About You

Can Shame be Healthy?

“She walked through mud and dung, bleeding, goosefleshed, hobbling. All around her was a dabble of sound…”Shame, shame, shame, shame on the sinner,” chanted the Septas… Bells were ringing, ringing, riging… This is my penance, Ceisei told herself. I have sinned most grievously, this is my atonement. It will be over soon, it will be behind me, then I can forget.”

Extract from: A Dance with Dragons 2: After the Feast by George R.R. Martin

To build a house, one needs essential equipment. Cement for the foundation. Wood for the frames. Tiles for the roof. The emotional building blocks of human beings are no different. Shame is one of our building blocks.

The core reason for shame is guidance and protection. As it is a natural human response – we will always experience it. When we act against our values or beliefs, shame is an ordinary response directing us against that action in the future.

Shame is formed during infancy (Bradshaw 2005:10). Once trust is established between the child and caregiver, shame follows. Bradshaw explains that healthy shame is a mechanism used to aid decision making process of establishing boundaries, likes, dislikes and values. As we get grow, exploration and experience help fine tune these principles on an individual basis.

Unhealthy Shame

Once shame is internalised, it can become toxic. The secrecy of internalising feeds on the self and is destructive. Left too long, it affects the perception we have of ourselves and others, affecting our relationships. It also skews our inner voice to one of judgement.

The masks of shame called humiliation and punishment overshadow the consideration of forgiveness and release. Humiliation replaces expression while atonement stifles the process of emancipation.

Internalised shame has been termed to the Master Emotion (Bradshaw 2005:81) as it has the ability to wrap itself around other emotions and incubate it. Without a clear view into the incubator, one may lose sight of what he or she is actually feeling.

Healthy Shame

Forgiveness is the remedy to releasing shame. It is the act of coming clean. Expression could come in the form of writing, confiding to a safe ear, therapy, confession, whichever feels the safest and most healing. Forgiving yourself and accepting who you are, as you are, removes the ego and brings your closer to wisdom (Bradshaw 2005:9).

John Bradshaw (2005:7) explains that humans are meant to embrace the absolute truth that we do not have ultimate control. Once we let go or the idea of complete authority of ourselves, others and life in general, we give ourselves permission to be human. And gifted with free will, we will all make mistakes. But when shame rears its head, we are to be wise enough to identify our boundary, forgive ourselves and learn from the experience.

References: Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw

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