CARLOS VETTORAZZI

How To Rise Above Shame and Cultivate Authentic Connections

19 June 2023
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As I finished my run in the skate park’s halfpipe, I saw him standing in the crowd, looking at me.

It was a hot June afternoon. For a moment, I thought he was there to watch me compete. But the furious look on my dad’s face made me realize why he had come.

I had been absent from school for over two weeks. As I walked toward him, a wave of Shame washed over me, followed by fear of the beating that was to come.

‘Take your things; we are leaving,’ he said without looking at me. I know what you have been up to.

“The finals are about to start, and I am in the finals,” I said without making eye contact. “I have a chance of winning.”

“Take your damn things; we’re leaving right now,” he repeated in the same tone I had heard so many times before, just before the punch hit me on the side of my left ear.

I immediately felt the heat on my face. I hadn’t expected him to hit me in public. I looked around to see if any of my friends were watching.

“I’m going to go and get my hoodie,” I said quietly, looking down.

As we drove out of the skate park, I started planning how to dodge the punches when we got home.

But my dad caught me off guard as we turned onto the highway. He grabbed my hair and banged my head against the dashboard, shouting, “School called! You haven’t attended classes for over two weeks!”

After what seemed like an eternity, he finally stopped and said, “We’re going back to Uruguay, both of us. It’s for the best.” Then he put his foot on the accelerator, and the car started to speed up.

I looked at the speedometer: 55mph, 70mph, 80mph, 90mph. The cars we passed looked as if they had stopped.

A wave of fear replaced the Shame. I didn’t feel the calm you see in the movies when the characters know they are about to die.

Then the Shame returned as I felt the warm wet feeling between my legs. I had wet my pants out of fear.

“Stop the car,” I heard myself beg through the sobbing. “Stop the car.”

My dad didn’t kill us that day, and yes, he beat me up so badly when we got home that I had to stay home from school for days, but that wasn’t the worst part.

The feeling of being unlovable was the worst. For many years, I told myself that my father didn’t love me, which had to be why he hit me.

It took me many years to really see my father and empathize with what he had been through.

As a political refugee in a new country who didn’t speak the language, he could only find low-paid work. He had no social status, no friends, and no idea of how to connect with my mother or me because his only reference was the regular beatings he received from his father.

It took me a long time to accept and forgive what he did. However, I eventually realized that my anger as a young adult stemmed from my father’s fear and anger.

As I started to accept that these emotions were passed down to me, I realized they were not mine, and holding on to them was destroying me.

When I became a father for the first time, I made a pledge to break the cycle of all forms of abuse.

I would educate myself on developing loving relationships with my children and being vulnerable and kind no matter what.

Sometimes, I can’t help but think about how easy it is to pass on trauma to future generations. It’s scary to realize that I was so close to perpetuating that cycle of trauma.

The feeling of Shame, anger and perceived failure, and embarrassment can be born in one single blow.

Shame is a silent killer that lurks in the background, wreaking havoc on our self-worth and slowly eroding any possibility of forming strong connections in our relationships.

If we want to be happy, we need to figure out why we feel ashamed and work on it in a healthy and constructive way.

Let’s take a look at the science of Shame, the difference between Shame and guilt, and as usual, ask some empowering questions to help you or someone you love get out of the shame rut.

The difference Between Shame and guilt

Understanding the difference between Shame and guilt is important because they are two different sets of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that can significantly impact our lives.

Shame

Shame is the feeling of being inherently flawed, unacceptable, or unworthy of love that I experienced in the car. It is the uncomfortable self-conscious emotion and negative self-evaluation.

It is the feeling I felt of having no safe haven from my father’s judgmental stare.

It is the suffering, vulnerability, disbelief, and helplessness I felt when I was reduced to being nothing more than a punching bag.

From the moment my dad picked me up and until he was done beating me when we got home, I felt Shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment, and in moments all at once.

Some of us feel guilt for perceived failure, embarrassment, or fear of humiliation if we reveal our Shame, which often leads to avoidance and exacerbates our feelings of Shame.

We don’t have to be physically abused to feel inadequate or negative about ourselves.

For some of us, Shame is more of a general feeling we have about ourselves rather than a specific action we have taken, following us everywhere we go.

