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Shame Was My Identity

Guilt and shame are both emotions of self-evaluation; however, that is where the similarities end. The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences between ‘I am bad’ (shame) and ‘I did something bad’ (guilt). Shame is about who we are and guilt is about our behaviors. If I feel guilty for cheating on a test, my self-talk might sound something like ‘I should not have done that. That was really stupid. Cheating is not something I believe in or want to do.’ If I feel shame about cheating on a test, my self-talk is more likely to sound like “I’m a liar and a cheat. I’m so stupid. I’m a bad person.”

― Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame

Shame affects all of us. It is universal. It is also an emotion that does not happen in a vacuum. Everyone who experiences emotions feels shame from time to time. And the shame we feel is most often connected to an earlier experience of trauma or maltreatment in our life. This does not mean that everyone who experiences shame was abused. But no one makes it through life without experiencing some kind of trauma.

However, I believe those who have experienced abuse in childhood process shame differently. To a large extent, what we experience as children shapes our identity. When our

childhood is mostly good, we develop a healthy view of ourselves and this carries through to adulthood. A healthy childhood gives us a better foundation to handle the tough experiences that happen as adults.

But when we have experienced abuse and trauma in childhood, it shapes our identity differently.

Childhood trauma can cause us to feel that there is something wrong with us and we are not enough. Shame is the trusted sidekick of trauma. It is the hitman. The trauma happened to us, but shame keeps it alive in our present life. Shame is the negative, critical inner voice. This voice says we are not enough and no matter what we do, we will never be. Thus, shame is something we not only experience, but it becomes our identity. Brene Brown states it like this, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

The message of childhood abuse and trauma is that you are bad and, therefore, what you do is bad. These are powerful obstacles to overcome in life. However, shame, like trauma, can be overcome. I don’t believe the effects of it will ever totally go away, but we can manage it. We can build resilience to shame. With awareness, understanding, and sharing our st

ory, we can become Teflon to the powerful effects of shame.

In her book, I Thought It Was Just Me, Brene Brown gives four elements of shame resilience:*

1. Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers.

2. Practicing critical awareness. Understanding how it works, how our society is affected, and who benefits.

3. Reaching out and telling our story. Reaching out to our support network and sharing our story can increase our resilience and create change.

4. Speaking shame. This is so important because shame’s survival depends on going undetected (through secrecy and silence). Subsequently, if we recognize and understand our triggers, practice critical awareness and reach out to others, we can grow resilience as we practice communicating about our shame with our most trusted advisors who use their own compassion and courage whilst listening and supporting us.

Understanding shame and how to build our shame resilience is discussed in, I Thought It Was Just Me. For the month of February, we will post quotes from Dr. Brene Brown on our Facebook page ( Blogs about how to overcome s

hame will be available on our website at

If you are dealing with childhood trauma and are working to move on from the shame it produces, I would love to work with you in my coaching practice. Find more information about coaching and how might help you at my website

*Source: Shame Resilience Theory by Brene Brown. Habits for Wellbeing

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