Talking about shame can be difficult, it is one of those elephants in the room topics. You know it is there and you feel its presence but looking at it directly can be hard. It is there but often ignored in the hope that it will go away. Shame shows up in us in different ways. Sometimes we feel it physically in our bodies like a rush of warmth, like a flush, a sense of shrinking, a wish not to be seen and hide. Sometimes we notice it in our thoughts or the critical way we speak to ourselves, telling us how wrong or bad or stupid we are. The impact of shame can affect our feelings, we may notice anger, sadness or fear, particularly if it is accompanied by humiliation. Once the shame shows up, or even if we expect it to appear, we can change our behaviour to try to stop it or to attempt to reduce the impact it may have over us. We may try to change us or hide and not been seen or notice our wish to pull back and disappear. Others who feel shame become much more self-determined and also sometimes self-righteous to cover up the shame they feel.
Once we are triggered into a shame reaction it can overwhelm us and make us feel out of control. Sometimes we cannot bear it and it can break us. Similarly, to a traumatic response, we may notice ourselves wanting to flee, fight or freeze. The importance of looking at shame when working with people who have addiction is that a strange thing can happen. Shame can be passed from one person (who it belongs to), to another to hold on their behalf. Without realising it we can pick up that shame and wear it like an overcoat even when it does not belong to us. We can believe that it is our own and learn to shame ourselves without help from anyone else.
Shame can drag you down so we want to help you explore the shame you may feel, make sure it all belongs to you and not another person, and find ways to move from shame to self-acceptance. There are many books to read or online resources about shame that may help you understand it as a concept. Whilst this can be useful, it is most helpful to manage your reaction to it alongside your understanding and you cannot do this so well by reading and understanding. You need other people alongside to manage the relational aspects of shame.
- by Sally Openshaw