Holding Shame is the Greatest Burden of All


In her book “What I Know for Sure’, Oprah Winfrey recounts a time when the story of her pregnancy at age 14 was leaked to the tabloids by someone she trusted. Oprah, by her own admission, took to her bed for days after this part of her life had become public knowledge, pained deeply by the betrayal but more so by the fear that she would now be ostracised for having been a ‘wicked girl’ in her youth. Suddenly she was fourteen again; alone and believing she was marked as sinful and deserving of being cast out.

Oprah’s story shows that shame affects us all; neither popularity nor wealth nor status can protect us from experiencing it. It lurks in familiar places like our bodies, our finances, our jobs and our age. But the real driver is more than skin deep; shame is the place that exiles hard to bear emotions such as embarrassment, humiliation and loss of dignity.

Shame is born out of fear of losing love and belonging and it drives us to bury deeply within ourselves that which we or others somehow deem unacceptable, wrong or bad. In the mid-90s’s I volunteered at a refuge for people with HIV/AIDS. I remember the heartbreak of a mother who had to secretly visit her gay son but couldn’t bring him home as the young man’s father had forbidden any contact with him. So while it is hardwired into our brain to seek the shelter and safety of the tribe, what if the tribe’s moral, religious or legal code does not accept our individuality or authenticity?

Yes, we have come a long way. For a person born in the middle ages, a minor misdemeanour could have seen them forced to do a walk of shame through their community, wearing a ‘scold’s bridle’ or some other grotesque mask designed to humiliate the wearer into repentance. A Jewish person born in Central Europe in the last century would have been forced by Nazi Germany to wear a yellow badge in public as a way to demean and segregate. Only a few decades ago parents of a child born with a disability would have been advised to permanently institutionalise her or him and forget that they ever had this daughter or son. As a society, we are peeling back the layers of stigma that inevitably leads to shame. The once silenced voices of those with mental health issues are growing stronger; those sexually abused by men in robes can finally begin to speak; First Nations people are at last beginning to be held with respect as the traditional owners of this land.

So, is shame truly retreating? In a recent conversation, Professor Paul Gilbert, founder of Compassion Focussed Therapy at the University of Derby, UK, told me that based on his research the issues by which people feel shamed are changing rather than diminishing. On the rise, particularly among younger people, is the experience of internal shame, the kind of shame that makes itself known as self-criticism and self-hatred; the mean inner voice that whispers:  ‘Who do you think you are? You are a failure. Why would people like you’?  Shame hides in the secluded places of our minds. It is the fear of public and private humiliation that is edged deeply into our psyche and causes us to conceal the difficult truths of our lives. Shame doesn’t discriminate: it silences the woman who explains the bruises on her arms a ‘clumsy accidents’ rather than talking about her violent husband and the soldier who returns from war having seen or done things contrary to the values he holds dear. I understand the reluctance to share, the fear to say out loud what might elicit a strong reaction in others. After all it’s often easier to be silent than to risk disapproval or dismissal.

Shame almost always walks into the therapy room in disguise, sometimes as the protector of hard to bear feelings, sometimes as the protected, guarded by emotions deemed more acceptable. As a therapist I have heard the words ‘I’ve never told anyone this but….’ countless times. These words are usually followed by heart-wrenching stories of grief and loss, of abuse, of choices made that were later regretted, or sometimes of simply yet devastatingly, of being different from the norms or expectations of family or culture. Often it is the violated who carries the shame of abuse; healing requires to return the responsibility for any mistreatment squarely to the perpetrator.

Facing shame bravely yields the understanding that shame is a multifaceted experience. Dr Joseph Burgo, author of the recently published book Shame, makes the important distinction between shame as a toxic, largely destructive experience and shame as an entire family of emotions that includes varying degrees of embarrassment, rejection, guilt, fear and humiliation that all share a painful awareness of self. Dr Burgo stresses that shame is hardwired in our genetic inheritance and inevitably arises for all of us.

Does this mean that there is an important point to shame? Does shame inspire pro-social action? The ancient Greeks asked themselves the same question and Aidos, the Greek goddess of shame, modesty, respect and humility, was born. Her job was to ‘restrain men from doing wrong’. Perhaps Aidos kept an eye on my friend Mal recently. Wanting to get rid of some unwanted furniture he loaded an old sofa on the back of his ute, drove to a neighbouring village and deposited it next to the nearest pile of soon to be collected household goods. Initially pleased with himself, the satisfaction soon turned into shame for having dumped a great big piece of furniture without permission. So he drove back, loaded the sofa onto his ute again and returned home. ‘It wasn’t just that I felt guilty for having done something not quite right; it was a true sense of shame that I did not live up to the values I hold as a Buddhist’. Shame kept Mal’s moral compass pointing in the right direction but not everyone agrees with the positive influence of shame. Researcher and author Brene Brown, a strong advocate for growing shame resilience, says that there is no data to support that shame is a helpful encouragement for good behaviour.

For most of us, sharing painful secrets with a trusted person is the first step of healing shame. Once we shift the heavy burden of shame we discover the pain and suffering that lies beneath calling out for care and compassion. Once Oprah’s secret pregnancy and the sad death of her infant son had become known, her community held her lovingly while she did the grieving she was denied as a young mother who had lost a child. Her secret was forced into the open, but we can all choose to speak our truth so that we can free ourselves from the greatest burden of all and claim back our authentic life.

May this little story help you to hold yourself and others with kindness and care.