What is Shame and How is it Created?

Watch the video above or read the blog post version below

Note: This post/video is excerpted from the BROJO University course Completely Shameless: The Secret to Confidence

Let’s start by saying that shame and confidence are on a spectrum. On one end you have confidence, and on the other end you have shame. It’s very rare to have both at the same time (you can be shameless about having shame, which we’ll talk about the end).

I want you to just keep the more simplistic concept in mind that shame is essentially the enemy to confidence. It is the opposite. Therefore, if you want to become truly, deeply confident, you need to become shameless.

What is Shame?

Shame is the attachment of wrongness or badness to something that’s true about you.

And it’s you that creates this attachment. You decide that something about yourself, which you know to be true, is also bad or wrong, or inappropriate in some way.

For a lot of people, it’s mostly about emotions. There are certain feelings you’re not allowed to show to certain people. Anything that you’re not allowed to show that naturally occurs for you, anything you try to suppress even though it comes up naturally for you, that’s shame.

A lot of people, for example, are ashamed of their anger. They’ll be very upset with somebody and angry at them, but they won’t show it. That’s shame.

It can include memories of past actions that you’ve taken, regret and remorse about the way you were, things that you did that you’re now ashamed of.

For example, if you’re part of a conservative religion and you’ve had premarital sex, you might be ashamed that you did that. You don’t want to tell people about it. You don’t want people to know.

Past-related shame can also include external experiences, things that were done to you or things that were done around you. You might be ashamed that something happened even though you didn’t cause it to happen. You don’t want people to know that it happened to you. That is also shame.

You can have shame about your identity, for example your race, your ethnicity, or your job – anything that you feel attached to, like “This is who I am” that you don’t want people to know about, or you feel embarrassed by it. If you can’t hide it, you still wish it could be hidden.

You can be ashamed of both your abilities and lacking abilities. You might call yourself a “nerd” because you’re academically gifted, and you actually try to play it down and dumb it down.

The more obvious is you’re ashamed of something you’re not good at. For example, maybe you avoid playing sports because you don’t want people to see that you’re uncoordinated or clumsy.

We can also see shame appearing in the avoidance of activity. It’s not just about what you say or what people know about you, but it’s about making sure you can’t get into a situation where you might be “found out.”

People are often ashamed of their desires and preferences. They’re not honest about what they like and dislike, fearing that that will get some sort of bad reaction. Sexual fantasies is a common one. It’s very rare for someone to be completely open about what they want sexually (with everybody).

Affiliations – we can even be ashamed of who we’re connected to, or what we’re connected to. A good example of this is “white guilt”: people who are ashamed of being European ethnicity. It’s not because of their own behavior, but because of the associations with their race. Or somebody who has parents who are hippies. And they don’t want anybody to know that their parents are kind of weird and kooky.

So you can have shame about your associations with various groups or activities in life that you don’t want people to know about, even though you had no choice in those affiliations.

You can be ashamed of your beliefs. You can believe in something very strongly, but not want to share that belief. For example, you might be against marriage and yet be in a very conservative culture that’s all about marriage, so you kind of have to hide the fact that you don’t plan to get married, or you kind of avoid the whole dating situation so you don’t go down that track, but you never really directly say, “I’m against it.”

And this also applies to other lifestyle choices, like maybe you don’t want to have kids or maybe you want to travel endlessly rather than settle down or maybe you want to work a bunch of odd jobs rather than getting a stable career. Lifestyle choices that other people might judge you for that you just feel are “wrong” for some reason. You either do them but not talk about it, or you avoid doing what you really want to do and do something you don’t want because you’re ashamed of wanting it.

So you might want to start your own business but you never do, and you keep being an employee and this in a sense is shameful behavior. You’re pretending to want to be an employee when you want to be something else.

The birth of shame

The wrongness you attach to the things you want, or are, or do, or have done, or think, or feel – can be decided by someone else or by yourself. In the end, it’s always decided by you – you come to the conclusion that yes, it is wrong, but it usually starts with somebody else inferring or telling you that it was wrong to begin with.

Often, if you think back to being a young child, you don’t think that anything is wrong until you get a bad reaction from it or until you see something, say in the media, that gives you the impression that other people would react badly if they found out.

Once you build up enough wrongness, it can lead to what’s called toxic shame, which is a term coined by shame researcher Brene Brown. It means you think you’re wrong as an entire person.

So it’s not just specific elements of yourself or specific feelings or things you’ve done, but the idea that there’s something fundamentally bad about yourself, there’s something fundamentally wrong, and it’s unfixable and untreatable. No matter how well you do in life, you’ll still be carrying this wrongness that you must hide, e.g. to think that you’re unlovable and can never have a great relationship.

Shame and emotions

Shame is about emotions, and the primary emotion that’s going to come up is guilt, a yuck feeling – that potential embarrassment feeling, that getting caught feeling. That’s the primary emotion that we attach to shame.

Shame also attaches other emotions. Quite commonly: anxiety, like the worry of being found out, or the worry that you’re always going to be like this.

Embarrassment – the actual sensation of being caught out, that hot, flushing, acidic feeling, that deep sense of loneliness and isolation and alienation you get caught from being different or weird.

Depression – this “Oh my god, this is never gonna end, this is a lifelong prison sentence that I have to serve” and the powerless feeling that you get from realizing, “I’m going to have to live with this and deal with this forever.”

Even anger. “Why me? This is so unfair. Why don’t other people either get away with this or not have it and I’m stuck with it?”

Shame exercise

Before we move on, there’s an exercise where I just want you to list all the things that you can think of that you’re ashamed of. Now, this may be a difficult list for you to write. One thing to keep in mind is that facing the truth yourself is the first step.

