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  • Writer's pictureAmy Vales

Understanding Shame

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

A first look into Shame and how it shows up in our day to day life

Central to my work as a therapist is my expanding ideas about a single topic. The more I encounter people, the more I believe there is a powerful force that shapes and guides much of our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. A single idea that is so pervasive and common in our lived, day-to-day experience that it has become almost completely unconscious. Something that when you start to become acquainted and truly, deeply understand, you can change not only your own life’s trajectory, but the life trajectory of those around you. That single force is


So what is shame and how is it formed? In order to take the deep dive into my work, you have to start with this foundational definition of shame. It is what I will come back to over and over again. When I talk about shame I am defining it as this:

The bone deep belief that I am bad.

If I could wave my magic wand and take away all belief that you are bad and replace it with the unshakable belief that you are, in fact, very good, how would it change how you




Would you worry any more about what people are thinking about you? Would you be afraid that at any second, someone you love could reject you? Would you fear confrontation? Would you be afraid to ask for what you need?

We are all familiar with what shame looks like in its most basic display. We know the posture of shame: head down, slumped shoulders, red cheeks, and a refusal to make eye contact. When we see it, we know it on some primal level. Why is that? Why can we recognize shame so easily when we see it reflected back to us by another? Because we have felt it. Churning stomach, hot face, an inner desire to become small, become invisible. We are also well-acquainted with the thoughts that come up when we are experiencing shame.

They might sound like:

“I hope I didn’t offend them.”
“Oh no, they’re all looking at me.”
“Was I too much just then?”
“Why did I just say that?”
“Wow, that was pretty pathetic.”

We know shame. We just may not know how much we know shame. When you start to tune in to your thought life, you will start to see it everywhere. You’ll see its fingerprints embedded in almost every single interaction you have. And then, you’ll start to see it reflected back to you by the people in your life.

Let me illustrate a shame interaction that you might relate to. Let’s call these two friends: Erin and Jayla:

Erin: Oh my God, Jayla, I’m so incredible sorry, I just broke your vase. I’m so embarrassed.

Jayla: Oh, its ok. Please, don’t worry about it!

Erin: I’m such an idiot, I literally always do this sort of thing.

Jayla: Seriously, please don’t worry. I honestly hated that vase and wanted an excuse to get rid of it.

Erin: Ugh are you sure? I feel so bad.

Jayla: Its fine, its fine, its fine. I promise.

You can imagine Erin’s posture when she approaches Jayla. She’s literally dripping with shame. Jayla is quick to recognize it. She recognizes it because she knows EXACTLY what Erin is feeling. She’s felt it a million times before and everything in her wants Erin to stop feeling that way. The conversation will likely move on from this experience not long after Jayla finishes cleaning up the vase. Jayla won’t want Erin to stay in that shame space and will do whatever she can to get her out of it. Erin will likely keep apologizing throughout their time together and Jayla will return to trying to assuage Erin’s shame. When Erin goes home that night you could maybe even picture her lying on her pillow before going to bed, face red, as she relives the mortification she felt.

Why does shame do this to us? Why does it make us want to curl up into a ball and disappear? Is what happened really so dire that Erin needed to go that far with her shame experience? We are so used to seeing interactions like this play out that it feels very normal. But when you take a second, pull back, and really think about this interaction, the response far exceeds a normative response.

BODY: Erin’s body is reacting almost as though she just murdered Jayla’s puppy in cold blood. Her reaction far exceeds the need for contrition. But shame doesn’t play by the rules of logic. You might even say, Erin’s felt reaction seems like something she learned when she was small. Something she has never been able to unlearn. She is mimicking the response she had that day when her dad yelled at her for not cleaning up her toys. The feeling she got when the teacher asked to see her after class. What she felt that day when she saw those girls making fun of her outfit. Her body is responding the way it learned to respond in those early days before she had access to understanding those experiences had nothing to do with her inherent value.

THOUGHTS: So how about Erin's inner thought life in the moment of breaking the vase. I almost see her in the bathroom, holding the shards of the vase in her hand. Her thoughts might go something like this,

"Stupid, stupid, stupid. What is wrong with you?"
"Ugh, she's never going to ask you to come over again."
"Can you ever just be normal or do you always have to make a spectacle of yourself?"
"Can I hide it? Can I just pretend it was the cat?"

Notice how the voices are directed at someone? Often our shame voices do this, they are accusatory. Speaking TO someone. Who are they speaking to?

