This week I have been thinking about what shame really means. Shame is seemingly something we all experience, yet the quality of the experience feels isolating and like you are the only person to ever feel this. Even talking about shame is somewhat shame provoking. But why? Why is it so cringe-worthy to share our shameful feelings with each other?
First thing first- I decide to turn to my old friend- the dictionary, which gives two options- one being “bad luck” and the other being “bad feeling”. There were plenty of definitions- none of which really highlighted my own experience of feeling shame.
In my quest for an answer, I looked to the world around me and observed how others around me experience shame. This seems most apparent in my pets, I have two cats and a dog. They are all desperate to please me, yet when they mis-behave and are told off they demonstrate a very physical reaction, which I interpret as being shame. In many ways, their response is not overly dis-similar to that of a human response to shame. Their heads are lowered and there is something about the look in their eyes (you can see more of the whites of their eyes) that I acknowledge as shame- almost as if they are blushing. As they do not have a language to explain their shame to me, I am using my relational knowledge and what I know about them to intersubjectively explore their world.
As I breakdown my experience of acknowledging of my pets’ experience of shame, I am led to consider the cause of the shame. By this I do not mean the action they feel ashamed about, i.e. what they have done wrong, whether this be stealing human food, or growling at another dog. I notice the underlying cause of the shame relates to my response. My disappointment in the bad behaviour is a direct link to the expression of shame.
Linking this back into being human, I am beginning to wonder about the link between shame and feeling empathy, as parts of being empathic seem similar to the experience of being able to feel shame. When listening to BBC Radio 4 in the car, I came across “Seriously, I feel for you” which explored narcissism. There was a brilliant quote: “Narcissism is empathy’s evil twin” which made me think of shame, as to experience shame there is a level of awareness of how someone else thinks and feels.
When I think about how uncomfortable experiencing shame is for me and comparing this to imagining not feeling shame and not experiencing empathy for others, I personally would rather hold the experience of feeling shame, as I guess it shows that I care about what other people think and therefore care about others. I do not feel that I could be me, if I didn’t care.
Therefore despite being unpleasant, experiencing shame is an essential part of caring and having a sense of awareness about what others think and feel. I guess the important part is how we handle and cope with the inevitable uncomfortable experience of shame.
This leads me to consider what happens when something is so shameful that it has become unbearable? As we feel shame as a result of how we think and believe how other people experience us or our actions, healing from this may be found in a therapeutic relationship (Greenberg 1989). Although discussing shame maybe difficult, maybe there is a value to bringing it to therapy…