The science of shame and its silent survival
The concept of "shame surviving in silence" refers to the tendency for individuals to keep their experiences of shame hidden or undisclosed, often due to fear, embarrassment, or societal pressure.
Let’s explore the science behind this phenomenon by looking at the psychological and sociocultural factors involved.
Shame is a complex emotion that arises when individuals feel a sense of failure, inadequacy, or a violation of social norms or expectations. It can be triggered by various factors such as personal mistakes, moral transgressions, or social exclusion. When people experience shame, they often perceive themselves as defective or unworthy, leading to a strong desire to conceal their feelings and actions associated with the shameful event.
A factor contributing to silence is the cultural and societal context. Different cultures may have varying norms regarding the expression of emotions, including shame. In some societies, shame may be heavily stigmatised, leading individuals to suppress or deny their experiences in order to maintain social standing or avoid bringing shame upon themselves or their families. This cultural influence can further reinforce the silence surrounding speaking up about mental illness or challenging times.
Psychological processes also play a role in silence perpetuating the survival of shame. Research suggests that shame is associated with increased self-focus and self-criticism. People experiencing shame may engage in negative self-talk, self-blame, and self-isolation. They may believe that their shameful experiences are unique to them, leading to a sense of isolation and the perception that sharing their shame will only amplify their negative emotions. This internal dialogue can further increase their desire to stay silent. It then becomes a vicious cycle where silence reinforces shame, and shame reinforces the silence.
Moreover, the fear of vulnerability plays a huge role. Shame is an inherently vulnerable emotion, as it involves revealing aspects of oneself that are considered undesirable. Sharing shame requires individuals to expose their perceived flaws, which can be uncomfortable and challenging. Shame becomes like a scab that we constantly pick at. Instead of allowing it the air and the space to heal, we rinse and repeat our scratching until the scab scars and serves as a constant reminder of our pain. When we continually void ourselves of opportunity to speak, feel and heal, we reinforce the chokehold that silence has on our suffering.
Brene Brown who has been researching shame for more than two decades shares how We are all capable of overcoming shame through building shame resilience. And according to Brown’s (2007) shame resilience theory (SRT), we can learn and develop the following:
- Capacity to recognize our experiences of shame
- Ability to move through shame constructively, maintaining our authenticity and growing from our experiences
- Stronger, more meaningful connections with people in our lives
So what’s the antidote to shame? Empathy. Finding the courage to speak up and hearing someone say, “I get it, that must be hard, it’s totally normal” can help us move out of secrecy, silence, and fear and towards compassion, connection, and freedom.