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#56: Emotions Explained: Shame

Shame is one of the most painful emotions we can experience. 

This episode explores what shame is, when the emotion is useful (and when it’s not), and skills to help you cope when shame threatens to overwhelm you.

Shame is a social emotion that motivates us to repair transgressions that might result in us being excluded from a group we want (or need) to belong to. Many of us, though, experience a lot of unjustified shame, where we assume we will be rejected if parts of ourselves are revealed.

Show Highlights

  • Differentiating shame from guilt
    • Guilt is about violating our own values; shame is about being excluded from the community you are a part of or want to be part of
  • Children are not able to differentiate between “I did something wrong” and “I am wrong”
  • Less intense shame may show up as shyness and more intense shame may show up as mortification or humiliation
  • Comparing ourselves to others and feeling less-than is a common trigger for shame
  • Rejection can activate shame
  • Shame can come up when aspects of our behavior that we are unaware of are pointed out by others
  • Experiencing emotions that were invalidated when you were young, such as sadness, can evoke shame about feeling that emotion as an adult
  • Notice what happens in your body when you feel shame, such as blushing, cowering, or looking away
  • Self-consciousness can be a hangover effect of shame because you are trying to police yourself to not do something that will bring shame on again
  • Often, our shame does not fit the facts
  • When shame does fit the facts, we can share transgressions and apologize
  • If you fear you will be rejected by your community if you reveal something about yourself, you can keep quiet, find a new community to join that will not reject you, or work to change the values of your community
  • Find someone safe, open, and understanding to share the “shameful” things with

DBT Skills Discussed

Resources

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#56: Emotions Explained: Shame Transcript

Marielle Berg  

Hello and welcome to the Skillful Podcast where we explore DBT and RO-DBT skills to help you reduce emotional suffering, improve your relationships, and become more present in your life. I’m your host, Marielle Berg, a psychotherapist at the Bay Area DBT & Couples Counseling Center.

Marielle Berg  

Welcome Ed.

Ed Fowler  

Hi Marielle, and I am laughing, to give the listeners a look behind the scenes because we just started talking. And we’re going on and on. And Marielle said, Wait a minute, I forgot to hit record.

Marielle Berg  

I feel so ashamed.

Ed Fowler  

So luckily, luckily, we caught it. So that we can start over and start talking about shame. 

Marielle Berg  

Perfect,

Marielle Berg  

I’m joking, I don’t really feel very ashamed a little bit. So maybe this is right on point where you go. Maybe embarrassment is more apt. So we are going to be diving into shame today, following our series on different emotions. So we did one on anger and fear. And just a heads up as you’re listening. Sometimes just you know, hearing someone talk about shame, can bring up memories of times where you have felt shamed, things that you did that felt sort of, you know, humiliating or embarrassing. And so if that comes up, just be gentle with yourself. And hopefully the way Ed and I frame the emotion of shame today will help you not get too stuck in this very uncomfortable feeling.

Ed Fowler  

And I know for me, like I’ve definitely struggled with shame a lot. And have had to do a lot of work on myself around shame and understanding shame and sorting out as we would say in DBT terminology, justified shame versus unjustified shame. And even being able to recognize that sometimes shame can be valuable, it can be helpful in certain circumstances. That’s the point of it. And I actually now have such a deeper understanding of shame that it’s really kind of interesting to be able to reflect on it and have it be something that’s understandable, and that we can work with as opposed to just this overwhelmingly painful emotion.

Marielle Berg  

Yeah, I concur. I’ve certainly had my own experiences with shame. And it’s it’s it’s not a pleasant feeling, to say the least. And I also agree with that the framing or the understanding that shame at times, is useful has been a really important reframing for me, and maybe we should start with that. 

Ed Fowler  

I think so. 

Marielle Berg  

Yeah. 

Ed Fowler  

Yeah, I think, you know, again, in DBT, when we talk about emotions, we are recognizing that emotions are built into us as human beings to serve a purpose to give us valuable information beyond what we think. And so every emotion has a purpose. And I think shame is the main emotion, where people feel like shame has no purpose. And I know for myself, I was definitely in that camp for a long time of saying, shame is always bad. Shame is always harmful. There’s no point to shame we shouldn’t have shame at all. And DBT has helped me to understand what is shame? And actually, why do humans have this emotion? What’s the purpose of it, especially since it’s an emotion that so often is not justified, we experience it in ways that aren’t actually meeting the need of what the emotion of shame is supposed to be giving us. So as

Marielle Berg  

I’ve heard Marsha Linehan describe it shame is a social emotion. We are very much social are tribal creatures. And so shame is useful because it gets us to hide and then possibly repair transgressions that might get us kicked out of the

Marielle Berg  

group. 

