Lets Talk About Shame…

I imagine the title of this post, can easily transport you to a time where you have felt that painful flush of shame… so what is shame, what’s it about and why do we experience it?

Shame triggers the fundamental belief in us that we are worthless. Think about a time when you have experienced that hot flush of shame, and notice what you were thinking and experiencing. Often people feel suddenly very visible and vulnerable (everyone is going to see me turning beetroot red), you may feel you should be ashamed, and experience feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and that you are not deserving of more. Sounds horrible doesn’t it? And because it feels so horrible, its not generally an experience we are very self compassionate about.

Shame can be seen as a form of self loathing, or self attack, and it harms our very perception of who we are, it feels like who we are. People experience shame for many reasons, and difficult childhood experiences, relationships and trauma, all contribute to how we experience ourselves in relationship with others, and also how we experience our shame gremlins. When feeling shamed, you may feel ashamed of your emotions, ashamed of being assertive or ‘seen’, or ashamed to have needs, wants and views of your own. Because you’re not important or good enough right? (Yes, you are, but more on that later).

So, when you’re experiencing those things we just explored, not surprisingly, it has a significant impact on how you are in the world. Shame is relational. It impacts your relationship with yourself, and with others around you. Shame gets in the way of you knowing and holding your own boundaries. It can lead to experiencing difficulties in caring for yourself, difficulties in asking for what you need, and with asking for your boundaries to be respected by others. Notice how the pervasive nature of shame impacts you in relationship with other people – this is not surprising when its origins are often found in those difficult early relationships and attachments with others.

It’s important to acknowledge that shame can also be common amongst minority and disadvantaged communities, for example communities of black and indigenous people of colour, disabled or differently abled communities, and the LGBTQIA+ community. Cultural beliefs and behaviours can also play a part in our shame stories; in some cultures there is a strong emphasis on ‘good behaviour’ (as is defined by that particular culture). Compliance with expectations may be achieved by shaming any behaviours which are outside of cultural norms, or using fear to achieve acceptable behaviour. Shame ultimately facilitates compliance.. being seen and not heard.

Overwhelmed parents and caregivers may also use shame and anger to keep children under some kind of socially acceptable control. This isn’t unusual or surprising when you explore the context. Parents or caregivers who were shamed as children themselves, often become parents/caregivers who are anxious about their own children behaving well, and not shamefully. Their own parental blueprint from growing up, leads to the use of shame in their own parenting, to reduce what they perceive as unacceptable behaviour and thus increasing acceptance and reducing anxiety. So, whilst shame feels horrible and icky, it can be consciously or unconsciously utilised to establish socially and culturally acceptable behaviours, which leads to people ‘fitting in’ more and thus potentially reducing exclusion or isolation.

Of course, one of the difficulties with this, is that children don’t understand that parents and caregivers get overwhelmed; that they are humans with limitations, and financial constraints. They just experience the world, and their parent’s behaviours, in their emotions and their bodies. If shame and anger are used to manage children’s behaviours, and this is accompanied by pervasive abuse or neglect, then children will experience an increasing sense of shame, and accompanying negative belief systems. It’s really important that children are able to hold their parents as ‘okay’, because developmentally, emotionally and physically, they are reliant on them to have their needs met. When those needs aren’t met, it’s safer for the child to believe that this is because they have done something wrong, or that they are not good enough – because this means they can try harder, do better; change their parents or caregivers behaviours. So for children who have grown up in households where their needs have been unable to be met within those important attachment relationships, they can be left with an enduring sense of not being good enough, and those internal shame gremlins will keep knocking on the door. As adults, the young traumatised internal parts of the self, may still believe that they are not good enough to be cared about, or fed, clothed, loved, etc.

When a child experiences fear, it is often internalised shame which will help them to respond in a way which reduces the risk of punishment. This can lead to a real burden of shame, when growing up with parents or caregivers who feel scary or shaming. The child who experiences always having to be quiet, being told they are stupid, or idiotic, in the way, or that their feelings, thoughts and behaviours are unimportant, may show up as withdrawn, with poor eye contact, holding their bodies in small defensive ways, or as angry (to cover over the shame gremlins) or emotionally shut down and disconnected.

