Where Is Shame Held In the Body?


Thanks to the work of Brene Brown there has been a national conversation around the concept of shame.  


In case you haven’t come in contact with Brown’s work, let me give you her definition of shame:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Brown states that shame is an all-encompassing experience. 


Since this is the case, you may wonder how on earth could an “all-encompassing” emotional experience go unnamed and unacknowledged for so long…


It’s because shame is too painful to be acknowledged.  


How painful is shame?  

Well, if I could compare the emotion of shame to an image,  shame would be this:  

A person standing in the middle of a busy grocery store completely naked and immobilized.

If the feeling of shame is like that image, it’s no wonder why shame isn’t something that is dinnertime fodder. 


So, given that it is so uncomfortable, why even both asking the question:

Where is shame held in the body?

Scientific research links shame with the physiological urge for self-protection.   


In other words, the brain’s response to spotting a lion is the same as when we are in shame.


The physical experience of shame is the same as when we are in grave physical danger.  

If that’s the first sensation, what’s the second?

Think about what your response would be if you were face-to-face with a tiger.  You’d want to fight it, flee from it, or quickly hide from it.  

Same with the feeling of shame. 


We become hijacked with the primitive feeling of fight, flight, or freeze.  


If you look back on times when you felt the most embarrassed, you will likely see a common theme.

When you feel ashamed your go-to reaction may be to:

  • Want to go and hide
  • Get super defensive and “go for the jugular” with witty comebacks
  • Get small with a sunken posture
  • Start blaming everyone in sight
  • Start fighting yourself with an internal monologue of self-blame

Shame's Silver Lining

While feeling shame sucks, if there is a silver lining, it’s this:
How you experience shame in your body is highly predictable.

So, let’s say your predictable response to shame is to feel the warm wash come over you and you want to crawl into a corner and “go small.” 


Try to get yourself into the habit of noticing that you are experiencing that feeling of “going small.”  


By noticing that you are “going small” and that you are in shame, you give yourself the opportunity to respond to the shame rather than react to it!  


You may be thinking right now:

“I’m good.  I don’t mind avoiding shame.  I’d rather avoid than face some of my issues… my issues don’t get in my way too much.”  


I hear you.


You don’t want to risk being seen as a failure…  


You don’t want to risk the emotional exposure…


You don’t want to feel like the person standing in the middle of a busy grocery store completely naked…  


You don’t want to take the risk of being seen for what you truly are…  


You don’t want to risk that others may see you as flawed or unworthy.


I get it.  


However, there’s a high price that you pay for avoiding shame.  

You can truly be known to yourself (and consequently to others) if you don’t face the fear of being yourself.

As I’ve said about a million times on my blog (sorry if you are tired of hearing it), you can’t tame an emotion if you don’t name it… 

Where is shame held in the body?

Name Shame to Tame Shame

Dan Siegel, who coined this catchy phrase, explains why it is so important to “name it to tame it.”

It is essential to be able to tell when you are “in” shame so you can deal with the difficult emotions in a healthy and courageous way. 


Don’t want to feel like you are standing naked in the grocery store???


I get it. 

While your mind may work valiantly to avoid your feelings of shame, your body can’t.

In other words, your body keeps the score

When you don’t show up authentically day-after-day and year-after-year, there’s a (metaphorical) residue that builds up in your body.


You start to have anxiety or depression and you don’t know why.  


(Important note:  I’m not suggesting that all anxiety or depression arises from being too ashamed to show up authentically.)


Here’s the reality about shame:  


You feel shame regardless of whether you name it or avoid it.


Shame is a formidable opponent.


The challenge is to look shame in the eye and expose the emotion to the light of day. 

Are you ready to give therapy a go?

Free free to contact me directly if you have questions or to schedule a brief call to see if I might be able to support you as you journey forward.


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