Ed Fowler  

In our modern culture, very often we feel shame where it isn’t actually something that’s going to harm the community. And shame is like such a well programmed function of all societies that we can become over reliant on feelings of shame that aren’t grounded in reality. But the the point of shame is to give us information of oh, I’m doing something that could get me rejected, I should be careful here.

Marielle Berg  

And shame often gets conflated with guilt. So guilt is an emotion that is centered on our own moral compass or our own sense of morality or ethics. And so guilt comes about when we violate our own moral code. Of course, it comes about in many other ways that where it doesn’t fit the facts, but at its you know, most useful we also need guilt times because it lets us know like, Oh, I’m doing something that doesn’t align with my own values. And so that is different than shame, which again, is much more about the group, and the community you’re a part of.

Ed Fowler  

And so if we recognize that shame is built into us as human beings for a purpose, and we can understand that purpose, it’s going to help us to sort out and check the facts, when we feel shame, is this shame that I need to act on or take seriously, or is this shame that actually does not fit the situation, I’m assuming rejection, that isn’t going to come.

Marielle Berg  

And that’s usually the kind of shame we see in the work that we do the sort of, I’ll think of it as toxic shame, where people are assuming others, you’re going to reject them if something about themselves or some vulnerability is, is known. And the sense of like, I’m just wrong or bad at my core. And that kind of shame, we would, of course, say doesn’t fit the facts, but it can feel so immovable, it can feel so true, especially for people who were raised with caregivers who did not make the distinction when they did something wrong or bad, that the action was bad or wrong. And that, okay, rather than the child.

Ed Fowler  

Yeah, I

Ed Fowler  

think that where shame is so complicated is because, again, as children, we are not able to differentiate between I did something wrong, and I am wrong. And shame is something that’s used very often with children, um, to teach children social norms. And so I know I heard a lot growing up, you should be ashamed of yourself, for the things from very minor things to very major things. And that concept of, you should be ashamed of yourself, gives us information of like, okay, I did something that will get me rejected by others. I think for all of us, we had that experience as children, where we felt that shame and felt that sense of not, I did something wrong, and I didn’t to be careful about my actions, we felt I am wrong, I am bad. on a deep level, there’s something really wrong for me, with me, on a deep level, there’s something really wrong with me that if others knew they would reject me, and that’s the kind of, as you say, Marielle toxic shame that we pick up as children. And I think most of us do in some way or another, that we need to be very careful about. Because that sense of there, I am just so wrong, that if people knew who I really was, they would reject me, that’s not actually the function that shame is supposed to serve. And that’s not going to be helpful.

Marielle Berg  

Yeah, and so adults are walking around, carrying that shame from the past. So like, I am flawed at a fundamental level. And if people really knew who I was, or who I am, they would reject me, they wouldn’t like me, they wouldn’t want to be around me, they would see how horrible I am. Which is very different than the useful kind of shame that we were referencing earlier. You know, if we try to think of an example, I remember littering. I don’t remember exactly when, but around someone who I would say shame and guilt or justified who’s very environmentally conscious, I mean, as am I, but it’s even more so. And telling them that I had littered, I don’t know why I don’t know what happened, I think I had something in my hand that I couldn’t find trash for it. And I had a moment of weakness. I mean, this is a very small, you know, example, where I felt shame about that. And I would say the shame is justified. And then if it got me to or forgets me to repair, I don’t think I could, in that moment, I don’t think I could find the thing that I littered, but to recommit to, like not doing that again, then shame is useful.

Ed Fowler  

And what you learned is if you just casually throw trash on the ground, you will be rejected by some people, and maybe some people who you really care about. And so again, that’s the valuable function of shame of like, I don’t want people to think less of me, even if, for instance, in that moment, you are out of line with your own values, but primarily, like shame can be really helpful of like, well, I might litter if I, you know, wasn’t really thinking about it enough. I felt like I had a quote unquote, good excuse, but I know my friend will be so upset with me on my reject me. So I’m going to be super conscious about it. Well, that’s going to prevent a good amount of littering, which is generally a positive thing. So that’s where shame can have a valuable function.

Marielle Berg  

So let’s let’s talk a little bit about the different gradations, or the different synonyms for shame that are on a continuum. Because we’ve done know we’ve done that with some of the other modes. things that we’ve talked about. So shame is the umbrella term, and a less intensity of shame or a lower intensity, you could think about, you know, the word like shyness or being self conscious, or dis composure. Those are other ways of thinking about shame when it’s less intense, all the way over to the most intense shame when you feel mortified, or humiliated. So as we’re talking about shame, keeping in mind that there’s less intense shame and more intense shame. And sometimes just having a label or a name, as I know, we’ve talked about in other episodes can be really helpful. Like, oh, I’m mortified, communicate something different to ourselves and others, then I’m feeling a little self conscious, 

Ed Fowler  

Right.