That all sounds a bit miserable doesn’t it… and Im wondering if you’re reading this, what comes up for you. If you need to, take a moment to pause and reflect on your own experiences of shame, and how this has impacted you, or protected you. Remember, that although those shame gremlins feel horrible, they have helped you to get by in the world, to fit in with social norms, and maybe to stay safe.

How do we help people, when shame feels like the very essence of who we are? Brene Brown, a well known shame researcher, identifies how shame gives us a fundamental belief that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. It keeps us disconnected, fearful, and prevents us from being compassionate towards those parts of our selves which are hurting. This is very different to our experiences of guilt, which can be adaptive and helpful – guilt is holding something we’ve done or failed to do, up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

Shame is a signal to shut up. We feel it physiologically in our bodies. Our throat closes, we avoid direct eye contact, and will unconsciously adopt a more submissive and non threatening body posture. These are all adaptive responses when we need to be compliant and submissive, because on some level, either in or out of awareness, we are feeling unsafe. However, if compliance and submission feels life threatening, it can evoke a different response for example a fight or flight response. Cultural and societal influences, and gender stereotyping in our developing years has lead to women generally responding more submissively when feeling shamed, whereas men may respond with an angry fight response – it can feel less safe for them to be vulnerable due to those societal and cultural expectations growing up (toughen up, don’t cry, don’t be a wuss etc). What do you notice you experience when you feel shame, or experience being shamed? What messages do you give yourself about your response? Are they kind and compassionate, or self critical? I invite you to think about your own shame gremlins in the context of your experiences, and then to really consider the following two assumptions…

“Im worthless, and stupid, and its my fault…”


It was an ingenious way of surviving difficult stuff, and its kept me safe….

You are important. You matter. Your needs are important, and you are allowed to have boundaries, and to ask for them to be respected. When you notice those shame gremlins popping their heads up, I invite you to try pausing for a moment and observing with a compassionate part of yourself. Notice what you are experiencing, how you feel, and what thoughts come up… what’s triggered your shame gremlins into feeling like they need to come and protect you. What do you need in that moment to help you feel safe?

Shame dies when stories are told in safe spaces…

Ann Voskamp

What are your thoughts about Shame? Drop me a message below…. and please take care of yourself when posting. Lynda

Boundaries, Uncategorized

Boundaries, Intimacy and Feeling Safe

Im wondering how many of you, experience conflict – both internally, and with others, around intimacy, boundaries, and feeling safe?

If you have experienced childhood sexual abuse, or sexual trauma as an adult, physical intimacy can feel scary and unsafe.  Please know, that this is common, and completely understandable. This can create internal experiences of conflict and frustration, as you may ‘know’ cognitively that you are safe, but your body responds to experiences of intimacy with a fear response, leading to a felt sense of being unsafe. 

For example, you may experience an increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, racing thoughts, being unable to move, being ‘jumpy’, or a need to escape.  This is a normal response to trauma which is unprocessed.  At the same time, you may want to be intimate and close with your partner, and it’s not uncommon for people to experience guilt or shame that they feel unable to do so.  It can lead to conflict between partners, and if your partner doesn’t know why this his happening they may feel confused and rejected.

As humans, we are very used to giving affection and sharing intimacy, without checking if this is okay for the other person.  If it’s someone we care about, we tend to assume that they will be fine with being hugged/touched affectionately, because they also care about us.  In many ways we are brought up culturally to do this as young children; ‘give your (relative) a kiss/hug’ etc.  However this doesn’t teach us that its okay to have ownership of our body, and for others to have ownership of their body. 

It’s considerate to ask, and it’s okay to say no.

There are lots of ways in which people are physically intimate.  It may be that you feel okay with some kinds of intimacy and not with others.  For example you may feel okay sitting close to your partner on the sofa whilst watching TV, but feel anxious about the sides of your bodies touching whilst doing so, or holding hands.  Some of this will also depend on context, and how you are feeling in the moment.  It’s common for people who have experienced sexual trauma, to become extremely anxious at the smallest moment of intimacy, because they fear that it will lead to an expectation of a more intimate physical connection or sex.  This can lead to a complete avoidance of any physical intimacy altogether.

Have a moment to think about different ways you can be intimate; what feels okay for you, and what doesn’t?  Notice how you feel in your body when you think about it, what does this mean for you?

