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Defining Shame

A possibly shameful confession: I chose to write a blog post about shame because I wanted to understand it and have an excuse to explore it fully. Like a distant lover, I know it well but don’t feel like I understand it at all.

Image: Rain puddle and leaves

Yet when I searched for definitions of shame, I found great variability and no arrangement of words that precisely captured the desire to dissolve into the earth like a rain shower or crawl into the furniture itself like a startled cat.

FORGE’s own definition comes close: “Shame is the feeling that you are damaged, unworthy, bad, dirty, wrong, unlovable, unfixable, dangerous, not good enough, broken, and/or don’t deserve to live.”

What Drives Shame

According to FORGE’s Self Help Guide for Survivors, “although [shame] should be what is felt by the perpetrator—the one who violated another person, used someone to meet their own needs, or betrayed or manipulated someone’s innocence or trust—instead, almost like a sexually transmitted infection, it ends up infecting the victim. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like an outside infection to the victim; it just feels like who they truly are: not good enough or not worthy of love and compassion.”

Patriarchy and rape culture provide the perfect environment for this virus to thrive, with stories—repeated in the media and by everyone around us—that sexual violence is the survivor’s fault.

[Image: A protest sign says in red font “Don’t get raped.” The “get” and the “d” in “raped” are in black and crossed out, so that if you do not read the crossed out text, the sign says “don’t rape.”]

Image: rape culture blames the survivor, reinforcing shame.

(I will say this here because we need to say it again and again until we all believe it fully:

These stories are wrong. Sexual violence is never the survivor’s fault, no matter what.)

Experiencing transphobia has a similar power, a transfer of responsibility and pain. Studies show that people who experience discrimination, threats, and other forms of social rejection are more likely to experience shame. As with sexual violence, individual acts of transphobic harm that transmit shame are embedded within transphobic culture: these stories say that transgender people’s experiences in their bodies and hearts aren’t valid.

Trans people feel shame because of these internalized rejections.

The idea that shame is in response to social rejection fits with what Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) says about shame. According to DBT, while guilt is in response to violations of your own moral values, shame is in response to the transgression of community norms. This social nature of shame is why it drives us to hide, isolate, and conceal our mistakes.

[Image: Image is a scientific photo of bacteria growing on a petri dish on a black background. There is a lettered and numbered grid on the petri dish. Overtop of it, white bacteria balloon and grow out in a dendridic pattern.]

Image: Transphobic and sexual violence can transmit shame like a virus. This photo is of bacteria.  Photo by Michael Schiffer.

Others like Brené Brown say that the difference between shame and guilt is that guilt is about something you’ve done and shame is about who you are. To Brené Brown, because shame reduces a person to a regrettable act, there is no value to it; shame is an inherently destructive emotion.

But like viruses, there are many permutations of shame.

Survivors and trans folks have increased vulnerabilities to mental illness, and may engage in a variety of behaviors to cope with the pain they are feeling. Sometimes, these behaviors can prompt feelings of shame, particularly when they cause harm to others.

While surviving sexual violence is something someone cannot change, our own behavior is changeable, and there is some research showing that shame can play a role in that process of growth.

The Positive Power of Shame

Paradoxically, research shows that the social nature of shame can lead people to hide, isolate, and withhold self-love and self-care, but it can also drive people to connect and repair social relationships.

So how do use shame to drive us forward, toward connection, rather than allow its weight to pull us down into despair?

[Image: On a black background is a diagram. Purple handwriting top at the center top of the image says “the dual nature of shame:” Below it, a purple vertical line divides the image. On the left of the line is a simple diagram of a crowd in tones of blue. Underneath, in blue, the same handwriting text says, “it drives connection.” On the right side of the purple line, a simple diagram of one figure is in red. Beneath it, in red handwriting font, it says “it drives isolation.”]

Image: Dual nature of shame

How to Transform Shame

According to the research, there are a few differences between shame that disconnects us and shame that draws us to others.

  • Empathy: If you can treat yourself with compassion, shame is not necessarily damaging. It can be hard to finding empathy for yourself when you are facing deep feelings of unworthiness (and this should the subject of another post entirely). But briefly, it can be helpful to muster empathy by remembering your commonality with others, the essential complexity and fallibility of all humanity, as this video recommends (trigger warning for discussion of child abuse). This idea is also a potent antidote to shame because it is about our connection.
  • Changeability: Believe that you (and people in general) are capable of change. If you think of the thing you are ashamed of as changeable, you are less likely to see it as the sum of who you are, and more likely to be able to take action and make amends.

So maybe, just maybe, even shame itself is redeemable.