The Shame Cycle Explained

2HatsTestersTherapy process, Trauma

Even the mention of shame brings up a desire to avoid even talking about it.  It is the worst feeling and experience. It can be experienced as a constant dull ache lurking to erupt if we give it any attention, to a sudden flash of heat and intense feeling of needing to disappear.  Shame is a relational experience. In other words, we are shamed by others and we develop internal shaming to prevent further experiences of shame, including shaming others.

This cycle of shame is hard to break.  Understanding how this develops to find a way out and heal can be helpful. Here are the steps:

A bad thing happened to me.

When hurtful things happen in childhood, we don’t see that action as separate from ourselves. We haven’t developed the cognitive understanding that someone else’s behaviour doesn’t relate to me. Everything relates to me in some way. So when I am hurt, that means I must have caused it.  Even when I am not told directly it is because of me. 

Here are a few examples: when we need our parents who are not there or do not respond to our cries, our need for connection, attention, and love becomes shameful.  I am bad because I am ignored.  They are ignoring me, and it must be because of me. There is something about me that is unwanted. As adults, we know cognitively that this is not true, but the message has already been received and accepted.  This experience of being shameful for needing attention develops into a part that sees itself as shameful (e.g. needing attention) and a part of us that shames the part that needs attention.  For example, if you weren’t so needy, they would want to be around you.

There are many obvious and not-so-obvious ways we are shamed in childhood.  Physical/verbal abuse can be a direct message of making a mistake and being punished.  The intense shame of mistakes leads to internal shammers around any mistake and not being perfect.  

Gaslighting is an interesting one because it is a denial of your experience.  This leads to a shame of your very existence, and self-doubting parts develop to keep you from knowing your experience.  This protects you from fully existing which is associated with shame.

I agree. I am shameful.

The parts of us that were shamed take on being shameful.  The shaming event and the agreement of being shameful is what happened in the past.  This is the historical event that we carry informing how we manage our lives and relationships. 

We develop an internal shaming system that tries to protect against shame and perpetuates it.

What does this mean? We develop ways to try and avoid further shaming and feeling the shameful parts.  The way we do that involves shaming ourselves.   Different internal shaming parts may have different functions  Here are a few:

  • Shame the shameful parts. For eg, feelings (anger, sadness, fear), behaviour (mistakes, excitement, curiosity), vulnerability, and needs (attention, love, safety). 
  • Shame the ways you manage or self-soothe the shameful parts. For eg, substance use, anger, withdrawal, eating, and sex. 
  • Shame other people.  Avoid the shame by expressing it’s you, not me.

So as we become aware of the various parts of our system and how our shame cycle has developed we can heal.  

Recovery involves knowing a bad thing happened to me. 

Healing occurs when we turn towards those parts that carry the shame with compassion and expression of self-love.  Acknowledging and grieving the pain of the thing that happened to me. I was hurt, afraid, lonely etc, and I reject the message of shaming