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What do shame and Voldemort have in common?

For many, shame is the Voldemort of feelings. It is “the feeling which must not be named”   To talk about shame seems almost shameful. It can be scary and disconnecting.  Shame is often thought to be an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, which is hard since deep down many people think they need to be perfect in order to be valued; “If I were just good (perfect, smart, thoughtful, skilled, fill in the blank) enough, everything would turn out right and everyone would love me.”  Unfortunately, life often does not unfold as people hope and expect. When it doesn’t they feel shame and take it as proof that they are right when they think to themselves, “I am not enough.”  ICK!!!  

If you have ever had a thought like the one above  I am going to set the record straight right now.  You are enough. You are perfect with all your wounds, all your strengths, all your struggles.  Everything will not turn out as you hope and expect all of the time (probably rarely) not because of anything lacking in you but because that’s the beautiful challenge of being human.  Life will constantly challenge you to stretch and grow, with one of your biggest lessons being to love and accept yourself and your life as it is.  With this acceptance you can move forward constructively, and perhaps, even joyfully, with what is rather than get stuck in what isn’t.    

Back to the shame of shame.  It’s important to talk about shame because it plays a significant role in how we connect with others.  I consider shame the fear of rejection, exclusion and disconnection.  It represents the loss of what brings meaning and happiness into life, which for most is, being of value to others.  The funny thing is, when a person is feeling shame and fearing a loss of connection, they often respond to shame in a way which results in exactly what they fear.  It’s their response to shame, not the act which precedes the shame, which disconnects them and is harmful to the relationships they are wanting to nurture.  

D.L. Nathanson developed the Compass of Shame to demonstrate the destructive and disconnecting ways individuals react when they feel shame.   In his compass he identifies four common responses to shame. They are:

  • • Withdrawal—running away, hiding or isolating self
  • • Attack self—verbally insulting  (assaulting) self, masochism
  • • Avoidance—denial, distraction, substance abuse (such as food, drug, risky behavior)
  • • Attack others—lashing out physically or verbally on others.
 (Wachtel, 2015)

(Wachtel, 2015)

It’s likely that a person’s destructive response to shame will include multiple responses, hitting more than one point on the compass. I know this happens to me.  I may find myself shouting at my son while simultaneously engaging in a silent verbal attack on myself, followed by silence with and withdrawal from my partner.   How a person responds is also likely influenced by the environment they are in.  At work one may withdraw and attack self, at home they may attack others or avoid.  How do you respond to shame in your different relationships? With your kids?  Your partner?  Your parents? Your boss or co-workers? Your friends?  What about those around you?  What behavior patterns do you observe in them that could be attributed to shame?  What do your responses to shame teach you about the needs you are prioritizing in your different relationships?

Why does all this matter?  Because shame doesn’t have to be disconnecting.  Understanding shame and your responses, and the responses of others, empowers you respond to shame, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, differently.  There IS a way to respond to shame that can nurture and strengthen relationships. Giving a person the opportunity to have their feelings and needs heard and received without judgement can not only repair the disconnection which results from shame but also build trust and deepen intimacy.  It’s simple, yet it requires courage, clarity, truth, a willingness to be vulnerable AND compassion. This is one of the reasons nonviolent communication works so well to build and maintain connection. It gives people the framework they need to clearly express their thoughts and their feelings, including those around shame, have their needs heard and make a request to meet their needs.  

So how to respond to shame?  When thinking about shame, the first unspoken request which needs to be addressed is usually “please tell me I’m good enough.”  The compassionate, and in my heart and mind, truthful answer to anyone who asks that question is, “you are good enough.”  From there, with support, the specific fears and needs alive in the situation can be addressed by all involved.  

Next name the thoughts, feelings and needs at the source of the shame.  When you witness any of the four responses to shame named on the compass, ask yourself, what might this person -sometimes yourself- be feeling shameful about?  

Lastly, use these questions (which are a combination of nonviolent communication and the affective questions used in restorative practices) to explore what’s alive in this situation for everyone involved;

“What happened?” “What are you you thinking about what happened?”  “What are you feeling?” “Who was (or is being) affected by this?” “How?” “What are the underlying needs represented by these thoughts and feelings?”  “What are you needing to make things right?”  “What would you like to ask yourself or others for?”

Don’t get stuck on stories - history, herstory, ourstory.  Stories of what has been are useful in that they show us what matters to a person, (i.e. a person whose story is “people always leave me” indicates that person has a strong need for predictability, consistency and trust), but beyond that they are quick sand drowning one in a perception of life with no room for growth and change.   Focus on what you and others need to move forward.  Give each other the space and the support to repair any harm done as well as any resulting disconnection.  

This process requires participants to be vulnerable, sharing their feelings, admitting their needs, and asking for support.  That said, the risk of vulnerability is well worth the reward of vulnerability.  It’s our shared vulnerability which allows us to realize we are not alone with our shame and to face together our fears encapsulated in the thought “I’m not enough” mentioned in the beginning of this post.  Together we can do the work to discover the beautiful and divine perfection which lies within our messy selves and realize that shame is nothing to be shameful of but a tool to connect with compassion.  With this we can realize, individually and collectively, not only are we enough, but also it is our imperfection which makes us divinely, beautifully, perfectly enough.

If you want to explore shame or any other topic mentioned here further, call me to schedule a free in person or remote (phone or online) consultation.  I work with individuals, couples, families, and communities to build strong relationships using restorative practices and nonviolent communication.   Liesbet Bickett, 510-393-7588, liesbet@bickett.net