I’m Hiding, Please See Me: Unmasking Shame
By Nikki Rollo, PhD, LMFT
At the core of our humanity is an inexorable search for connection. It is what brings meaning to our lives. In this pursuit, we are asking questions about our identity and looking for answers that will help us define who we are in the world. We are searching for a place of belonging and a community we can call home. We are looking for safe emotional spaces where the whole of who we are can be expressed, witnessed, and validated.
As we search for connection, we inevitably will encounter our shame. Psychologist and author Gershen Kaufman wrote in 1974, “The experience of shame is inseparable from man’s search for himself.” While shame is skilled at hiding, it is also woven into the fabric of the human experience.
I write not as an objective observer of the shame of others, but as one who has also experienced shame. As a depth-oriented psychotherapist, I lean into the Jungian tradition that says we all have a shadow and in it are the darker and rejected parts of ourselves that we struggle to accept and integrate. These may be things that are incompatible with our outward presentation, such as anger, rage, hatred, or jealousy. Yet there is also gold in our shadow—for example, there could be a gift or talent that we have rejected because we think we aren’t good enough. These are the parts of ourselves about which, somewhere along the way in our development, we received messages stating they were unacceptable, not good enough, or defective. As you can see, shame and self-criticism live and even thrive in the shadow.
Shame is hard to reach, and when we do touch it, our instinct is to quickly move to cover ourselves up. We want to hide, get far away, or pretend it isn’t there. In writing about shame, it is impossible to not fall short and respond to the urge to shy away from engaging with such a deeply painful, complex, and hidden phenomenon. In writing this article, I have experienced these urges to not get too close to the topic. I am finding that it is a dance, stepping toward and backing away. How close do I want to get to the painful realities of shame in the life of my clients, my loved ones, and myself? How much can I tolerate and hold in my own body to allow my clients to do the work of journeying to the core of who they are, to face what they need to face in order to move toward healing and wholeness?
I call on you, the reader, to engage with this article from a place of “uncovered-ness,” holding the questions: How do we rush to cover ourselves from the topic of shame? How do we immediately create distance and consider it as an issue of the “other” rather than an issue of “us”? Let’s step in together as humans who have a shadow as well as light, as humans who have shame, and as humans who are capable of the great, courageous work of healing. In writing about it, in talking about it, we draw it out and begin to get some clarity about how we can heal.
In this article, we will embark on an exploration of four areas: defining shame, entering into the lived experience of shame, shame and eating disorders, and, of great significance, healing from shame.
In order to discuss what is healing to shame, we need to understand it deeply. Kaufman (1996) says, “The inner experience of shame is like a sickness within the self, a sickness of the soul. If we are to understand and eventually heal what ails the self, then we must begin with shame.” So, together, let us start by moving toward a deeper understanding of shame.
Shame is a conviction at the very core that one is defective and worthless. It is a deeply rooted emotion that one is bad, is wrong, and can’t do anything right. Shame is accompanied by self-loathing and feelings of deep inadequacy. It must be distinguished from guilt, which is the feeling that one has transgressed a boundary, hurt someone, or done something wrong. Guilt is typically followed by remorse and an attempt to make amends. It can actually be a beneficial feeling to motivate us when we have not lived up to our values and commitments or if we have wronged or hurt someone. Shame is not about doing anything wrong or bad, but more about a deep embarrassment and humiliation connected to feeling inadequate at the core of oneself. It is an overwhelming sensation that one is small, insignificant, and fundamentally flawed or defective.
Shame-inducing experiences can happen to us as children and as adults. If one experiences frequent shaming or something happens that breaks our spirit, we may come to believe it is our fault, that we deserved it, and that we are not worth taking up space and existing in this world. It is something that becomes woven into our identity.
The Lived Experience of Shame: What Does It Feel Like?
Shame is most often deeply hidden and becomes activated in response to rejection, social disapproval, trauma, or stigma. It is all-encompassing; however, there are varying levels of intensity and pervasiveness, as well as inner and outer features and characteristics.
While many of the greats in psychology never discussed shame as a focus of their theories, more recently shame has been researched and discussed both in and out of psychological circles. People are starting to pay attention to shame. This allows us to have a more intimate understanding of the lived experience of shame. As clinicians and researchers become more curious about it and acknowledge their own shame, they make space for the shame of others to emerge and be witnessed—and thus open up potential for healing.