Perceived shortcomings can trigger a shame response, causing us to become extremely self-conscious, self-critical, and embarrassed.

Shame impacts our lives, whether we are experiencing shameful thoughts ourselves or care about someone who is.

Many of us have experienced the lingering effects of Shame, the cascade of debilitating feelings and emotions that can make us feel worthless and inadequate. Even after the “situation” that caused it has passed, it can be difficult to shake off the Shame.

We all experience and respond to Shame differently, but some common patterns exist.

When we feel shame, we tend to separate ourselves from what we perceive to be the cause of our shame, making it difficult to be authentic in our relationships.

This can take the form of isolating, numbing, or distracting ourselves. These behaviors may provide temporary relief but ultimately prevent us from developing genuine connections with others.

There is no escape from it unless we educate ourselves and develop healthy shame management strategies.

Now that we know what Shame can look like let’s look at its function from an evolutionary perspective.

Shame is a functional Behavior

Shame is a basic survival functional behavior to protect us from the threat of social exclusion.

In the not-so-distant past, the consequences of being ostracized from a group were severe. Sometimes, they even equaled a death sentence simply because we wouldn’t survive for long without the group.

When someone’s desires or actions are at odds with our own needs and beliefs, we may instinctively shame them or ourselves to maintain our status as group members.

There is no doubt that when we experience Shame, the dominant response is a strong tendency to conform, driven by a fear of being abandoned or excluded. This tendency to prioritize conformity is particularly common in children and adolescents.

The desire to belong and be accepted is a powerful motivator. It shapes our behavior and our choices. Fear of being ostracized or left behind forces us, especially in our formative years, to strive to fit in to ensure social inclusion.

The tendency to seek acceptance is deeply ingrained in our human nature, and for most of us, this tendency persists throughout all stages of life.

The dynamics of conformity driven by fear of exclusion are commonly observed within family settings. You may have experienced this firsthand within your own family.

Guilt

Guilt is the feeling of doing something wrong. It’s important to recognize the difference between Guilt and Shame and understand how and when we experience them.

This is where we must start.

Guilt is a complex emotion that can positively and negatively affect our lives.

On the one hand, it can be a helpful tool that motivates us to reflect on our actions and make positive changes in our behavior.

Guilt motivates us to make amends for broken trust or harm we may have caused.

When we feel guilty, especially in important relationships, we will often try to reconnect with the person we have wronged in an attempt to make things right.

On the other hand, excessive guilt can lead to self-blame, Shame, and even depression.

However, when we experience guilt in a healthy way, it can serve as a valuable guide for how we want to show up in the world.

It can help us identify areas where we want to improve, set goals, and take action toward becoming the best version of ourselves.

For example, if we feel guilty about not being there for a friend in need, we can use that guilt as a motivator to reach out and offer support.

If we feel guilty about making a mistake at work, we can use that guilt to learn from our mistakes and improve our skills.

Healthy guilt can be a positive force in our lives, but only if we approach it with a growth mindset and use it as a tool for self-improvement and building better relationships.

How Shame Disconnects Us from Ourselves and Others

Shame has been studied extensively in the field of psychology. Studies have shown that it can cause us to become detached from both ourselves and others.

Here are some key findings from research exploring this concept:

  1. Intrapersonal Disconnection: Shame profoundly affects how we relate to ourselves. When we experience Shame, we tend to internalize negative beliefs about ourselves. This leads to a disconnection from our sense of self-worth. We feel flawed, unworthy, or fundamentally inadequate; as mentioned earlier, this can cause a diminished sense of self-esteem and self-acceptance.
  2. Interpersonal Disconnection: Our relationships with others can also be affected by Shame. We may feel intense Shame and withdraw from social interactions, avoiding vulnerability and deep emotional connections. The fear of judgment and rejection often associated with Shame can hinder authentic communication and our ability to engage with others fully. This disconnection can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. It can also make it difficult to form and maintain healthy relationships.
  3. Lack of empathy and compassion: Research suggests that Shame can inhibit our ability to have empathy and compassion for others. It becomes difficult to tune into the emotions and experiences of those around us when we are preoccupied with our own feelings of Shame. This can interfere with our ability to offer support, understanding, and a genuine sense of connection to others.
  4. Self-censorship and lack of authenticity: Shame can cause us, for fear of judgment or further Shame, to censor or suppress aspects of our true selves. This self-censorship can manifest as hiding vulnerabilities, suppressing emotions, or misrepresenting oneself to meet societal or group expectations. As a result, we may feel disconnected from our authentic selves, perpetuating a cycle of Shame and disconnection.

