The Shame Box

Written by Michele Dial, M.Ed., LPC


I once had a client in a group therapy session tell me, “That’s stored in a box labeled ‘shame.’ I don’t touch that box.” I inwardly gasped, and thought to myself, “That’s why you keep coming back. It’s going to haunt you till you face it.” At the time, I was working in a partial hospitalization program with clients who struggle with addiction and mental health disorders, a.k.a. dual diagnosis clients, a population with a single-digit success rate. While there are other factors in play, and every client has their own unique journey, opening the shame box and working through ALL of the sources of pain we experience is a crucial component in long-term healing and growth.

Shame vs. Guilt

Many folks see guilt and shame as synonymous, but there’s actually a big difference. Guilt is feeling bad about something we’ve done – an action. Shame is feeling bad about who we are – our character. Guilt is no small thing. However, when we feel guilty about an action, we can apologize and make amends, which strengthens relationships in the long run, and teaches valuable life lessons to boot. But what happens when we feel ashamed of who we are?

The answer varies by individual. People often try to escape the painful experience of shame through alcohol and/or drug abuse to numb themselves. Others may seek validation through the eyes of others – friends, bosses, colleagues, romantic partners – because if someone else deems them valuable, then they can believe it . . . maybe. Still others embark on a lifelong journey of trying to overcompensate in other areas of their lives, such as looks, style, wealth, comedy, Mommy of the Year, Employee of the Year … and the list goes on. The problem with all of these avenues is that they only cover up the shame on the outside. But inside, shame still torments the guardians of the “shame box.”

In her TED talk, shame guru Brene´ Brown describes shame as “the fear of disconnection.” It asks the question, “Is there something about me that, if people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” Or perhaps it’s more of a statement – there IS something about me, something wrong with me, that makes me unworthy of love and connection. Shame is the inner voice that tells us we’re not good enough or we don’t deserve _______ (true love, a family, forgiveness, success, happiness, friends, etc).

How did we get here?

Guilt can lead to shame when we judge ourselves harshly and unrelentingly for our actions. We hit that slippery slope with a running start and crash headlong into a shame spiral. We start to define our worth by the worst of our choices, rather than the whole of our character. We somehow decide that we don’t deserve credit for our respectable traits, our wise decisions, and the strengths we’ve tapped into over the years.

We can also develop a massive dose of shame by comparing ourselves to others whom we view as better, stronger, prettier, smarter, more successful, etc. When we don’t measure up to what we see and desire in others, we may find ourselves on the fast track to self-criticism and self-loathing. But it’s really not fair to compare ourselves to others because it can unjustifiably diminish our self-worth when the truth is that we don’t know their journey, and they don’t know ours. The only true measure of our worth is the one we create with our own values and principles. If you’re not entirely clear on your values, that’s a good place to start on your journey of letting go of shame and building self-worth.

A Little Grace

Psychotherapist Joseph Burgo wrote, “Shame is an often painful fact of life that defines the gap between expectation and reality, but at the same time, enables us to make the most of what’s actually possible.” Sometimes we may not be as ______ as we want to be or expect ourselves to be. But this is not a cause for judgment and reproach. It’s a time for grace. A time to embrace our uniqueness. We are human and flawed, and yes, still worthy of love and compassion, especially from within.

The Golden Rule of Self as I like to call it, seems so simple and yet it’s such a foreign concept to many of my clients. Do unto yourself as you would to your best friend. Put down the stick you’re beating yourself up with, and be kind to yourself. You deserve it. I love watching the surprise of a new realization wash over their faces as they wonder why they’ve never considered giving themselves a break. You wouldn’t berate a dear friend for being less than perfect. And you deserve to be treated with as much kindness as your bestie, no questions.

I don’t know how that client’s story will unfold, but I do know that his shame box not only keeps his secrets, it also perpetuates the battle to keep the secrets hidden. That’s a lifelong struggle that brings with it unnecessary pain and suffering. If you’re fighting to keep the lid on your shame box, find a therapist you can trust and start talking. And don’t hold back; talk about everything. It will take some time to build a trusting alliance with your therapist, but when you do, open that shame box and start letting your therapist help you heal. Don’t let your secrets and your shame hold you hostage any longer. Start freeing yourself right this minute.