The word carries with it images of dimly lit and curtained booth with a man walled off by a screen in a stuffy old building. We may never personally experience a confessional, but movies fill in what culturally we don’t know.
A man or woman, heavily burdened, walks into a church. You can almost feel the shame they carry. You can see it in their down-averted eyes. They have done something disgraceful. So they heave their bruden up the steps of a church, slide in the confessional booth, and blurt out the circumstances.
Except they can’t often just “blurt it out”. Watching them almost feels like work! Like something is being pulled from deep within- except the something is fighting with all its might to not come out.
Shame feels lodged deep. We all have it.
“If only I were _____ enough.”
We can all fill in that statement.
Shame is the feeling of something wrong us. We are defective. And because we are defective, we aren’t worthy to receive love and acceptance from others. Mostly, we are unable to accept love and acceptance from ourselves. You and I personally have bought into the investment of shame, perpetuating the belief of our defectiveness.
Physical Impact of Shame
Now, everyone probably agrees shame has emotional impact. It feels true because of the boulder living at the pit of our stomach. But what people don’t know is shame has physical manifestations in our bodies.
Shame lives in the “shoulds” of our minds.
I should be thinner.
I shouldn’t have hit her.
I should have cared more.
I should be able to work harder.
I shouldn’t be tired.
I should be invincible.
I should be more feminine.
I should be more manly.
Stop for a moment and inventory your own shoulds. If you quiet your mind, I promise you they are there. Take a moment and think of all the shoulds you can. Let them take over your mind.
Did your breath get shallow and quick? Did your heart rate accelerate? Did your stomach clench?
The shame harbored in the “shoulds” activates the stress response within our bodies. Cortisol (hormone released during stress) rises as the thoughts in our minds are translated as threats within the body. Higher cortisol is linked with numerous studies showing the adverse effects on short and long-term medical health.
The shame your carry is literally killing you.
How to Take Care of Shame
Remember the confessional described earlier? It matters! Churches were onto something when they allowed their people to verbalize the despicable thoughts, feelings, and actions from within their mind.
Turns out that research shows shame is broken by literally speaking what shames you. Doing the hard work of prying shame and shoulds from the pit of our stomach and the depths of our minds not only enables us to feel better, but deactivates the stress response. In doing this personal work you are physically treating the disease of shame.
I cannot emphasize how vital this truth is! For your own health and wellbeing, you need to speak and care for those parts of you that are ugly. If you are lacking a safe person and space to care for yourself in this way, please give me or another mental health professional a call. Your mind and body may not be telling you you’re worth the effort, but you absolutely are.
Freedom from the disease of shame is possible, and the work begins when you step into the courage of showing up and being seen- even in your defectiveness. While shame feels like a rock in your stomach, freedom feels light. Step from darkness of shame into light of freedom.
Written by therapist Alexandra Hoerr