There are important parts to feeling able to connect intimately with someone.  Let’s look at them in turn, and consider how you can take care of yourselves in establishing safe intimacy….

  • Asking Permission.

Okay, so if you’re not accustomed to doing this, its probably going to feel a bit odd to start with!  But, this is where its helpful if you both are willing to engage with this, and experience it together.  Im inviting you to ask permission, for any form of physical closeness or intimacy.  You can do this seriously, in lighthearted, or fun ways, but be clear that you are making a request and are receptive to your partners response.  So, you might say, “I really fancy a hug, can we share a hug please?”,  or, “Can I hold your hand?”, or “Do you fancy a cuddle?”.  It can be helpful to avoid “I want…” but instead ask “Would you like to…..”.

It’s important to remember that if you are checking out whether your partner would like a hug, then this is what they are agreeing to if they agree.  So, if you’ve agreed on a hug, don’t assume they then are okay to have a kiss.  This is where boundaries come in.  By asking permission for specific intimacy, both people know what to expect.  This reduces anxiety about intimacy moving into something else, or that there will be an expectation of sex.

  • Hearing their response

In asking permission for intimacy, I’m inviting you to hear the response that the other person gives, and to respect it.  They may agree to your request, or they may not.  You may get a response which is something like “I don’t feel like it”, or “not right now thanks”.  This might feel very difficult and rejecting because it’s a new experience for you.  Part of this exercise is learning to feel okay with the response from the other person.  Depending on your own personal circumstances, it may feel hard to not experience this as rejection, or it may feel triggering.  It’s important to remember that by asking permission, you are also giving a permission for the other person to have control over their body and intimacy, and to make a choice.

  • Take a moment to think about your invitation for intimacy being turned down.  
  • What would this feel like for you?  
  • Do those feelings belong in the here and now, or do they remind you of some other situation which is triggering those feelings?

By respecting the response from the other person, you are hearing them and respecting their boundaries around their body and touch.  This can over time increase feelings of trust and safety between you both.

  • Being able to respond honestly.

This may feel incredibly difficult for you, if you have not had your boundaries respected previously, or have been unable to keep yourself safe from harm.  Many people feel unable to say no to requests for intimacy, and the request might trigger feelings of anxiety.  This is a common experience for people who have experienced sexual trauma.  Your nervous system is on alert, and is trying to keep you safe.

It might feel difficult, or impossible for you to say no.  This is common for people who have experienced sexual trauma, and can feel like a big hurdle.  If the thought of saying no to a request for physical intimacy makes you anxious or overwhelmed, its okay.  There are lots of different ways in which you can turn down physical intimacy.  It might be that you start with the less difficult ones, and work towards saying a verbal ‘no thanks’.  

Consent to physical intimacy is only if it is given clearly and unambiguously, eg ‘yes please’ or ‘yes, I would love to’.  An absence of a clear permission, means consent is not given.

It may be worth thinking about different ways in which you can decline, which feel safe for you, and manageable.  Here are some suggestions – have a think about them, maybe add your own, and rank them in terms of how able you feel to use them:

  • Shaking your head
  • Not responding at all (this can happen in a freeze response)
  • Holding your arms up in front of you, palms facing forwards
  • Crossing your arms around your body
  • Moving away
  • Using another agreed non verbal way of declining
  • Saying ‘thanks but not at the moment’
  • Saying ‘thanks, but I don’t feel like it right now’
  • Saying ‘no’ 

Once you are clearer about what feels manageable for you, I encourage you to share your feelings, particularly if a verbal decline feels not possible right now.  You could do this by writing it down if talking about it feels difficult.  By sharing this, the other person will be aware of your difficulties and how you might decline in a way which feels okay for you.

Remember that to begin with this might feel difficult, contrived or a bit odd or awkward – that’s okay!    It’s okay to acknowledge that, and share how you feel about it.  Over time, it tends to get easier, as you realise that you can make choices about your body and intimacy, and you can both choose to say no.  It can also enable the other person to feel more confident that when you say yes, that you really do mean yes.  Being able to know and verbalise your boundaries is empowering, and increases your felt sense of safety and wellbeing.

Is this helpful for you? Let me know how you feel, in the comments below. Please take care of yourself when posting. Lynda