Cringing Shame Memories

Like many of my clients, I have certain intrusive memories — some of them going back more than 40 years — that carry with them the sting of shame. It’s no longer a frequent experience for me, but when one of them pops into my mind, I have a very distinct physical reaction. I close my eyes and flinch; my body tightens, as if I’m expecting a physical blow, and my sphincter contracts (sorry if this seems like TMI, but I’m interested to see whether any of you have the same experience). These memories exist in an non-assimilated state, distinct and self-contained. Each time, they come back in exactly the same form, producing the same unpleasant physical response. I think of them as “cringing shame memories.”

Since reading Brené Brown’s new book, I’ve been trying to pin down the differences between our respective ways of conceptualizing and working with shame. In a nutshell, rather than viewing shame as the enemy, I often think it has something important to tell us about ourselves if we can bear to face it. I thought that discussing one of my cringing shame memories and what I’ve learned from it might help make this difference clear. I believe that facing shame and trying to understand the reasons for it can transform a non-assimilated, self-contained and acutely painful memory into one that may occasion some chagrin but doesn’t pierce in the same way. It becomes integrated with other memories, understood and explained within a larger understanding of ourselves.

Some of my cringing shame memories are just too painful to discuss, but here’s one that I’ve been working on this past week. About four or five years ago, not long before his birthday, my friend Peter announced to our writer’s group one Thursday that he had decided to retire from his teaching position in a few years’ time. We always celebrate our birthdays together in class, and as I was shopping at Barnes & Noble for a gift, I remembered what Peter had said and bought him a book about retirement planning. Every time I remember this gift, I cringe with shame: did I really think that Peter, on the verge of retirement, hadn’t already been planning for it for years? It seems to me a very thoughtless, inconsiderate gift.

Since I see Peter almost every Thursday, this painful memory sears into my mind fairly often, especially around one of our birthdays. It came back to me again this past week, just as I was exiting the freeway on my way to the bank. My reaction, as usual, was to think, “You idiot,” and then try to put it out of my mind. This time, I stopped and asked myself what the memory revealed about me and what I needed to examine more closely. Rather than turning away, I went into greater detail. I took myself back to Barnes & Noble and the moment of choice.

I was in a hurry and feeling stressed. As much as I love our birthday celebrations, I find the process of birthday gifts for my fellow writers a little oppressive. Works of literary fiction are the usual gifts among us and the others read much more of it than I do. I’m always worried that I’ll buy something they’ve already read, or it won’t be to their taste, etc.; for this reason, I don’t buy them novels. I’m not sure what took me to that particular section of Barnes & Noble, but when I spotted the book on retirement planning, I felt a wave of relief. I had something other than a work of literary
fiction to buy.

That part is understandable, I suppose, but what occasions the shame is my carelessness. Many other people I know, including everyone in my writer’s group, seem so much more sensitive about gifts than I am. Whenever I receive a present in class, the thought behind it shines through. They understand my tastes in fiction, especially my admiration for Henry James, and usually find a book with acute psychological insight and exquisite prose. I know they’ve thought about me. My gifts, in contrast, sometimes seem hasty and ill-considered, like that book for Peter. It seems to reflect a lack of concern for others, and a kind of self-absorption that leaves other people out. I don’t think I’m being harsh but rather facing up to some truth about myself.

It is undeniably true that I can become self-absorbed. I can be forgetful in an inconsiderate way. Or hasty, just rushing through something to get it over with when I should be taking greater care. I suppose these traits fall into the realm of narcissistic behavior. I expect that Peter was probably hurt to some degree; I feel guilty about that. I feel ashamed of myself for being insensitive and self-absorbed. I resist the urge to make excuses for myself with thoughts like, “Everybody does that kind of thing from time to time.”

But now, the memory no longer makes me cringe with shame. I’ve faced this truth about myself and will try to do better. I can be on the look-out for this tendency in the future and try to catch it before I do something else insensitive. No doubt I’ll slip again but hopefully less often than before. This particular cringing shame memory has been integrated into my views of myself in a way that enlarges my understanding and will help me to treat my friends better in the future. I don’t need to excuse my behavior or treat shame as an enemy; I need to learn from the experience.

