Shame Archives - Embodied Living

If you get easily annoyed or lose your temper it may not be anger. Shame is a painful, visceral emotion, that may lurk behind. But what can you do about anger when it is a cover for shame?


Anger in the pandemic

We are living in the strangest time in living history. The coronavirus pandemic has required that we all make changes. And this situation and the virus may have affected us in many other ways.

We are in forced confinement with our spouse, partner or even our kids, that may be too close for comfort. Our usual coping strategies, of travel, socialising etc may have been taken away from us. We are in a situation where we are more isolated, even in the safety of our own home.


What can we do about anger?

If you find yourself shouting more, getting irate on the phone, barely able to hide your annoyance at that stranger who passed you a little too close in the street, or full of rage of the increase in footfall on your usual walking routes. Perhaps you have become meaner. For many of us, anger is easier to do than what may be lurking beneath: shame.

Shame is a difficult emotion and perhaps one of the last taboos in our society. Shame is an acutely painful feeling of feeling fundamentally wrong or inadequate. A deeply held belief about our unworthiness or lack of ‘goodness’ as a person.


We cover it up

In fact, it can be an incredibly painful experience, especially when there are layers of shame that have built up over the years. And if we were shamed or humiliated as a child, intentionally or otherwise, and it wasn’t contained or seen. If we carry these layers of shame into our adult life, and a situation or event, often in relationships, triggers it we can have a strong physiological reaction. It can feel like a weight or dread in our stomach, we may feel nauseous or actually be sick, or faint. We might tremble, or feel dizzy. All said, shame wants to make us hide, to disappear.

Of course, something as terrible as this often cannot be tolerated. So we do something else instead. Often that involves us getting angry.

This might come out as bursts of irritability or even rage: at our loved ones, or at strangers. Though loved ones are often ‘safer’ so they may get the brunt of it. And then we feel terrible. This increases the shame experience and propagates the cycle of shame.


Where else the anger might appear

Another way that anger comes out, perhaps in a more passive-aggressive or certainly indirect way, is through blame. We project the shame onto others and blame them. We split the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and, for the slightest perceived indiscretion, the other becomes all bad. So we turn against family and friends. People around us cannot tolerate this unfair treatment. So we become more isolated. And our shame is triggered.


The purpose of shame

Guilt is a sense that ‘I have done something wrong’ rather than the ‘I am wrong’ of shame. Both, believe it or not, are prosocial emotions in that they have a healthy purpose in humans. Shame is there as an indicator that we have done or said something, or behaved in some way, that may cause us to risk our position in our group, family or society as a whole. So this terrible feeling, acts as an impetus for us to change and therefore belong. It is prosocial in that it increases our connectedness to others.


Origins of shame

We can experience shame very early in life, in pre-verbal stages in fact. As early as 15 months, an infant can have a visceral experience of being defective. Perhaps if a mother is unresponsive, neglectful or intrusive. The pre-verbal origins might explain why the visceral quality, the felt experience, of shame is do debilitating. The posture of collapse that shame brings about, initiates a similar collapse in our nervous system: vagal syncope. We go into freeze mode or disconnection and dissociation. All this happens outside of our conscious awareness, precisely because of the pre-verbal, beyond words and thought, origins of shame.


Causes and sources of shame

Causes of shame are multitudinous and happen at all ages and stages of life. Some examples might be: our body or our bodily functions; sex and sexuality; relationships; achievements or lack of achievement. Parental rejection is a certain source of shame but so are high expectations or punishment. These experiences of punishing external figures can be internalised as a bad object that continues to punish and shame us, in a self-propagating way, for the rest of our lives. And shame is massively linked to trauma of all types. Trauma and the fear of being shamed can lead to the ‘vagal syncope’ that Peter Levine talks about where our body and our mind shut down.


Secrecy and isolation

Shame multiplies with secrecy, isolation, and judgement. But it also demands us to keep quiet. But if we can be brave enough to talk about our shame with a caring other, we can start to shed its despotic layers. Shame often gets caught up with other, positive or negative, emotions. This might be desire, or pleasure; fear or anger; pride or sadness. Perhaps this is when shame becomes particularly toxic. Think about the young woman in whom shame has become bound with pleasure, who experiences overwhelming negative states in love making with her husband. Or the young man who is not able to experience any pride in what he does becomes shame is linked with it.


What can you do about anger linked with shame

Whilst anger often presents instead of shame, anger can also be bound with shame. If our early sources of shame involve anger, ours or others, the vicious cycle will be compounded when we experience anger as a defence against shame. You can probably imagine how toxic and debilitating this experience can be for someone. Caught in a cycle of explosive outbursts beyond their control and then overwhelmed into shutdown by those outbursts.

Here are some important things to consider to break the cycle of shame:

  1. Understand the complex nature of shame – it is an emotion that is at the heart of trauma and causes more trauma. It is internalised and often self-propagating and there may be layers of it. Its causes can also be trans-generational – shame in families that has not directly impacted us, can be passed on and internalised.
  2. Talk – shame thrives on silence and secrecy. But also judgement. So it is important to find an empathetic, non-judgemental other to whom you can tell your story.
  3. Healthy pride – it is said that the internal extinguisher for the fire of shame is healthy pride. We often, in our culture, have an unhealthy relationship with pride. But healthy pride – being able to celebrate and recognised our qualities, successes and achievements – is a powerful antidote to shame.
  4. Posture – unconsciously, in small or significant ways, when our shame is triggered, we adopt a certain posture that kind of sucks us deeper into shame. This posture is closed and collapsed and our head and eyes are downwards. By changing our posture and keeping upright with an open chest and eyes looking upwards, we can take at least some control.
  5. Breathing and HRV – shame throws us into chaos. This is a state of physiological incoherence. By learning breathing techniques to increase our heart rate variability, and coherence, we can begin to break the debilitating cycle of shame.
  6. Seek therapy – for all of the above reasons, therapy can be a useful resource to deal with shame.