Shame is more than a feeling, it is both an outer and inner experience.
Shame is an outer experience in that we have an impulse to hide from the gaze of others. We feel our deficiencies exposed in the presence of another and want to cover ourselves up. This can range from embarrassment to deep humiliation. It may be about a part of ourselves, or a body part, or about the totality of who we are as a human being. Our face and body express our shame when our words cannot. We hang our heads; our cheeks turn pink; we avert our gaze and are unable to make eye contact with others. We have the acutely painful felt experience that we are a shame-worthy object in the eyes of another human being.
Shame is an inner experience in the way it can show up, uninvited, with no one else around. It can pop up with thoughts like, I don’t deserve…to be here, to have good things, to have people love me…” This inner dialogue of self-loathing is deafeningly loud, ensuring we hear the message that we are not, never have been, and never will be worthy or enough. Our bodies are not good enough; what we do is not good enough; who we are at the core is not good enough. It is an internal, unassailable sense that I am wrong.
Shame is universal and has varying levels of intensity.
We all have experienced some level of painful shame in our lives. Shame is a primary and universal human emotion. Yet there is also a level and intensity of shame that is not necessarily a universal experience. Psychoanalyst Robbert Wille (2014) presented an idea called the shame of existing and describes it as a form of shame that is deeper, is higher in intensity, and goes far beyond an aspect of the self—to the very fact that one exists. He says, “It is not shame about ‘who I am,’ but about the fact ‘that I am.’” While shame usually is accompanied by an urge to hide, the shame of existing is accompanied by an urge to disappear. People believe they should not be allowed to exist and experience a significant amount of disgust and contempt toward themselves. This level of shame can be a motivator for suicidal urges.
Entering the Landscape of Shame
When we are in the landscape of shame, we are living with both the fear of being seen and then the opposing fear of vanishing and being insignificant and meaningless to others.
Shame-based beliefs about either an aspect of ourselves or about our existence precede movements to disconnect and create barriers of protection. We fear being exposed or that people will see our badness. As a result, we make great efforts to protect ourselves, and these barriers then keep us from making authentic connections with others. Since we are hardwired for relatedness, we then attempt to use things outside ourselves to heal the emptiness and fill the hole that results from the shame-based identity.
As I referenced in the introduction, we all have a shadow self. We have light and dark aspects of ourselves that make up the whole. The great poet Robert Bly refers to the shadow as the “long bag we drag behind us.” This bag might be weighed down by darkness and the things that are harder to look at about ourselves, but this bag also contains gold, things that are unique to us that we have rejected somewhere along the way. We can be ashamed of both our light and our shadow. In the shadow, we may be ashamed of our rage, jealousy, impulsiveness, dislikes, or perceived inadequacies, for example. In the light, we may be ashamed of our creativity, desires, and likes, or our privilege.
Shame thrives in secrecy and is a tormenting form of self-consciousness. It turns us inward to the horrific experience of feeling defective and deficient as a human. It binds, limits, restricts, keeps small, disconnects, and judges.
Shame causes an individual to feel separate from the group. From a biological and evolutionary perspective, this served as a powerful protection and mechanism of control. It was a motivator to keep people connected and adhering to social mores. If we want to stay in the tribe, stay safe in our group, we know not to do certain things. This was needed for survival; however, too much of this at too high an intensity and frequency has the dangerous potential for destruction of the human spirit.
Consider the ways in which our collective society joins together and uses shame to let people know that they are acceptable or unacceptable. We Twitter-shame, fat-shame, body-shame, period-shame, and slut-shame to name a few. For those groups that are already stigmatized and stereotyped, internalization of collective shaming is a common outcome. Anything that is outside the bounds of what we are comfortable with becomes something we fear and need to keep at a distance.
What is the language of shame?
The language of shame is complicated. We often don’t have words for it except that it is deeply painful. It is uncomfortable to speak it. Internally, we hear the self-critical thoughts of, You are so stupid. You are worthless. You messed up, again. You don’t deserve love or care. The intensity of self-hate and feelings of worthlessness are expressed in any number of these kinds of statements. Shame tries to tell us who we are, always framed in a sense of unworthiness.