First, you have to be shameless about being ashamed. You have to be okay with having shame.

Remember, writing this list does not oblige you to do anything. You might never reveal this list to anybody. You can burn it afterward if you want!

The idea is just facing the facts about what you’re ashamed of.

Where does shame come from?

Before we can be sure of how to deal with shame, we need to know where it comes from. What creates shame,?

It usually begins externally – as we’ve already said. There’s some sort of prompt from the outside world. That’s a truth about you that is said to be wrong or bad or inappropriate in some way.

This can be quite direct, from other people’s criticism, bullying opinions, being mistreated or abused for being a certain way or for behaving in a certain way, being punished for doing certain things, being told directly by other people what is right from wrong.

This can also be done through laws, and the 10 commandments of the church, and the rules of your social group. There’ll be a lot of other people telling you what is right and wrong, and punishing you or rewarding you for certain behaviors.

Even being rewarded for something that isn’t true about you will indirectly create shame about what’s true. So if I’m rewarded for being happy all the time, even though I’m faking it, I’m indirectly building up shame about being sad or angry because that doesn’t get any rewards.

Of course, shame can also be indirect, from the outside world. It can be from watching movies or children’s programs, or reading books when you’re growing up, or hearing other people’s conversations, or watching other people be punished for behavior that you align with, and so on.

So you pick up all these rules and ideas from other people and start to create assessments about what’s right or wrong about yourself. But that’s just the seed that is planted. And whether or not that seed grows into shame actually depends on what you do next.

How you create shame yourself

What you do next, after someone suggests you should be ashamed, is choose to be honest or dishonest about this truth. And that’s what really creates shame.

Somebody else says it’s wrong, which is actually a question to you: “Is this wrong?” And you say yes, with dishonesty, or no with honesty.

E.g. if someone tells me it’s wrong to post my political ideas on Facebook, my next move decides whether or not I’ll feel ashamed of it. If I go ahead and post my political ideas on Facebook anyway, I will be shameless. But if I hold back the thing I wanted to post (which is an act of dishonesty) because this other person said it was wrong, I will become ashamed of my political views – or at least of the act of expressing them. And that is where the seed is fertilized and grows into shame.

People are going to tell you there’s something wrong with you all your life. Whether that grows into shame is going to depend on how you react to them.

Are you honest about it and let it be seen anyway, even though you know you’ll be judged? Or do you hide it to avoid that judgment? Because when you hide it, you create shame.

Why do we hide?

Shame is outcome seeking. By being ashamed (hiding truths about yourself), you’re trying to achieve a certain outcome. It might be better explained by saying you’re trying to avoid a certain outcome.

You’ve got to start thinking: what is the outcome you’re trying to get (or avoid) here? Is it approval? Is it fitting in? Is it just comfortable emotions?

What’s your drug? Because the drug that you’re seeking is what drives you to be dishonest in the first place to create that shame. If you can give up that drug, if you can break your addiction to it, you can break the pattern of creating shame, which means you can build your confidence.

To get a sense of this, notice something about yourself that is true that you’re shameless about, but other people disapprove.

For example, I’m really into heavy metal music, and a lot of people disapprove of that. I get a lot of “wrong”-type feedback on this. But I don’t give a fuck. I still listen to my music. I played in a metal band for a long time. I never hide the fact that I’m into metal.

The closest I come to being ashamed of it is when I’m in a car full of people: I won’t play it because they’re just going to complain too much. But I don’t feel any shame emotionally about that.

What’s your version of that? What do you have about yourself that you know gets negative reactions but you’re like, “Fuck it, I don’t care. I know it’s right.” Find that one thing that you’ll stand by even in the face of disapproval.

Now take that and compare it with something you hide because somebody disapproves of it, or because you are afraid that somebody will disapprove of it. Maybe you got man-boobs going, and so you always wear a T-shirt when you’re at the beach. So you’re totally fine with people knowing that you’re into heavy metal music, but God forbid you allow strangers to see your saggy man-tits.

Notice the difference they just two things that are true about you. A love of heavy metal music, versus a little bit of extra fat around the chest area. With one of those things you’re like, “Fuck it, I don’t care if you see it.” Another one you’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t get caught.”

So one of them you’ve been honest about and the other you’ve been dishonest about, and what I want you to notice is the connection: Shame is always connected with dishonesty and hiding. Shamelessness is always connected with honesty and truth. That is not a coincidence. That is, in fact, the formula.

Reducing and removing shame

If you take honesty and apply it to the shameful area, it will become shameless. Not immediately, but over time.

And the opposite is also true: if you start hiding something, you will become ashamed of it. Notice that the uncomfortable emotions that we associate with shame: guilt, anger, depression, and anxiety, only arise with the things that you hide. It’s only in those moments where you have to hide them and you’re worried about being caught that all those uncomfortable emotions come up.

In a situation where you don’t hide anything, those emotions never really come up. There might occasionally be anger if somebody is too confrontational about something you stand up for, but generally, if you’re cool with something (i.e. shameless), you feel cool with it all the time. You don’t have those uncomfortable emotions.

The key to getting into a constant state of feeling cool about who you are is to be honest about whatever you’re ashamed of until it feels that way; until the painful emotions are worn out and used up, and they no longer occur.

For example, when I first talked about erectile dysfunction, I felt embarrassed, guilty and confused. By the one-hundredth time I talked about it, I was in front of a large audience and I didn’t feel a thing.

Shame is created by dishonesty. Therefore, confidence is built by being honest about what you’re ashamed of.

Thanks for watching/reading. If you’d like more support with this, check out Completely Shameless: The Secret to Confidence or get in touch for 1:1 support.

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