Ed Fowler  

And I think the value of recognizing our emotions in emotional regulation is to be able to say, I’m mortified, what category of emotion does that fall into? Well, really, that’s shame. I’m talking about shame. Because that, you know, whether it’s feeling, you know, humiliated or feeling a little self conscious, or going to need to think about and do the same things, it’s all shame. So some of the prompting events, what, what are things that would prompt feelings of shame, you know, doing something that will get you rejected, especially by people you care about, or admire that that would be where shame might be justified, it’s telling you be careful, you’re doing something that will get you rejected. But we can also feel shame. If we compare ourselves to others, and judge ourselves as less than we might feel ashamed in that way. If someone else does something, like for instance, we get broken up with, which is not really about, you know, like, Oh, I’ve done something that could get me rejected, but we feel ashamed that someone else rejected me. And we don’t want to tell anybody that that happened. When people, you know, point out things that we’ve done, and they don’t like it, oftentimes we will feel shame of like, Oh, they’re pointing out something negative about me. And I feel so ashamed. I’m embarrassed that other people are seeing and calling out things that they view as as not right about me or what I’ve

Ed Fowler  

done. 

Marielle Berg  

And other prompting events for shame or being laughed at or made fun of having your integrity intact in one way or another. Being rejected or criticized for something that you expected, you’d be praised for. Even having emotions that have been invalidated in the past can bring on feelings of shame. If you have been chronically invalidated for feeling, sadness, for example, when you feel it, you know, I’m thinking about if we’re chronically invalidated, when you were younger, as a child, if you feel sadness, or disappointment about something as an adult, you might feel shame around that, because you have associated feeling sadness as something wrong.

Ed Fowler  

And so there are actual events that happen that would prompt feelings of shame. And there are also our interpretation of events that can prompt shame. So for instance, what you just described Marielle of like, having this association of from childhood, when I express sadness, that sadness is invalidated as an adult, when I feel sadness, I feel shame, I shouldn’t feel sad, even though no one has actually said, you know, like, you shouldn’t feel sad. So we can, you know, have these associations that linger. Anything that we believe we will be rejected for can prompt feelings of shame, even if and this is where shame can be so painful, we actually wouldn’t be rejected or wouldn’t be rejected by the people we respect and care about. But we believe we will be rejected and that can prompt feelings of shame.

Marielle Berg  

And I think it’s pretty common to overestimate or to blow up in our minds, how other people will reject us if they find out something about us that we feel shame around. I mean, sometimes of course, it’s true. But I think many other times if you reveal something to someone, of course, who is comfortable, caring, safe person for you, very often we’re met with you know, understanding some other interpretations of events that prompt feelings of shame, are just in general judging yourself to be not good enough or less than So invalidating yourself, comparing yourself to others and thinking that you’re a loser or you know, defective somehow thoughts of feeling unlovable and this is such a common one for the folks that we work with are feeling again, like at my core, I’m just not lovable or likable.

Ed Fowler  

Yeah, Really any aspect of yourself that you’re afraid people will reject you for whether it’s how you look what you say, who you are, if there’s a perception that others will reject you, you will feel shame. And as we’re talking about this, and I’m really reflecting, I’m recognizing how much our struggles with unjustified shame or shame that’s out of balance, this feeling of I will be rejected comes from childhood. Because I think that, like shame is something that’s used a lot with children, to try to teach children how to fit in, in groups. And so there’s, you know, so many of us and for all of us, we can think about times as kids, where we felt the shame and people promoted shame. And that you that’s wrong, you’re bad. And then it’s such a painful experience. And for kids, especially to be rejected by others, really feels deeply, deeply threatening. And so we develop a vigilance to not wanting to feel that again. And so for many of us, we become hyper vigilant to Oh, my gosh, I can’t share that I’ll be rejected, or Oh, my gosh, if people knew that about me, of course, they would reject me. And then we become too focused on that, and limited by shame. And as you said, Marielle. So often, we have these experiences where we share the thing we’re very ashamed of, and people we care about understand us. They validate us. They may say, yeah, that was not a positive thing that you did. I understand why you did it. And I still care about you. And so I think it’s really important for us to recognize that toxic shame and a sense of profound shame and many different circumstances, probably comes from being a kid who was really, really hurt by being shamed, and doesn’t want to feel that again. So we just automatically shame ourselves. And don’t tell the things that might get us rejected, don’t share it, and keep ourselves stuck in shame.