How does this happen?
When we experience things that are less than nurturing, unbearable, or frightening in our lives and feel alone in the experience or that we have no one to turn to, we learn to relate to ourselves and others through a framework of shame. From birth through adulthood, we have a drive to become attached to caregivers and then significant others for protection, survival, and belonging. It is through these relationships that we learn about our emotions. Depending on how our emotions are responded to, we learn about our acceptability as a human and our worthiness of love and connection. We learn whether we can be our true self (the one with the wide range of emotions) and still be accepted and valued. Over time, when we repeatedly receive messages that we are not accepted with all of our light and dark parts, shame can become embedded as a part of our identity. Early shame experiences can also occur in the relational context between peers through bullying or teasing and from influential adults such as teachers and coaches. This can lead to feeling different, rejected, or not good enough in our social environment.
Reactions to shame
There are many ways in which our psyche activates to defend against shame. I would like to call our attention to a few key perspectives that will help us develop an understanding in order to move into a conversation about healing.
Donald Nathanson (1993), a psychiatrist who has written extensively about shame, groups our reactions into four categories within what he calls the Compass of Shame: withdrawal, avoidance, attacking others, and attacking self. We may want to hide, say it isn’t that bad, think someone deserves our aggression, or think we deserve our aggression.
Donald Kalsched (1996, 2013), a Jungian analyst whose transformational work on trauma includes the experience of shame, writes about a self-protective mechanism that he calls the “self-care system.” It can be lifesaving when a child experiences trauma and cannot physically withdraw but can psychologically retreat into a protected inner world. Unfortunately, this self-protection morphs into a self-prosecutor, as it sees everything on the outside, even pleasure and hope, as a threatening intruder with potential to re-harm. The primary method that this protector uses is a self-persecutory inner voice that has a goal of keeping the self in hiding so it cannot be hurt again. It will say whatever is necessary to accomplish that goal, including things like, “You are worthless and unlovable.”
Kaufman’s (1996) seminal work on shame describes how shame and identity are intertwined. He considers the interpersonal bridge or relational bond as both the generator and healer of shame. When this is broken, the impact of shame is profound. It can be a growth experience if the person responsible takes care to mend the bridge. When this mending does not happen, the inner world becomes a ripe landscape for shame to fester and take over.
Shame and Eating Disorders
It is particularly difficult, yet necessary, to talk about early attachment and shame and its connection to development of an eating disorder, while simultaneously emphasizing that parents are not to blame for the development of an eating disorder. It is important to acknowledge that both things can be true. A person with an eating disorder may have high levels of shame and self-criticism and it’s still possible their eating disorder was not caused by their parents. Not everyone with high shame or ruptures in early attachment develops an eating disorder, and not everyone with an eating disorder has had ruptures in attachment. Many who suffer from an eating disorder have trauma, and some people with a diagnosed eating disorder have no trauma in their histories. This is not an either-or conversation, rather one where we must hold the tension of the opposites. Both things can be true at the same time in our understanding of an illness as multifaceted as an eating disorder.
Shame frequently plays a central role in the development and maintenance of an eating disorder. Research has shown that shame-proneness is a risk factor for the development of psychological difficulties including eating disorders. In fact, eating disorders have been called “disorders of shame” (Kaufman, 1989). Those suffering from an eating disorder will experience themselves as deficient, unworthy, disgusting, or an overall failure at being a good human, with accompanying shame about their bodies and eating behaviors.
When we experience shame, we are highly motivated to do something to relieve the feeling. It makes perfect sense that people feeling intense shame, self-loathing, and self-criticism would engage in self-protective behaviors, even if harmful to themselves. When these feelings are also related to the appearance and functions of the physical body, these protective behaviors can take the form of eating disorder behaviors such as restricting food, bingeing on food, purging, or extreme exercise past the point of injury or pain.
We might even observe someone making movement toward the shame-based identity with things such as people pleasing, covering up, presenting a cleaned-up version of self, and denying the messiness of being human.
