Understanding & healing from shame

By Helen Tanner

Shame – we’ve all felt it, but for some of us its power becomes all-consuming. Until we’ve looked it in the eye, and consciously refused to believe its words, our lives will be shaped, shrunk, and dictated by it. Only when we heal from shame can we become who we’re really meant to be. But to do this, we must first understand it.

Shame is the ultimate painful story. Like the Ugly Duckling that felt it was too big, too unattractive, too different, it has us believe at the core of our being that there is something wrong with us. It whispers and sometimes shouts that we’re not good enough. It tells us we’re bad, we’re broken, and that we don’t deserve love, because we’re worthless.

These are such deeply powerful words, no wonder our reaction is so intense when we hear them, or worse, they’re directed at us. And when a part of us agrees, we feel such humiliation and pain in our heart.

The compass of shame

We respond to those feelings in four fundamental ways – sometimes referred to as the compass of shame . 1 The Compass of Shame, Nathanson 1992

Firstly, we withdraw, we isolate ourselves, because we don’t want others to see, or know our failings – just like the Ugly Duckling that spent the winter alone, miserable, and hiding from others. But there are deep and harmful repercussions to this, including anxiety and depression.

The second way we might respond is in harming ourselves, mentally or physically. We tell ourselves how stupid and pathetic we are, and sometimes we self sabotage, through eating disorders, self-harm, and ultimately even suicide. 1

We might even attack others. We can’t bear to feel our shame because it’s so hard to deal with, so we push it out as violence or bullying, particularly towards those who are different and more vulnerable than us.

The fourth way we might deal with shame is through distracting ourselves through addiction, whether it’s drinking, drugs, or thrill seeking. Again, it’s just another mechanism to avoid experiencing that suffering.

However we deal with it, shame causes intense inner conflict. We might actively seek love for example, but deep down, believe we’re not lovable. So we start relationships thinking they’ll be different yet subconsciously we’re still trying to make our external and inner worlds match up, repeating behaviours that sabotage our success.


The roots of shame

Before we can heal, we also have to understand where shame comes from. We’re not born with it. It’s something we learn through repetition, like riding a bike, and it comes very early on in our development, in those formative years when we’re still developing and dependent on our caregivers, and looking for validation of who we are.

Then, throughout our lives – at home, at school, at work, and in our relationships – every time we make a mistake and are told we’re stupid or bad, we feel these intense shame feelings.

The more we hear this about ourselves the more believable it becomes, and the more difficult to step outside of. We become the sum of our behaviours and the stories we’ve been told about these behaviours, and it blocks us. It stops us from being who we should be and who we can be because we dim our light; we withhold our gifts and live much smaller than is right for us.


Taking the path to healing

The antidote is to re-find the truth that we have value, and the power to create rather than destruct. This comes through shining a light onto it – we have to face shame to unhook from its grip, and to stop ourselves from passing it on. Yet because this seems counter-intuitive, our instinct is to move away.

In the self-compassion and forgiveness process, we face our shame early on. While we might associate forgiveness as something we offer to others who have hurt us, it can be equally applied as a ‘medicine’ to ourselves – a salve for the pain and suffering we have caused ourselves through our judgment, blame, shame and guilt.

Forgiveness literally means to ‘give away’ – so removing the barriers shame puts in our way to becoming the loving being that is our true nature. The great news is, that although shame holds the power whilst it’s in the shadow of our awareness, once we apply some good old-fashioned love and self-compassion, its power quickly declines.

Self-compassion and forgiveness is a process. The first step is to make sure we feel safe and protected, because we can’t heal under the conditions that caused our suffering in the first place.

Then, when we are ready to embark on this journey, there are many ways we can help ourselves heal. Telling others with a willingness to be vulnerable is one – as professor and author Brené Brown says: “If we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”

We also need to bring awareness to our situation, to understand what we’ve held to be true for what it is, and how we’ve responded to what we’ve believed.

Once we realise that shame, and shame messages, are always an untruth, we can start to believe that we are valuable, that we have a purpose, and that we are love, and then we heal our shame story. Just like the Ugly Duckling when it realised it was a beautiful swan, we begin to see the true reflection of who we are, recognise our worth, and blossom.

About Helen

Helen will be offering Creative Psychotherapy Sessions, Reiki Healing, and her unique Self-Compassion & Forgiveness Programmes on Wednesday afternoons & evenings from the 2nd of November 2022 at the Wellness Hub in Falmouth.

Explore her work here: helentanner.com

Contact Helen on 07768968189 or email at helen@helentanner.com to book a session.