Shame is an emotion that is experienced by everyone but that often goes unacknowledged or intentionally hidden. In this article, we discuss the physiological presentation of shame as it exists in the body. This includes addressing areas such as: nonverbal signs of shame; where shame is held in the body; and what shame feels and looks like in the body.
When experienced acutely, shame can be a feeling that is overwhelmingly painful and might feel like an invasion or intrusion threatening one’s safety or well-being. When experienced chronically, shame can feel heavy and burdensome. Chronic shame has the potential to lead to other mental health struggles, such as isolation and rage, and might require one to seek treatment for depression or anxiety therapy.
Despite shame’s potential harm, healing and letting go of shame is possible with the help of therapy. Shame held within the body can be healed somatically, emotionally, and relationally through therapeutic processing, which we’ll discuss.
What is Shame?
Many people often confuse shame and guilt with each other. These two emotions may sometimes feel similar, and both often occur in reaction to an indiscretion or misdeed; however, they actually have very different meanings and motivations.
On the one hand, guilt signals to you, “I did a bad thing,” and you may feel motivated to rectify the situation or make up for something. Guilt often leads to action and occurs when your mind has decided that you have done something specific that is bad.
Alternatively, shame tells you, “I am bad,” and it motivates you to freeze in place, often leading to inaction. Shame, then, occurs when your mind has decided that you are globally a bad person because of something you have done, which is a much more paralyzing experience.
Shame is an emotion that is held in the body and that has been described as a dysphoric affect (unhappy emotion) along with a collapse of self-esteem, feelings of humiliation, rupture of self-continuity, a sense of isolation and being cut off from the surroundings, and feelings of being watched by critical others (Akhtar, 2016).
Another way of looking at shame is the feeling of discrepancy between the self that a person projects to the world (how a person tries to be seen by others) and the self that is concealed or hidden from others (Gonzales, 2012).
Shame is referred to by many emotion researchers as a ‘universal emotion.’ As such, it is an emotion that seems to transcend language, culture, and location. This is not to say, however, that all shame experiences are identical. While most, if not all, people have the capacity to experience shame, it is also true that shame experiences exist on a spectrum. It also does not mean that shame cannot be worked through.
Nonverbal Signs of Shame
Shame is connected to processes that occur within the limbic system, the emotion center of the brain. When something shameful happens, your brain reacts to this stimulus by sending signals to the rest of your body that lead you to feel frozen in place. This process then produces behaviors and body language that act as nonverbal signs of shame.
Darwin (1872) was among the first to connect a flushing of the face, or a rush of blood to the cheeks, with the internal experience of shame. Flushing can be an uncomfortable experience for some people, distracting them, further preventing them from purposeful action. He also attributed confusion, downcast eyes, slack posture, and lowered head as outward physiological signs of an internal shame experience.
Additionally, shame often causes a physical feeling of collapsing one’s posture, a way of retreating into oneself or making oneself smaller. Many researchers see shame as an emotion that occurs in response to a perceived or actual threat to interpersonal connection or sense of belonging; and collapsing into yourself functions to withdraw from potentially threatening interactions or to signal to others that you are not open to interaction. In other words, impulses to cringe or make yourself feel smaller are bodily responses to shame feelings that allow you to “escape the painful gaze of others” (Lewis, 1992, p. 23). While shame occurs in response to threats to belonging, it makes you want to hide yourself from others in order to avoid future threats of the same kind.
In sum, there are several prominent examples of nonverbal (observable) signs of shame. In the body, shame is held in the face (flushing), eyes (downcast), head (lowered), and posture (slack). The photo below demonstrates many of these physical cues:
What Does Shame Look and Feel Like in the Body?
The symptoms listed above are the interpersonal physical manifestations of shame. Intrapersonally, or within your own internal experience, shame can be one of the most painful emotions you may feel. While all experiences are somewhat different, pain and discomfort to some degree are likely involved. Because shame is held in the body, the pain and discomfort can be both physical and emotional.