We could consider attempts at appearance fixing or avoiding, managing food to control weight and shape, compensatory behaviors to rid the body of food or calories, and the drive for perfecting the self as regulators of the shame experience. Alternatively and/or in addition, shame may emerge as a result of and connected to the eating disorder behaviors. There may be a core shame underlying the illness, as well as a secondary shame about the behaviors. Shame and guilt can both precede and follow episodes of bingeing and purging, for example. For some struggling with anorexia nervosa, they may report shame and disgust after eating or about their hunger signals and the body’s need for food.
Since we experience the world and our emotions through our bodies, if we are unable to regulate, express, and process feelings, we may cut off from our bodies and, subsequently, from relationships and our sense of self. Our body images and body identity may become intertwined with shame. Self-hatred and self-loathing can get lodged in the body and be about the body. In addition, when living in a culture that over-valuates appearance and youth, a body that does not fit the media ideals, an aging body, or a disabled body is more susceptible to internalization of shame-based messages.
A Healing Path
We don’t like to talk about shame. It is hard. It is uncomfortable. More than anything, it is painful. As a result, we shy away from vulnerability and openness about our shame states, leaving us ashamed of being ashamed, denying our experiences, and remaining silent, isolated, and disconnected. A study by Keith, Gillanders, and Simpson (2009) found that even after eating disorder behaviors were successfully reduced, there were still significant concerns with shame. For many with eating disorders, suffering shows up in the form of shame.
While we would prefer to prevent shame-inducing experiences, it is a reality of life that people, young and old, all throughout the life span, are confronted with emotional, physical, financial, spiritual, or social adversities with potential for activating shame. The question then becomes how we best support those who have been affected by significantly stressful life situations and help them develop resiliency in the face of adversity.
We cannot change the past; we cannot make painful situations go away. We cannot cut off painful parts of ourselves and replace them with something else. What we can do is the inner work required to reduce the impact and expand our capacity and potential for resilience in the face of painful life experiences.
Resilience is breath. Resilience is light. Resilience is open-handedness versus clenched fists and gripping. It is a dynamic process that we have some control over.
Psychological resilience has been defined as the ability to maintain or recover mental health in the face of adversity. The idea of being mentally healthy means we can feel our feelings and remain present with a wide range of emotions. This present-mindedness creates space for healthy emotional expression and the real emergence of our true authentic self. Resilience does not mean we are unharmed or unaffected by trauma or adversity. It is instead a set of adaptive behaviors and coping strategies to manage what has happened to us or the difficulties we encounter in our lives.
Brené Brown’s (2006) research has put forth the shame resilience theory, which places resiliency and shame on opposite ends of a continuum. On one end are the concerns of being deep in shame, such as feeling trapped, isolated, or powerless. On the other side are the elements of resilience such as connection, experiencing empathy from another, having power, and feeling freedom. She suggests from her research that the elements of shame resilience are: recognizing and accepting personal vulnerability, having critical awareness about sociocultural expectations, forming mutually empathic relationships, and having the language to speak about shame.
Healing requires going deeper, beyond the symptoms, to our inner world, where we must become acquainted with ourselves anew. This is a slow and nonlinear process. There is no shortcut for moving through our pain, grief, and shame toward healing, light, and peace. Yet there is hope. There are antidotes to shame.
For many, this requires giving up what has felt saving, such as the isolated world filled with self-protective eating disorder behaviors. The eating disorder was not something the person chose; however, the work of recovery and healing necessitates choice. The work of shame is about more than making the unconscious conscious (which is also needed); it must also go beyond into the realm of relational repair. This need not happen with the person with whom one experienced the rupture, but it does need to happen with a safe and trusting other, most of the time a therapist who has worked with their own shame narratives and can show up for the journey with another. This can also happen in the context of group therapy, where that which is hidden and marginalized can be understood and witnessed in the presence of others.
The following is distilled from the work of researchers, clinicians, and thought leaders who inspire my clinical work and research on this topic: Gershen Kaufman, Paul Gilbert, Michael Berrett, Carl Jung, Marion Woodman, Jack Kornfield, Kristin Neff, Emily Esfahani Smith, Patricia DeYoung, and Brené Brown.
