What is Shame?
I asked my father, who I consider to be very wise, for a working definition of shame and he replied without skipping a beat, “Being called out on a third strike ‘looking’.” For my father, that is probably the most shame-inducing experience he could imagine, but oh, for the rest of us if it were only that easy.
I posed the same question to my best friend, who I believe is equally as wise and she responded, “Shame makes me think of feeling exposed and WRONG. Not just embarrassed, but like something is wrong with me. Judged. Naked. Exposed. Disapproved of. Feeling shame feels like I didn’t just make a bad choice, but I AM bad. I AM wrong. Shame says I’m not enough. I’m not lovable, or as lovable as I want to be.”
That felt more true to the experiences I have ever had and resonates with what I hear from my clients.
Why Do We Feel Shame?
So here’s the crazy thing, shame has been around as long as humans have been, it continues to evolve with us and it is universal among cultures. Why as humans would we evolve something that makes us lie, cheat, steal or worse?
Based on studies conducted throughout the world the argument is that like pain, shame evolved as a defense.
Daniel Sznycer, a professor at UCSB and lead author of the research published on the subject in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2016 stated that the evolution of “pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue. The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships or to motivate us to repair them.”
The article goes on to say that because our ancestors used to live in extremely small cooperative groups your life depended on others valuing you enough to give you and your children food, protection, and care. The more you are valued, the more effort they would put into helping you more and harming you less.
The flip side is if you are devalued they helpless and harm more. Their theory from this research is called the “Threat Theory of Shame.”
The research states “What is key is that life in our ancestors’ world selected for a neural program-shame– that today makes you care about how much others value you, and motivates you to avoid or conceal things that would trigger negative reevaluations of you by others.”
What’s remarkable about this theory, if it is true, is that it has completely backfired! Shame, unless intentionally challenged as it is felt, drives us into isolation; it does not push us towards reconciliation or repair.
Postpartum Depression and Shame
The birth of a child is supposed to be this wonder-filled euphoric moment in which the bond between mother and child is eternally cemented. The “belief” is that women instinctually know exactly what to do in every moment as if each newborn comes with its own personal instruction manual.
For so many women the experience is the exact opposite, which is fertile ground for shame to fester and grow.
Kaylee Scottaline described feeling all of the core components of shame in her article Postpartum Depression: My Shameful Secret, “I couldn’t pick up my daughter by myself to feed her-helplessness. When I was holding her, feeding her, snuggling her, I didn’t feel that connection any longer. I didn’t feel any different than when I’d held other people’s babies-guilt. After returning home, my pains were so bad that I couldn’t walk to the bathroom without support. I would up back in the hospital exactly one week after my daughter was born. I had an infection-defeated. My baby could only stay with me if someone else was with me 24/7-scared.”
New Moms Need a Supportive Community
Shame is very individualistic as if someone created a poison specific to our DNA.
As new moms, we hear the voices of generations that have come before us in this timeless pursuit. Words like “intuitive,” “immediately bonded,” and “joyous,” wring in our ears and can land on our hearts sounding more like “failure,” “weakness,” and “worthless.” Here is where the antidote comes in.
Author and speaker Brene Brown said, “As a shame researcher, I know that the very best thing to do in the midst of a shame attack is totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out.” Often when we are experiencing shame, the thought of reaching out feels like we will only make our circumstance worse.
Shame would have us suffer in silence and is best friends with negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is our inner-critic; it is the voice in our head that judges you, doubts you, belittle you and constantly tells you that you are not good enough.
New moms, in particular, need supportive community and benefit from reaching out to other women (not just other moms by the way) to remind us who we are, the values that personally define us and the individual strengths that can reground us in a healthy way. In this process, the need for unconditionally supportive community cannot be emphasized enough and is the subject of my next article in this series.
Acknowledge Your Worth and Practice Self-Compassion
Imagine a small child learning to ride a bike. Would we scream at them and call them “stupid” or “worthless” every time they fell off? No! We would go over and comfort them, wipe their tears, put a band-aid on their scraped knee, and tell them with each attempt that they will learn more and it will soon come as second nature. We would be compassionate and gentle.
Can we not do the same for ourselves?
One step out of the mire of shame is acknowledging our own worth and practicing self-compassion. Extend to ourselves the same grace we would give to someone else that was trying as hard as they could to master an activity that is never the same from one day to the next and where the rules change on a dime.
“Self-compassion is key because when we are able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect and experience empathy,” states Brene Brown. If we can practice self-compassion we can move away from defeating judgment of ourselves and post-partum depression, and towards healing and restoration.