It’s ironic that shame, an emotion designed to bind communities together by making people feel bad if they break social norms, leaves individuals feeling separate and isolated.
Shame may serve a useful purpose for communities, but it sucks for individuals in communities. How can we have cohesive, supportive communities that also support individual self-expression?
The Silent Killer
Shame can take many forms: sexual shame, body image shame, gender identity and sexual preference shame, shame about past abuse or more generally shame about anything that our community or family judged us for.
Fundamentally, shame is a social disease.
That describes the temporary experience of shame, but more important is the identity-level belief that something innate within ourselves is shameful – that we are bad, wrong or broken. Shame leaves us feeling that if people knew who we really were they would be disgusted and reject us.
As a result we inhibit our own self-expression, hide our true feelings, squash our desires and carefully monitor what we say and do. All this leaves us feeling alone, isolated and filled with self-judgment.
Shame kills vitality and self-expression.
The Purpose Of Shame
So if shame has so many negative effects, why do we experience so much of it?
The purpose of shame is to bind communities together by making us feel bad – literally disgusted with ourselves – if we do something judged as ‘wrong’ by others.
We are shamed by others for doing, feeling or thinking things that violate their values and core beliefs. Catholic Priests shame their congregations for having sexual thoughts and feelings. Straight communities shame homosexuals for not conforming to their rules. Parents shame their children for many things: speaking out too much, eating too much, making career choices they don’t approve of, dating people they don’t like, staying out too late, not studying hard enough, having emotional needs, expressing desires.
Here’s an extreme example of a client who felt shamed by her father for having the wrong gender!
As I worked with Mark it became obvious that my dad’s blatant desire for a son had borne a tremendous impact on the way I turned out. After one of my sessions, I remembered that my mother had given birth to a baby boy when I was a child. The baby had died shortly after being born. Although I was only about seven years old, I remember my father’s face when he found out his son had died. I felt so shameful for not being what he had wanted. I carried with me the shame of being “the wrong sex” until it began to physically inhibit the cultivation of my femininity.
As Penny experienced, we often take on shame without even realizing it, and it can cause far reaching physical and emotional damage.
Again, the positive purpose of shame is to prevent members of a community from performing certain actions. For example the purpose of Catholic shame about sexuality is to inhibit pre-marital sex. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t but either way it leaves people feeling pretty messed up about their natural desires.
And of course shame about unchangeable characteristics like sexual orientation or gender is a total mind fuck.
The Evolution Of Shame
Evolutionary psychologists – who study how human emotions evolved to help us survive better in communities – believe that shame evolved from disgust.
Disgust is designed to repel us from coming into contact with things that could carry diseases. And it works. If you saw this fifthly toilet in real life you would turn around and walk away rather than risk catching some horrid infection.
Just looking at this photo you will probably feel disgust. Take a moment to note exactly where in your body you feel disgust. You’ll most likely notice a queasy feeling in your belly and a sickly feeling in your throat. These feelings make sense as we want to throw up or evacuate our bowels to get rid of any infection we may have been exposed to. We’ll come back to those body sites in a moment, as they’re relevant to where shame gets stored in the body.
Disgust is in our everyday life. It determines our hygiene behaviors. It determines how close we get to people. It determines who we’re going to kiss, who we’re going to mate with, who we’re going to sit next to. It determines the people that we shun, and that is something that we do a lot of.
- Dr. Valerie Curtis, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
So how does disgust relate to shame? Well, when someone expresses disgust towards us, we feel shame in response to that disgust. We adopt their feelings of disgust towards us as self-disgust experienced in our own bodies.
Shame is our internalization of disgust projected on us by others.
Shame In The Body
In the article How Emotions Get Trapped In The Body, I described the general mechanisms by which emotions get trapped in the body. Now we’ll get into the specific body sites that relate to shame.
Two of the primary sites for shame in the body are located in the digestive system. Remember the feelings in your belly when you saw the disgusting toilette? Yes, you guessed it; those sites are also where we feel shame. The two primary sites for shame in the belly are the pancreas and duodenum, both involved in digestion, and both players in preparing the digestive tract to deal with possible infections.
The ovaries are also important sites for shame in women. I haven’t found any evolutionary explanation for this. All I can assume is that women have so many gender-based judgments thrust upon them (both by men and other women) that there is a cultural tendency to feel shame about being female.
Take a moment now to stand up and adopt a posture of shame. How do you stand? Where do you fold your body? What parts of your hips and legs get strained by this posture? This will give you insight into the remaining two common body sites for shame: the pelvic joints (where your upper leg bones join your hip bones) and the patella tendons (the tendon just below your knee cap, also known as the ACL). When we collapse our posture in shame, we strain and weaken our hip joints and patella tendons.
Carrying chronic shame can lead to degeneration of the hips and knees.
Community Cohesion – A Better Way
The purpose of shame is to enforce community values on individuals, but as an adult you may not agree with the values that were forced upon you when you were younger.
It’s time to break free!
How can we achieve free self-expression while still being appropriate to and responsible for the communities we live in? Shakespeare said it best.
To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
- William Shakespeare
The Bard had it right. The most wholesome way to maintain community cohesion is not by being shamed, not by being disgusted with ourselves, but rather by being true to our own values and beliefs.
When we are true to ourselves, we will naturally treat others appropriately.
Free Your Self-Expression
We don’t need more shame in the world. In fact it’s toxic. What we do need are more people who are true to themselves and who express themselves freely and authentically.
The guided meditation, Transform Shame Into Self-Expression shows you how to release old feelings of shame and replace them with your own self-expression, chosen as an adult, and guided by your internal moral compass of compassion for other people and personal values.
In my own experience, transforming shame has led to a greater sense of connection and belonging. My clients, like Liz, have experienced similar increases in freedom, connection and self-expression.
I had all kinds of negative ideas about sex that I picked up during my childhood and they kept running through my mind every time I was with someone… Transforming shame brought me to a whole new level of self-expression that is not just limited to sexuality, but carries over into every aspect of my life.
When you’re ready to release your shame and gain freedom of self-expression, you can use this guided meditation to show you the way: Transform Shame Into Self-Expression.