This may include an uncomfortable and pronounced self-consciousness, one where you feel hyper-aware of your body, self, or being. Alternatively, it may feel like an uncomfortable disconnection from your body, one in which you feel wrapped up in thoughts related to the shameful event or your being ‘bad.’ It is also possible that both of these experiences co-occur, meaning that you feel both self-conscious and disconnected from yourself at the same time.
Being a body-based emotion, shame is a uniquely self-focused experience, and this translates into it being categorized as a self-conscious emotion, which is likely to be accompanied by lowered self-esteem and increased self-attention. Because of this unique combination of internal experiences, the body reacts as if interaction with others is a threat. Therefore, the autonomic nervous system, particularly the sympathetic nervous system, gets activated, leading to the physical sensations mentioned above along with a sense of unease that may originate in the chest, abdomen, or head and radiates outward through the limbs as a way of readying your body for incoming dangers. Shame, when especially strong, may make you feel as if you want to ‘crawl out of your own skin,’ indicating the dissonance between your self and what you think the shameful event says about you.
When left unattended, shame has the potential to lead to other mental health symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, or uncontrolled anger:
Shame and Depression
Depression, for example, can manifest out of prolonged shame as a result of repeated rejection or interpersonal disconnection. This then turns into a ‘shame-depression spiral,’ one in which the depression feeds into more shame (shame about having depression), which feeds into more depression (depression about ongoing shame and disconnection). Some occasional experiences of shame are completely normal and, in fact, universal; however, it is when shame becomes chronic that it becomes worth addressing.
Shame and Anxiety
As a body-based and self-conscious emotion, shame can also often lead to an increase in anxiety. When shame leads to the impulse to withdraw from others, this often occurs due to the feeling or perception of having too much negative attention on yourself from others. Your body interprets this as a threat, therefore increasing your fight-flight-or-freeze response. When this response occurs but there is no physical threat, your mind interprets your body’s signals as anxiety.
Below we describe three therapeutic strategies that can be used for healing shame:
Use Language to Label the Shame
It often takes some time to realize that you are feeling shame while it is happening. When first recognizing that shame is getting in the way of being the kind of person you want to be or is getting in the way of your internal peace, it is most important to name the shame as early in the shame process as you can. Putting words to your emotional experience allows for connection between your right brain (negative emotions) and your left brain (positive emotions and language). Naming the shame, literally telling yourself “I am feeling shame,” allows you to ground yourself in your experience, validate your emotions to yourself, and prove to yourself that you are separate from the shame.
Create an Anchor Point and Ground Your Body
In the same vein, grounding yourself in your body soothes your sympathetic nervous system in order to deactivate the fight-flight-freeze response that shame initiates. It permits you to feel safer within your own body and work through the shame to better understand it so that it does not control your subsequent actions. To ground yourself within your own body, take a moment to feel your feet planted firmly on the floor, put your hand firmly on your chest, and take a few deep breaths while paying attention to the physical sensations of your feet on the floor and your hand on your chest. Give yourself permission to belong in your own body.
Describe Your Emotional Experience with Someone You Trust
Finally, shame functions as a way of keeping us isolated, withdrawn, and disconnected. In order to really prevent shame from taking its power, consider sharing your emotional experience with a trusted person. Even just naming our experience to another person can feel so regulating. Naming takes the nonverbal experience and signs of shame and puts it into words that are easier to let go of and heal. Let someone who you consider to be safe know that you had a moment of shame, and allow yourself a moment of re-connection. A mental health professional with whom you build a working relationship can be an excellent source of validation and support in the face of shame experiences. Curiosity and therapeutic questions also help change the shame experience. Shame often makes us want to hide, but the antidote to shame is to let yourself be seen.
This article was written by Jayna Burleigh, Psy.D., who worked at Attune from 2022-2023. Article was researched, edited, and published by Eric Spiegel, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist specializing in the treatment of shame and depression.
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