Relational psychotherapist Patricia DeYoung (2015) beautifully states, “Shame needs light and air.” I offer the following non-exhaustive list of a few keys that are rooted in the intent to build and uncover resilience and give shame that much-needed light and air.
- Connecting to ourselves with mindfulness and self-compassion.
At the heart of healing shame is turning inward toward our pain and nurturing our capacity to relate to ourselves with a sense of kindness and care. I have been deeply moved and affected by the work of Paul Gilbert and his development of compassion-focused therapy and compassionate mind training, as well as the good works of self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, with her offerings to us about the power of extending kindness to ourselves.
Ancient wisdom from many spiritual traditions tells us that the principles of compassion and self-compassion are key on the way through our suffering, our pain, and the hardships we endure as humans.
Neff (2003) defines self-compassion as “an attitude of kindness and acceptance toward one’s personal distress and disappointments.” She identifies three major dimensions:
- Self-Kindness: offering ourselves understanding instead of punishment
- Common humanity: recognizing that everyone suffers
- Mindfulness: holding a balanced awareness of our experiences in life
Her work suggests that we extend compassion toward our inner critic and recognize how it is trying to help us. What tends not to be as helpful is immediately moving to affirmations from the critic that tell you otherwise. There is first a need for curiosity and for those darker and more uncomfortable feelings to be acknowledged, validated, and understood. Only then can one start to practice self-compassion, calming the threat system and fully including the body, mind, and spirit. This allows the compassionate aspect of one’s self to be increasingly present in one’s life. This is the essence of extending self-compassion toward our suffering.
Gilbert (2009) utilizes the Buddhist definition of compassion and emphasizes a two-part psychology that includes a sensitivity and turning toward suffering accompanied by a commitment to alleviate or do something about it. This requires us to turn toward our shame as the expression of our suffering. If your shame-based identity tells you that you are worthless, then it is essential to explore this feeling of worthlessness, validate that experience and the experiences that led to that feeling, and then act to alleviate it. This is something that simply isn’t natural for most of us. However, we can train our brains to relate gently to ourselves and reduce the suffering of self-hate, shame, and self-criticism. One of the important aspects of this work is developing compassion as an identity. Compassion-focused therapy uses a soothing breathing rhythm, images, and various experiential techniques to develop a compassionate ideal and move closer toward a compassionate self-identity.
Michael Berrett, a psychologist and the founder and recently retired CEO of Center for Change, shared these questions with me to help us dive deeper into the experience of self-compassion and responsibility:
- What was I thinking?
- What was I feeling?
- What did I need at that time?
- What did I do to strive to meet my need?
- What was I trying to accomplish/hoping for?
- What was the true intent of my heart?
We need a capacity to affirm ourselves and view ourselves as having a sense of well-being and worthiness even in the face of failure or rejection or broken interpersonal bridges. The work and practice of self-compassion gives us this opportunity.
- Challenging the impulse to keep secrets
Shame and secrets go hand in hand. They fester in the shadowy spaces of our inner landscape, becoming toxic if we do not talk about them. Deconstructing shame is an essential aspect of the recovery process. We need to tell our stories from a place of compassion and authenticity and have our experiences legitimized, witnessed, and validated. Brown emphasizes that we need people we can count on and trust to hear us with empathy and love when we decide to speak about our shame and tell our stories with vulnerability. This can be a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. It is essential to explore incidents of shame and both offer to ourselves and receive from others understanding for our reactions in those moments. The role of the therapist in this is to create an environment and host a relational experience that does not drag, but gently invites shame out into the light. These stories may explore what it was like in our family growing up, what our key peer relationships were like, or how emotions were handled, as some examples. Through this exploration, we can learn more about our values and our sense of inner truth, and make movements toward wholeness—which must include the light and beauty as well as the dark and imperfect.
- Exploring identity and expression of the authentic self
We naturally compare ourselves to others. What matters is what we think about and what meaning we make about those differences. Can we value our uniqueness and see the beauty in differences? Or do we strive for perfectionism and try to become like another we think is better?
A shame-based identity becomes the filter through which the world is viewed. Feelings of not being enough or being insignificant affect relationships, love, work, and spirituality. Moving past shame is about understanding and accepting who we are and worrying less about who we are not.
