a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of "wrong" or "foolish" behavior. It is the result of a judgement by ourselves - or by someone we admire - that we are not good enough in some way. We have all experienced shame at different times throughout our lives. For example, when my husband and I entered couples counseling because we were having difficulty in our relationship, I felt shame for not having relationship mastery as a therapist. I judged myself as not good enough.
Like all emotions, shame serves us and it has many functions. Sometimes shame works well for us. First, shame can function as a motivation to achieve. Many people work hard to avoid a shameful situation. Avoidance of failure (which would be shameful) is extremely motivating. Also, shame can communicate to and influence others. Facial expressions and body language are a hard-wired part of emotions. For example, if you are walked in on while using the toilet, you might try to cover up and hide yourself. This communicates that you do not want a private act to be exposed, and influences the person to leave quickly and close the door.
On the flip side, shame can also get in our way. Every emotion has an action urge, and shame's action urge is to hide, avoid, and shrink up. It's a sort of pushing ourselves away. If we're busy hiding and avoiding, we're certainly not taking any risks that may be necessary to grow and be our best selves. Also, shame is a result of a discrepancy of who we think we "should" be and who we really are. Our beliefs about who we "should" be may or may not be helpful, in fact, they might be self-defeating beliefs. They may be undermining our self-esteem. For example, a man believes that showing sadness is a sign of weakness, so when he cries at the loss of his dog he then also feels shame on top of the grief. With this in mind, it probably isn't a surprise that shame is highly correlated with depression and anxiety.
So what can we do about shame that isn't serving us?
The antidote is acceptance. Acceptance is the action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered; a willingness to tolerate a difficult or unpleasant situation. Acceptance is saying that We Are Enough. Acceptance is challenging self-defeating beliefs. Acceptance is knowing that this situation and our reactions make sense, it's what is, at least for this moment in time. Acceptance is acknowledging that "failure" is just a stepping stone toward our goals. Acceptance is understanding that no person is perfect all of the time and having compassion for those parts of us that are not. Acceptance is an attitude of openness, a willing stance. Taking an opposite action to shame's action urge of hiding: being willing to be open and show our true selves without judgement.
Try this exercise of a willing posture for acceptance:
1) Sit with your arms and legs uncrossed
2) Relax your body
3) Put your arms out, elbows slightly bent, with palms facing up
4) Tilt your chin slightly up and elongate your neck
4) Sit in this position for a minute or two and notice your thoughts and feelings. It is nearly impossible to feel shame.
Brene' Brown's Listening to Shame TED Talk
Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Emotion Regulation Module