realm this crooked little angel protected us from: GRIEF!

If we had known how devastating our lives really were we might not have gotten up out of bed, we might have folded, we might have given up, and we might not be. Wouldn’t it be great if we who carry shame could come together and celebrate our shame thoughts, honor them for what they did for us, really delve into them, bring them out of the shadow of our psyche, compare them, and laugh about them? We could and can celebrate our innate human creativity that will do absolutely anything to survive. What a blessing.

The pain underneath shame is pure, unadulterated, and totally understandable. Yes, grieving hurts. Yes, it might be a bumpy road at times, but it is a road worth traveling.

Books on Healing Shame:

Healing the Shame that Binds You (Recovery Classics) by John Bradshaw 

Letting Go of Shame: Understanding How Shame Affects Your Life by Ronald Potter-Efron and Patricia Potter-Efron 

Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve by Lewis B. Smedes 

Released from Shame: Moving Beyond the Pain of the Past by Sandra D. Wilson 

Soul without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within by Byron Brown 

Shame: The Power of Caring by Gershen Kaufman 

Shame Lifter: Replacing Your Fears and Tears with Forgiveness, Truth, and Hope by Marilyn Hontz 

Healing Your Emotional Self: A Powerful Program to Help You Raise Your Self-Esteem, Quiet Your Inner Critic, and Overcome Your Shame by Beverly Engel 

Released from Shame: Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families (People Helper Books) by Sandra D. Wilson

About this Contributor: Gudrun Zomerland, MFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, CA.  She writes: “I grew up in post-war Germany and moved to the US in my mid-twenties. The exposure to two cultures has given me an appreciation for diversity, its riches and challenges. Because I was affected by the immense destructiveness of war just prior to my birth, I have a particular sensitivity to personal as well as historical trauma and the deep fear, pain, rage and/or guilt some of us carry inside. I find personal self-exploration, interpersonal discovery, artistic expression, a spiritual belief, and humor of utmost importance in people’s achievement of mental health. I see inner well-being as a life-long task.”  

To learn more about her work, please visit her website

  1. Yes! This is so spot-on, and really concisely put! Shame is such an important thing to try to understand – for ourselves and for helping others.

    I’m currently working with individuals who have abused a lot of drugs in order to feel better and/or avoid feelings. I believe shame is probably the #1 most-avoided feeling.

    Also, in my own life

    I’m learning about the role that shame plays in my own life and how I sometimes use perfectionism and other defenses to avoid shame feelings.

    Thanks again Gudrun!

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