Marielle Berg  

Yes, and it’s good information, although painful information to get if we tell someone, you know, we take the leap and make ourselves vulnerable and reveal to someone something that we’re ashamed about hoping to get understanding and recognition and validation. And we don’t, and we’re told, Oh, we’re bad. And that’s, that’s, you know, as I said, a painful thing to learn. But maybe, then that’s not a person you want to be particularly close

Marielle Berg  

with, right? 

Ed Fowler  

That’s where we can actually learn from shame, and it can be helpful. And shame is like a really painful feeling. And so it’s going to be tricky to work with this one. Again, like kind of noticing what is shame? Like what happens in our bodies, when we’re feeling shame. So very often, there are physical things that happen like for me, like I get really red in the face when I feel embarrassed. And so people can see, oh, he feels ashamed. And I had so many triggers for shame in the past, because I again, felt a lot of chronic shame. And so someone would say something very casual, and I would get really red in the face. And it’s like, why is he red in the face? It’s like, I’m feeling intense shame. Because you don’t know that that might apply to me. But I know it applies to be a now I’m really embarrassed. So getting red in the face, feeling like a sense of tightening and a desire to hide. Those are often like the physical feelings that go with shame. 

Marielle Berg  

Yeah,

Marielle Berg  

Shame is very much an emotion that is wants to hide or wants us to retreat. Whereas Anger is an emotion that’s energetic and usually wants us to move. Shame is a is what motivates secret, keeping a lot. So it’s the removal from the group. It’s the hiding, it’s the shrinking away. And then common expressions and actions that come with shame are, as I said, secrets, you know, hiding behaviors, or characteristics from those around us, maybe avoiding certain people who have hurt us or criticized us, maybe avoiding our own experience by just sort of checking out. You mentioned the the blushing which I find, I mean, I do that on occasion, too. And then I feel shame for blushing, right? Because it’s like it’s so visible, right? Yeah, and exposing and that’s when you might see things like trying to cover your face or you know, bowing of the head saying you’re sorry, sort of groveling over and over. Those are common kinds of expressions of actions that come with with shame.

Ed Fowler  

And then Shame very much, you know, like, as many emotions leaves a kind of a hangover, right? Where after we feel that intense shame, there’s a sense of like ongoing, wanting to hide, wanting to detach, wanting to stay away from people wanting to avoid anything that might prompt that shame, again, all the way to the level of kind of dissociating and checking out of ourselves, really getting out of our bodies and getting out of our experience being numb, just totally distracted. Because we can’t tolerate the painful feelings of shame. And we just want to get away as far as we can.

Marielle Berg  

And related to that, which is something that we may not think about a high amount of self focus or preoccupation with ourselves, can also be kind of a hangover effect of shame. So really self monitoring ourselves in an extreme way, where we’re hyper self conscious, because we’re trying to avoid doing another perceived transgression, we’re trying to continually, as I said, monitor ourselves. So that might be something that is newer for listeners to think about. I know, it’s certainly was for me when I learned about it.

Ed Fowler  

And I think that is important because that like excessive self monitoring, takes a lot of energy. 

Marielle Berg  

Yes. 

Ed Fowler  

And so that’s where like, we’re talking about all of these descriptions of what shame is like, and for anybody who is listening to this, who struggles with shame, and is feeling like Oh, my God, this is excruciating. Why do they keep talking about it, like this is a good chance to take a breath, and slow down and kind of get grounded. So for all of us, like, if we’re feeling shame, it can have a very heady quality of like, Oh, I just want to avoid I want to get away. And so like taking a breath, and just getting back into the present moment, like I’m here, I’m okay, right now can help us then start to check the facts, because more than most emotions, I have found, shame needs some fact checking, to sort out what are the facts that may have prompted the shame? And what are all those assumptions and habits of thought and feeling and interpretations that are really aggravating and inflaming the shame, because we want to be able to get the information and get the shame right sized. And so taking some time to step back, get grounded within ourselves, and check the facts a little

Ed Fowler  

bit.

Marielle Berg  

Remembering that it’s pretty narrow, when shame fits the facts, it’s generally when you’re going to be rejected by a person or group that matters to you. If a personal characteristic or behavior that you do is made public. And so again, sometimes that fits my example with the littering. Other times, many, many other times it doesn’t fit the facts are the intensity in which we’re feeling it does not fit the facts. I’m thinking of a friend years ago who were part of a friend group of couples. And she revealed to me that she of monogamous couples, that she was having an affair, she was having a relationship with someone else. And she was so ashamed. And you know, I would say her shame, I don’t know about the intensity, it was really sort of crippling, but the shame did in some way, certainly fit the facts. And what it did is got her to hide this behavior from other people in her group in our friend group and in her community. And of course, even if shame does fit the facts. Again, it’s a social emotion, we can attempt to make it right. And this is where our apologies, or trying to repair our transgressions is really useful.