In the moments I catch myself making statements like this to myself, its sometimes helpful for me to envision my 7 or 8 year old self. The berating, ridicule, judgment, and fear takes on a whole new meaning for me when I can witness the ways I've been talking to myself since I was probably about that age.

You might even envision certain people in Erin's childhood whom she is mimicking in her inner world. The judgmental accusatory voice resembles her 1st grade teacher. The fearful, worrying voice perhaps is similar to how her mother would fret. Whatever the case, SHAME is driving her thought life, revealing the depths of its tentacles in Erin's mind. Tentacles that have been there since she was still a child.

BEHAVIOR: So her body is responding as though she murdered a puppy, her thoughts are mimicking voices from her childhood, how are her behaviors impacted? Well she's going to ultimately decide to tell Jayla, but the whole time she is going to be caught up in her own internal experience. The more she witnesses Jayla's dismay, the more her body, thoughts, and behaviors will be impacted by internal shame. She'll stammer her way through her apology. She'll leave that night and think about the whole scenario- it will swirl round and round her thoughts until she finally falls asleep. Shame will impact future interactions with Jayla. It may cause Erin to avoid Jayla, be overly complementary, assume ulterior motive when Jayla cancels a hang out two weeks later, and on and on and on it will go.

So what might Erin’s reaction have looked like if she had gotten farther on her evolution of healing her shame. Maybe something like this:

Erin: Hey Jayla, I just broke your vase. I’m so sorry, can I do anything to replace it?

Jayla: Oh please don’t worry about it. I hated that vase anyway.

Erin: I hope you're not saying that to spare my feelings because I'm totally fine with replacing it for you. Honestly, it would make me feel really good to buy you a new one.

Jayla: You know what, you’re right. I actually really did love that vase. Would you mind buying me a new one?

Erin: Absolutely not!

Let’s imagine that throughout that interaction Erin maintained a calm, confident demeanor. She wasn’t cool and removed, she was engaged and genuinely sorry for possibly causing Jayla pain. What would have to have changed in Erin’s inner world, to allow her to get to that place?

Body: At the moment of breaking the vase, let's imagine Erin started to feel the creeping in of her typical shame response. But this time, instead of following the train she normally does, she pauses. Maybe she takes a few minutes to breathe deeply, allowing her body time to return to its baseline state. She rests a hand on her heart with her final breath.

Thoughts: Perhaps the first shame voice starts its tirade, "Wow, nice going clutz..." but before it can continue, Erin has stilled it with a new voice. A voice she has carefully cultivated over the last several years of inner healing. A voice that somehow resembles her most healed self and emerges now in moments of high stress. It says something like,

Its ok, I’m here with you.
You are still good
This doesn’t make you bad.
I love you and like you still.
Shh, its going to be ok.

As she lets these thoughts in and couples them with the deep breath, she finds herself slowly calming. A new presence of mind is with her. Even if the worst happens and Jayla becomes irate, Erin knows she will be ok.

Behavior: An interesting thing happens when Erin takes the time to calm and soothe her inner shame voices. Erin says the necessary and honest apology and offers to replace the item. She pushes Jayla for her truest feedback demonstrating an ability to hold whatever Jayla's truth might be. Jayla is not used to an encounter going this way. Erin seems genuinely ok- not in need of intense comforting. You can almost imagine Jayla blinking, wondering how it is that Erin was able to handle this situation with such ease. Taking something that normally carries complex emotion and making it a simple, easy fix. Erin, in working through her shame, actually gives Jayla a GIFT. She allows Jayla to be honest. She holds space for Jayla's actual truth to emerge. She is grounded, unafraid of Jayla's emotions. And from that space, Jayla is actually able to tell Erin that she really did love the vase and would love a replacement.

Its a remarkable place to get to- where Erin is in the second scenario. True selflessness emerges when we heal our shame because our own STUFF is no longer the focus of all our mental energy. If you can learn to clear up the inner thought world from all that self-annihilation, what is left is suddenly space for the other. What are THEY experiencing right now? Does it have anything to do with me or is it their own shame and pain emerging? How might they be trying to protect my feelings and needs and how can I give them permission to stop doing that?

One of the reasons I love healing shame in people is because it is when we are fully free from our own shame that we can truly and deeply love others.

Because in that space:

I have no need for you to dance around my feelings.

I have no fear that you will abandon me because of some fatal flaw.

I have no anger that is working to shield me from experiencing my inner guilt.

I have no question of my lovability

And so, I can just love. Freely love.

Shame work is the best work because, as I like to say,

As you heal, you heal.

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