In my groups and workshops, people often ask about shame: where it comes from and how to cope with it. I recently attended a self-compassion training with Chris Germer and Kristin Neff, and I found their teachings on shame to be insightful and helpful.
Sometimes people feel confused about the difference between shame and guilt. One way of understanding the distinction is that you feel guilt when you think you’ve done something “bad”, while you feel shame when you believe that you are “bad.” Guilt is an awareness that you may have done something that negatively impacted someone else. Shame is a kind of emotional collapse where you focus on how “damaged” or “broken” you are, and you see the thing you did as evidence of that brokenness.
For example, let's say you drop a friend's favorite coffee mug, and it breaks. You might say something like, "I feel so awful; I know that mug was special and I know I can't replace it." That's guilt. However, another way to respond is to focus on berating yourself for what you've done by saying something like, "What's wrong with me? I can't believe I was so careless. I never do anything right." That's shame.
The feeling of shame itself is deeply unsettling and challenging, but it becomes even more hard to bear because shame can be very difficult to accept. In the above example, if you noticed that you were berating yourself, you might feel shame about that: "Why do I have to be so hard on myself? It's just a coffee mug? Why do I make everything into such a big deal?" Many people who feel shame also feel shame about feeling shame.
That’s why Chris Germer’s talk about shame at the workshop felt so powerful. “Shame is innocent,” he said. I had never before heard shame described as “innocent.” There was something in that simple, three-word statement that cut to the heart of what shame is really about. Chris and Kristin explained that shame is actually rooted in the human need to be loved. As babies, we need to be loved in order to survive, and that need is deep within all of us. It’s universal.
The trouble is, many of us had experiences when we were young where we didn’t get the love we needed when we needed it. Experiences like this are very difficult for small children to understand and make sense of. Faced with experiences of not feeling loved, most young kids form a core belief that it must be their fault; there must be something wrong with them that has caused them to not receive the love they need; something that renders them unloveable.
If you have formed this core belief, you will understand experiences through that lens. If you make a mistake, you will see it as evidence that there is something wrong with you, and that you are not worthy of love. If more severe trauma or abuse is involved, the intensity of shame one feels may be even greater.
What I found especially powerful in the idea of shame being innocent and universal is the way that it flips the script on the stories people usually tell themselves about shame. In those moments, many people feel separate and different from others. It’s easy to forget that shame is part of being human, rooted in the desire to be loved. It’s common to isolate yourself and keep quiet about what you’re feeling. That’s how shame works, though: it is maintained by silence. The more you keep quiet about it, the more power it has.
Self-compassion offers an alternative. At the workshop, Chris said that self-compassion is the antidote to shame. I have found this to be true. Self-compassion offers you a way to soothe and comfort the part of yourself that feels shame. It can also help you come into a different relationship with that part, as you more deeply understand that it just wants to be loved, yet believes that it is somehow defective and not deserving of love.
To meet shame in a new way, try practicing with the three elements of self-compassion:
1. Awareness: Recognize that shame is present; bring awareness to your feelings. Name them as shame. Feel the feelings in your body.
2. Sense of common humanity: Remember that shame is innocent and universal; it connects you to humanity. Shame does not separate you from others. It is a human experience. In fact, at this very moment, there are people who feel what you feel.
3. Kindness: See if you can meet your experience with warmth, remembering that shame is innocent. Experiment with putting your hand on your heart. Maybe, even for only a moment or two, you can allow your feelings to be just as they are, letting go of your need for shame to go away. Remind yourself that these feelings are rooted in your very human need to be loved. You might even say to yourself, “I’m sorry that you’re feeling this. This is really hard to feel. I know that you just want to be loved, and you’re scared that you won’t be.”