Ed Fowler  

Again, if we if we check the facts, and we recognize that the shame we feel is because like people we do care for and respect, and who care for and respect us would be really upset and may reject us, then take the information and start to correct whatever happened, right?

Marielle Berg  

Yes, and I want to add another important piece, if you’re rejected, or you anticipate you’re going to be rejected by the community that you’re a part of, if an aspect of you is made public, then definitely keep quiet. 

Ed Fowler  

Right. 

Marielle Berg  

And, or I should say, or if the values of the group don’t align with what you know to be true, there is a place for working to make change.

Ed Fowler  

So again, an example would be, for instance, feeling shame about revealing sexual orientation or gender identity. There are a lot of places and people and groups that will reject you. If you say I’m queer, I’m trans I’m Gay, whatever it is. And so, we this is where checking the facts and recognizing, for instance, I am in a community that will reject me if I come out, then don’t come out and find different communities. 

Marielle Berg  

Yes, yeah. 

Ed Fowler  

As opposed to where shame can hold us back, like, well, I can’t come out, and I have to stay in this community and, and hide who I am. And again, for, for queer people. That’s like, such a common starting point of like, okay, I’m just gonna hide this. And then people learn like, okay, yes, I will be rejected. For this aspect of who I am. I want to find communities and people who won’t reject me, where they will accept me, embrace me, validate me love me, as I am my whole self. 

Marielle Berg  

Yeah, 

Ed Fowler  

So this is an example where a characteristic about ourselves could get us rejected. So maybe we don’t share about it in that group. And we find a group where it will be accepted and where we can be validated. So with any emotion, we want to check the facts we want to notice, what are the things that are leading to this shame? What What are the facts of the situation? What are my interpretations? What do I really want? What do I really believe? What’s important to me? And what do I do with this, and sometimes that’s keep quiet. Sometimes it’s find somebody safe to share with somebody open and understanding to share with who will help us work through it. And I think that’s really important with shame is, when we try to do it by ourselves, we could easily get caught in shame loops, where having somebody really trustworthy to share about what we feel ashamed of, can help us sort this out, check the facts a little deeper, and figure out what do I do with this? And how do I find a place to feel accepted.

Marielle Berg  

Therapy, of course, is a great place for that. But if you don’t have access to therapy, there might be other people in your life that are even one other person who feels like a safe person. And of course, that person could even be you know, a community online.

Ed Fowler  

When we feel shame. I think it’s critically important to check the facts, because for most of us, we have really unjustified shame, I will be rejected. It’s terrible. I have to hide this. And that’s so extreme and not helpful. So checking the facts, and often getting help from others to check the facts can help us understand where’s the shame coming from and what can I do with it? Noticing if we have like really intense, stuck shame, it’s going to take some time to work through it. I think a very common experience is when people have experienced trauma, they can feel shame about the trauma, shame about what happened to them, shame about their reactions to what happened. And this is a key aspect of living with and moving beyond trauma responses is when traumatic things happen, it’s very common to feel like oh my gosh, other people wouldn’t react this way. And I’m weak for reacting this way and having a trauma response. And so we want to be very gentle with ourselves when we’re working through, especially trauma induced shame, and finding really helpful people to support us and moving beyond the shame that probably again, so often people have experienced trauma, and they share about it and they feel so embarrassed to share it and get more support and validation than they could have imagined. We want to be able to work to that point instead of feeling stuck in the shameful reactions.

Marielle Berg  

I feel like there’s so much more we could talk about with shame and trauma. So maybe we’ll we’ll do a additional episode down the road on that. But I’m really glad that you mentioned it just as we’re wrapping up.

Ed Fowler  

And so I think that there’s again, we could probably do another episode on this because this is a really painful one and really challenging. Bottom line, try to notice, check the facts, get support and checking the facts, especially when it comes to shame. Because we can assume that we’ll be rejected when we won’t. And so finding even one helpful person to help us check the facts and then we can decide what do I do with this? What do I want to do and move towards feeling again, more okay with ourselves more secure with ourselves and feel like I can be accepted and cared for by others? That’s what we want.

Marielle Berg  

All right, on that note, we’ll end for today. Thanks for listening to today’s episode. To learn more, or if you’re in the Bay Area and want to get started with therapy, you can find us online at bayareadbtcc.com, that’s bayareadbtcc.com.