The Shame of Shame and How to Move Past It

Shame is such a crippling emotion as it is the most extreme version of embarrassment coupled with guilt. There are two types of shame that we experience, Earned Shame and Given Shame.

The shame that is earned is from our own doing and hand. It comes from when we’ve hurt someone or done something wrong. It is the emotion that results from knowing better but not having done better. As awful as it feels this type of shame actually can be very useful. It becomes part of our moral compass and tells us when we’ve gone out of bounds. It reminds us of what’s right. The guilt that comes with shame from doing wrong is a strong motivator to do differently next time.

Consider “Nina” who was gossiping about a co-worker when the co-worker walked right up behind her. Nina knew better. While Nina is genuinely apologetic and sorrowful for causing her friend pain, she is also wracked with shame. Nina’s experience with earned shame will likely cause her to hold her tongue the next time she is tempted to gossip.

Given shame, the shame caused by someone else’s actions, is just as challenging to navigate. It is the shame of having an unfaithful partner, the shame of being sexually assaulted, and the shame of being laid off from work. Though this shame comes from experiences out of our control it can grip us even tighter. Our mind spins with the ways we should have had control and should have prevented what happened to us. Irrational as it may be it remains a strong and powerful force over us.

So what can you do about it? Are you destined to live with this shame, earned or given, forever? Absolutely not!

Confession – We’ve all heard the phrase “confession is good for the soul” and it’s true. Confessing, the act of declaring, your shame is an important step in moving through it. It doesn’t have to be to a priest or a clergy person, it just has to be to someone! Telling someone what happened to you or what you did to another brings light to the darkness of shame. The secrecy that often accompanies shame allows it to remain powerful and controlling over you. Ending the secrecy loosens shame’s power.

Acknowledge responsibility – If your shame is earned then after confessing what you’ve done you then need to take responsibility for your actions. It’s time to apologize to those you hurt. If your shame was given to you, you need to place responsibility where it belongs – with the other person. The hurt happened to you but is the fault and responsibility of the one who caused you pain.

Letting Go – This is the hard one. Letting go of earned shame may seem strange as though you’re getting off too easily. But if you’re going to do differently and better next time you’ll need to untangle yourself from shame in order to do so. This is not an automatic step but a process that takes time.

Letting go of given shame is crucial. It is not and never was your shame to have and carry. Letting go of this shame means you have appropriately placed the blame and responsibility where it belongs, with the other person. It also means not be held captive to the pain but being able to live in spite of it.

Shame is a painful and secretive emotion that we all feel and experience deeply. When you’ve felt shame what did you do? Did talking about it help? What was it like if you kept it a secret? Let’s explore this together. I can’t wait to read your comments!

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