Here is a useful infographic that explains shame in relation to guilt.

What can you do about anger when it is triggered by shame

How many of us at this point during the pandemic are not feeling right? If you’re not feeling like yourself, it can be a strange feeling. But whilst each of us will be experiencing things differently, the common thread may be that we are acting in ways that are not typical.


How we might be feeling

We usually think that our sense of self is a constant unified thing. That there should be harmony and unification. But the reality for each of us, to some extent or other, is that of conflict. Who has not had the experience of being in conflict? Perhaps about a decision we have to make, perhaps about a relationship? It’s like a part of us wants something and another part wants the opposite.


Parts in conflict

This sense of parts of ourself in conflict is playing out in the world at large. Look at the extremes operating publicly in a liberal country like the US. Whilst Joe Biden calls for calm and civility, that is a big ask for human beings. We are ruled by difference, by polarity. And this plays out in those inner conflicts where we have polarised parts driven to behave in opposite extremes. Part of us wants to ask our friend out for a walk, but another part is being incredibly stubborn about something. We might have all the best intentions to eat better, or lose weight, yet part of us just keeps heading for the couch or reaching for the chocolate.


When opposites don’t attract

It’s a well-known aphorism isn’t it: opposites attract. Well, they do until they don’t and mostly they don’t. As human beings we really have a problem with difference. And when that difference is in us we can protect ourselves by becoming blind to it. Of course, our inner critic or internalised bad object may protest quite loudly, but we do our best to silence or ignore it.


Reasons for not feeling like yourself

This lack of inner alignment or balance can manifest in well-observed ways in all of us. We may be intellectual not sporty – or vice versa. We may be good at doing, keeping busy, but crumble when we need to sit still. We may be very rational and lack intuition or creativity, or perhaps we are arty and creative and people see us as a little flaky. It may be that we are seen as passive and easy going or we may come across as bossy or domineering. As a man we may be overly masculine and lack a more feminine side and a woman may have overly developed her femininity and deny herself the power of her own masculine side. And then there is the tendency to activity or receptivity. Perhaps we are great at putting others first or helping them, but poor at asking for help ourselves?


Polarities within families

We can categorise the polarities in our being into four broad types. Firstly, we are born out of difference. We are the product of a mother and a father. Two different people, two different genders. And then there is the whole realm of difference in the families of our mother and of our father. If both of our parents are balanced and well-integrated as people, in a loving family environment we have a chance, as children, that all parts our self will be seen, accepted and validated.

If you are not feeling like yourself, perhaps you have lost your temper or have been overly critical of your kids. ‘Oh god, I am becoming just like my mother/father’ is not uncommonly heard amongst some of us! Yet, if our parents stay together (or split amicably) and love each other, we can more easily integrate and balance those parts of our parents and our families with which we identify. This means that if we behave in ways that we are not so proud of, we are kinder to ourselves.


Family divides

But if our parents hate each other, or parts of each other’s families, we will be in conflict with those aspects of any of them which we recognise in ourselves. This may mean that we feel shame or disgust at our self, or to protect our self from shame, we may project onto others and see those qualities in people around us.

Either way we become split. This can result in a self-propagating cycle of shame where we either withdraw from relationships and have increasing feelings of unworthiness. Or we may become angry or hateful of others.


How to begin to feel better

Whilst our culture pretends that difference is not an issue, it also likes to have quick fixes and bulleted lists for self-help! Making deep changes within our self is not easy and neither are self-help suggestions, because we are all different. No two of us will be doing a ‘problem’ in the same way, nor would we have constructed or developed the problem for the same reason.

But here are some considerations for when you are not feeling like yourself.

  1. Awareness matters

The first step is perhaps to begin to develop awareness of these polarities that exist within us, but with a healthy dose of self-compassion. True change only comes from a place of acceptance. Once we accept something within us, that we may well not like, we have a chance of changing it.


  1. Practise self-compassion when you’re not feeling like yourself

self-compassion when you're not feeling like yourself

Once we become more aware of conflicting parts within our self, it is important to learn to be kind to our self. Otherwise, greater awareness can simply bring more self-loathing or criticism. For instance, remind yourself that just because your behaviour sometimes reminds you of your mother or father, it does not mean that you are globally like them. You are more than your behaviour. Learn to see the positives in the aspect of yourself that you don’t like. For instance, a tendency to be critical of self or others often has a positive intention of wanting them to be better.

This self-hypnosis on ‘Loving Yourself’ might be nice to practise.



  1. Talk to someone who loves you

The best antidote for shame, an emotion often at the heart of difference, is to be seen by someone we love. Truly seen. If you can be brave enough to talk about aspects of your behaviour or thoughts that you don’t like, with someone you know believes in you, it can be transformative. To be seen in our shame or disgust, and accepted, helps to discharge it. Loving others may also see things differently – we are usually our own worst judge.


  1. Work on your HRV and coherence

Heart rate variability (HRV) is an important measure of coherence. If we can train our system into coherence we are integrating neurological imbalances such as sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and increasing vagal tone.  The neurological and psychological state that this achieves means that we are more resilient to stress and more able to make the changes we want in our life.


  1. Integrate your polarities

I believe we are driven to achieve balance and integrate all parts of our self so that we can become whole. All of us, regardless of the difficulties and traumas we have faced in our life, are able to become who we truly are. It is through achieving alignment on all levels of our being that we can move forward in life and be more able to face life’s inevitable challenges. A good psychotherapist can help you on this journey.


More reading when you are not feeling like yourself:

More articles on low self-esteem