If we trust and believe that others are helpful and caring, we can ask them to help when things are difficult. This can reduce the negative effects of Shame, whereas if we think nobody cares or asking is a sign of weakness, we may suffer alone.

Recognizing the damage that Shame can cause to our sense of self, how we relate to others, and our overall health, highlights the need to create environments that welcome empathy, acceptance, and openness.

Identifying Limiting Beliefs

Identifying and addressing limiting beliefs related to Shame is a powerful step toward personal growth and overcoming the grip of Shame.

Here are three insightful questions to get you started:

What self-beliefs hold you back?

Reflect on your beliefs about yourself that hinder your progress or limit your potential. These beliefs revolve around your abilities, worthiness, or inherent qualities.

Do you believe you are not smart enough, unworthy of success, or fundamentally flawed in any way, shape, or form? Identifying these self-limiting beliefs is the first step in challenging and reframing them.

What beliefs about yourself and others are getting in the way of your relationships?

This question challenges our beliefs about ourselves and others, impacting our relationships and helping us identify self-protective behaviors hindering our ability to build healthy relationships.

It provides an introspective journey that opens us to greater self-awareness about beliefs that may be based on past experiences, biases, or generalizations.

When we shift our focus from the negative effects of Shame to the constructive opportunities that arise in its absence, Shame will no longer dictate our choices and behavior.

What is the first step to take to take ownership of your thoughts and emotions, embrace vulnerability, and build deeper connections with yourself and others?

This question encourages us to take responsibility for our thoughts and emotions, which is the first step toward overcoming Shame.

When we understand why we feel a certain way and take action to change our mindset or behavior, we become better equipped to embrace vulnerability and connect more deeply with others.

Actionable Insights

Shame can be a powerful force in our lives, affecting how we interact with others, our self-esteem, and our ability to pursue our goals and passions.

Living in alignment with something beautiful can be difficult if Shame governs our relationships.

Imagining a life free from its grip can be difficult when Shame constantly consumes us.

However, breaking free from Shame and its negative influence is possible with the right questions and support.

One way to start is by examining your beliefs about yourself and the messages you receive from society, family, or peers that contribute to your Shame.

Are these messages accurate, helpful, or based on outdated or harmful limiting beliefs?

Be kind, Be kind, Be kind!

Practice self-compassion and forgiveness.

When Shame knocks on your door, try to approach yourself with kindness rather than beating yourself up for past mistakes or perceived shortcomings.

Making mistakes is not the same as “being wrong.” and does not determine your worth as a person.

Compassion is not something to be achieved as a goal. Rather, it is a practice of letting go of Shame and moving forward with greater freedom and possibility.

A lack of Shame will improve your overall mental health and well-being.

Start small, use journaling and coaching, or seek support from someone you truly trust and feel can provide valuable insights and support along your journey of self-discovery and personal transformation.

THIS TOPIC CAN BE CHALLENGING, SO MAKE SURE To ALWAYS FINISH ON A POSITIVE NOTE by asking these questions:
  1. What is one thing you have changed for the better in your life?
  2. What have you done to help someone else in need?
  3. What is another thing in your life that makes you feel positive and grateful today?

Research papers on Shame that you might find useful:

  1. Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and guilt. Guilford Press.
  2. Andrews, B., Qian, M., & Valentine, J. D. (2002). Predicting depressive symptoms with a new measure of Shame: The Experience of Shame Scale. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 41(1), 29-42. doi: 10.1348/014466502163755
  3. Gilbert, P., & Andrews, B. (1998). Shame: Interpersonal behavior, psychopathology, and culture. Oxford University Press.

Recommended books on Shame:

  1. I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power by Brené Brown.
  2. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown.
  3. Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown.
  4. Shame and Guilt by June Tangney and Ronda Dearing.
  5. Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology, and Culture by Paul Gilbert and Bernice Andrews.

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