What is Shame?
Shame is the belief that comes from within yourself that you are personally bad in some way.
Shame from sibling sexual trauma can be intense and painful. Anyone who is part of a family affected by sibling sexual trauma can feel shame, including the one who caused the harm, the parents, the one who was violated, as well as other family members. Chronic shame can block both personal and family healing. One study cited shame as the number one reason that survivors of childhood sexual abuse stay silent about their trauma rather than seeking help.
Shame is to the emotions what a burn is to the body. It is intensely painful. We reflexively withdraw from it. We are hard-wired to avoid anything that causes it.
People feel shame when they fall short of society’s ideal in any way: ability, appearance, social status, purity. Shame that arises from actual or perceived guilt leaves a person feeling morally defective. Shame can also arise from circumstances or actions that have no moral component–for example, losing a game or failing a test. It can even arise from traits or characteristics that a person did not choose and cannot control–for example, appearance, physical ability, or social class. Similar to physical pain, no matter what caused the shame, it feels the same. This is what makes undeserved shame so confusing and difficult to deal with.
Shame is so intense that it often causes physical symptoms, such as flushing, blushing, or sweating, shortness of breath, fast heartbeat and breathing, nausea or tightness in the stomach. Shame can cause feelings of fear or even panic, the sensation of being exposed or that others can see through you, a desire to hide or escape. People experiencing shame directly may cover their face or eyes, look down, or speak more softly.
Examples of thoughts that come with shame include:
I can’t do anything right.
I’m just a… [label]
I should be more (or less)....
I don’t deserve…
I’m nobody, I don’t matter, etc
I’m useless, helpless
I’m just making things worse
Shame that is carried for a long time usually gets covered with secondary reactions. Without even realizing what they are doing, people often cover shame with anger, depression, anxiety, withdrawal, addiction, perfectionism, self-destructive behavior, PTSD, physical pain or illness. When a person feels defensive and acts out, they are usually emotionally defending themselves against some type of shame.
Shame is the hub that connects humiliation, guilt, and stigma. The best way to begin to understand those connections may be to define each of these terms. Shame is a popular current topic in psychology, but there isn’t a universally-accepted definition. The list below defines how these terms will be used on this website. The definitions are not universal. And the distinctions are not as clean in real life as they are on the page.
Shame* (noun): a concept; the belief coming from within yourself that you are guilty, defective, or unworthy
Ashamed (adjective): describes the feeling that comes with believing you are guilty, defective, or unworthy
Guilt (noun): the state of having done something that is morally wrong and/or that caused harm
Guilty (adjective): describes the feeling that arises from knowing you did something wrong; often includes regret and remorse
Humiliate* (verb): to act in a way that causes another person to feel ashamed; to treat a person as if they are worthy of shame; to cause someone to feel ashamed by injuring their dignity and self-respect
Humiliated (adjective): the feeling that comes from being the target of humiliation; feeling bad about yourself because of the way another person has treated you
Public Humiliation (noun): the action of treating a person as if they are worthy of shame in the physical or virtual presence of others
Stigma (noun): humiliation that is socially associated with a group of people or a social label Stigmatized (adjective): describes the feeling of being subject to social shame based on group or label
Appropriate shame**: shame that arises from actual guilt
Undeserved shame**: shame that arises from humiliation or stigma
*The word shame is often used as a verb--”She shamed me”--but this site will use shame and humiliation as defined above for the sake of clarity.
**Discussions on shame do not always recognize a separation between deserved and undeserved shame. But for a site that is addressing those who have caused sexual trauma as well as those who have been sexually violated, it is an important distinction to make.
This page and the discussions that follow are only a beginning to explore the role of shame in experiencing and healing from sibling sexual trauma and the family turmoil that follows. They are not universal or definitive.
Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2018). Reconsidering the Differences Between Shame and Guilt. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 14(3), 710-733.
Anne Kammerer, Scientific American: The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame
Arlin Cuncic, verywellmind.com: What is Shame?