Are You Harnessing the Power of Shame to Heal and Thrive?

A new book offers a counterintuitive view of an emotion considered toxic.

Posted Nov 08, 2018

 Quinten de Graaf/Unsplash.
Source: Quinten de Graaf/Unsplash.

Take a moment, would you, and consider the word shame?  What are the first associations that come to mind? The chances are good, as my fellow blogger Dr. Joseph Burgo makes clear in his new book, that one or all of the following assumptions popped into your head:

  • ·      That admitting you feel shame is hard. In fact, the admission makes you feel ashamed.
  •        That feeling shame is always toxic and that you should avoid or resist it at all costs.
  •         That feeling shame is the opposite of self-worth and that self-esteem is always diminished or damaged by shame.
  • ·      That true self-esteem is about the self, and not about other people.

If one or all of these echo your own thoughts, then Dr. Burgo’s new book, Shame, offers you a terrific opportunity: To re-route your thinking and put those everyday feelings of shame we all experience into a new context and see them as workhorses for growth and true inner groundedness.

Courtesy St. Martin's Press
Source: Courtesy St. Martin's Press

Understanding shame as a family of emotions

While being embarrassed feels very different from being utterly humiliated—the recovery from the first is relatively easy and quick while the getting over the second is like crawling out from a very deep pit—they’re actually part of the spectrum of shame, as Dr. Burgo makes clear. The spectrum runs from mild to intense (self-conscious when you realize you’ve had spinach between your teeth for the last hour to shamed to the core when your spouse or lover simply dumps you publicly and unceremoniously) and from the specific to the global (you feel embarrassed that you didn’t bring a hostess gift to the party and everyone else did to feeling that no one will ever be friends with you). What links them all is what is a “painful awareness of self.” Think about that phrase for a moment because therein lies the opportunity Dr. Burgo offers up.

Shame as a portal to self-awareness

Because feeling shame is painful, we run from it, shove it under a rug, or simply deny it and, grounded in his thirty-five years of experience as a therapist, Dr. Burgo holds up a giant Stop! sign, armed with rich in-depth case histories and observations drawn from research and experience. He urges us to see that by thinking of shame as toxic, we lose many possible opportunities for growth of awareness. Feeling shame can be a positive force in our lives, holding us accountable for our behaviors when needed and permitting us to glimpse the better selves who might have reacted and acted more fully, honestly, and directly.

This isn’t to say that shame can’t be toxic; it can. But Dr. Burgo carefully distinguishes between the kind of shame that destroys our souls—of being rejected by our parents, of being shamed for being physically different, and the like—by putting it in all caps, SHAME. It’s the other feelings which are part of the shame family—expressed in lower case—that can become spiritual and psychological teachers if we know how to use them.

Throughout the book’s pages, Dr. Burgo takes us on a journey of exploration, teaching us how to look behind those moments of shame we all experience, underscoring that this painful awareness of self is part of our humanity,  and gives us the tools to glean greater understanding and acceptance of ourselves from these experiences.

 Jon Ly/Unsplash.
Source: Jon Ly/Unsplash.

One of the paradigms he offers up is that of unrequited love, one which will be especially resonant for those who, like me, had an unloving mother or father, and who were filled with SHAME because they felt they were responsible for their parent’s rejection of them.  Or perhaps the SHAME of unrequited love is being spurned by someone you love or a someone you want to be close to who doesn’t reciprocate.  A spouse’s extramarital affair may also induce this kind of feeling. In what’s really an emotional intelligence exercise, though not labeled as such, Dr. Burgo counsels us to name what we feel in the moment, looking at what’s hiding behind that door called SHAME. Instead of calling it SHAME, you might say instead that you feel:

  • ·      hurt, rejected, or spurned
  • ·      unlovable or unworthy of love
  • ·      ugly (not attractive enough or fit enough)
  • ·      not masculine (of feminine) enough
  • ·      humiliated
  • ·      unwanted (unvalued or uncared for)
  • ·      ignored or slighted
  • ·      unimportant, overlooked, or forgotten

Throughout this remarkable book, Dr. Burgo reminds us that we can’t live our lives without experiencing feelings of shame but we can learn to manage and weather them, and become not just more resilient but more self-aware.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2018


Burgo, Joaeph. Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2018.