In those with eating disorders, we often see shame bound with identity confusion. Clients often describe feeling fragmented into separate parts and that those parts can feel categorized into good or bad. A therapist may serve as a guide for the exploration of questions such as, “Who am I? What is my purpose? What are my values? What do I like? Who am I, apart from being someone with an eating disorder? Where am I headed?”
It is of great worth to spend time retrieving the rejected, lost, or split off parts of ourselves and to welcome them back home. This integration allows a more authentic and whole expression of identity separate from an eating disorder and separate from shame. This work is closely tied to the journey of becoming a more self-compassionate person.
- Committing to establishing connections and finding belonging
If shame is about rejection, feeling different or not worthy of connection, then healing must include maximizing connections and a sense of belonging. Shame makes us feel separate from others. Restoration of what was broken matters deeply in the healing process. In considering shame as the breaking of the interpersonal bridge, relationships are an essential aspect of the healing.
It doesn’t have to happen with the person whom you felt shamed by and oftentimes will not. This healing can come through a new significant person in your life—a partner, friend, or therapist.
Resilient people reach out for help even when it is hard. In connectedness, there is mutual empathy. We delve more deeply into the lives of one another, seeking to understand, listen, share, and have our light and dark aspects seen through the eyes of love. From this place of connectedness, shame can be brought out from the shadow into the light. Again, the practice of compassion and self-compassion can help us nurture relationships that have depth and authenticity.
- Cultivating a sense of meaning and purpose
Emily Esfahani Smith (2017) writes about the four pillars of a meaningful life, identifying them as: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. The moving writings of Viktor Frankl remind us that in the face of great adversity and unimaginable suffering, finding or maintaining a sense of meaning is what makes the difference between giving up and finding a life worth living. He wrote, “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” Love shows up in each of these pillars.
You can see from these four pillars that there is much overlap in the other ideas presented here about healing. We need connection and belonging to challenge the isolation of shame. We need purpose and places to express our authentic selves, access our compassion for self and others, and give back to the world. We need storytelling to counter the secrecy that binds us when we are in a shame-based state. We need transcendent moments where we feel connected to something bigger than us. We need love, from others and ourselves, for our imperfect parts.
We can find these moments and opportunities all around us, in our everyday life. It may be through an interaction with someone at a store, volunteering in our community, taking a nature walk, gathering leaves, feeling the rain on our face, helping someone we see in need, or sharing our story to help someone else. Finding meaning and purpose is about making the world a better place by showing up with our wholeness, with a willingness to be vulnerable, connect, and listen carefully to our inner voice and the voices of others.
There is light and hope for healing from shame. We see from the ideas outlined here that there are opportunities in everyday life to engage with our healing potential. We can learn emotional resilience and develop an inner sense of security and trust in others and ourselves. We can develop well-being and increase our joy and sense of safety in the world at any point in our lives. We do this through paying attention to our breath, through inviting our light and dark parts to come together to an integrated place of wholeness, through turning toward our suffering with kindness and an intention to alleviate our suffering, through connecting with other humans on the journey, and through helping to make the world a better place by sharing our story and cultivating hope.
I leave you with two things:
A piece from a Walt Whitman poem, “Song of the Open Road”:
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
And a loving kindness meditation from Jack Kornfield:
May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy.
About the author:
Dr. Nikki Rollo completed a Ph.D. in Depth Psychology, with an emphasis in psychotherapy and is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in both California and New York. Additionally, she has a Master’s Degree in Social Sciences where she focused on issues of immigration, gender, and trauma.
She has worked in various aspects of mental health and eating disorder treatment for fifteen years. She is a specialist in program development, staff training, admissions, business development and clinical outreach aspects of eating disorder work. Integral to her clinical philosophy is her personal practice of yoga and meditation including completing a yoga teacher training with an emphasis on trauma-sensitive mind-body movement.
She is the founding chair of the IAEDP San Diego Chapter, and has served on the boards including LA, Central Coast, Orange County, and Boston. She is a member of CA Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Jungian Studies.
She currently serves in the role of National Director of Program Development for Reasons Eating Disorder Center and Center for Change. Her areas of special interest include body image, the subtle body, compassion, meditation, mindful movement, and depth psychotherapy.
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