Although I didn’t link it to that particular cringing shame memory (until this moment), I ultimately resolved my anxiety over birthday gifts for my classmates by making something, a food item that I’ve prepared myself, spending time and thought in the process. I bake breads, can preserves and make chutneys. I’m proud to give these presents and they are always welcomed by my friends. I don’t feel bad for being thoughtless or insensitive. No doubt the shame I felt but hadn’t quite faced about Peter’s gift had something to do with that change.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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137 Responses to Cringing Shame Memories

  1. Catherine says:

    While reading your post I realized it is interesting to try to step outside of oneself…and try to see the world from another’s perspective. At first, I had all these thoughts about what you were saying and then I automatically linked them to my worldview. For example, why is he calling himself an idiot—he was just trying to buy a suitable gift and so on. Then, instead, I “tried” to appreciate it from your worldview, (e.g., thinking you were insenstive– learning from the experience).
    I remember listening to a YouTube lecture from Jon Kabat- Zinn, [really interesting speaker] he stated that it is almost impossible to get outside of one’s own self—(because of all the projections we put onto a person) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc.
    I really appreciate the term “cringing shame memories” and the insight–stop viewing the shame thoughts as the enemy…makes a lot of sense.
    The memory and accompanying feelings that I have when I have done something stupid or insensitive is a completely different experience than the sense that I am intrinsically defective and less worthy as a person. The latter experience I think stems from my childhood and the constant neglect and devaluating treatment. The first experience seems a bit like embarrassment, and the second is physically painful in my chest and it can lead to tears. Next time I feel shame I will try to learn more from it. I look forward to reading the posts from your readers.
    Cheers,
    [If I am totally off the mark here, I hope you will advise]

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Not at all off base. I think the shame I’m describing is a less intense form of the childhood-related shame you describe. It certainly doesn’t feel like embarrassment — much worse. As I often say, basic shame (unlike the kind of social shame that Brown discusses) points toward our damage and the way the past has shaped the people we are today.

      It’s interesting to me that nobody else has commented on this post. I suspected when I put it up that people would either think “oh, he should just stop being so hard on himself” or normalize my experience, on the one hand, or on the other, they would feel very uncomfortable about what I wrote and want to turn away from it.

      • mag says:

        Really? Is the instigator of shame intentional? I think ‘shame’ comes from our perceived misinterpretations of others. Why is it shameful to take the time, joy and thoughtfulness of thinking of someone else? My goodness, you TOOK THE TIME. Shame, I think, has to be owned by ourselves. Shame, I think, is based on the very core of who we are and NOT an accurate reflection of what others think we are. SHAME sucks. ED ridden for decades, I absolutely know the feeling of shame. Wanting to acknowledge a special day for someone you care about…regardless of what the acknowledgement entails, that is not shameful. Raise your head, take heart, know that your friend appreciates your recognition.

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          See some of my replies to other comments. It’s not about the single act but what it revealed about some defect of my character. I do take heart, but more from having the courage to “lean into” my shame and learn from it.

      • A. Guerra says:

        I just read your post, and now see you have many responses. For me you post has left me in a contemplative place, wanting to chew on it for a while. I like this kind of writing–that which makes me want to reflect, without–for lack of a better description, a quick and easy response. Thanks.

  2. Since I put it up this morning, 60 people have read this post and 1 person has submitted a comment. That is way below average and it makes me think there is something very difficult for people to hear in what I’m saying.

    • Susan says:

      I didn’t find anything difficult in your post about cringing shame memories. I feel pretty much the same as Catherine, and, I think, you. I can think of many similar cringe-worthy moments, often ones that occur at meetings. Even though I know I have the respect of most of my peers, I (like everybody else, it seems) can say things that on reflection were intemperate or impulsive and poorly thought-out. I HATE the feeling that I should have taken more care, given something more thought, been somebody better, smarter, wiser — but I am also more able to put those feelings behind me, mostly because I see that we (or almost all of us) are subject to the same failings. The cringe-worthy moments that I have much more trouble getting over are the ones that happen in therapy. I am sometimes so overwhelmed emotionally that I feel crazy, and I know I say crazy things. The next day when I am back at my desk being the competent professional that I usually am, I suffer terrible shame at having lost control. Bad birthday presents? I’ve given many. The worst I can feel about myself in those cases is that I didn’t try very hard, and I always promise myself to do better next time. And sometimes I actually do! A last thought: Have you really thought about the presents you’ve received from classmates? Do they all reflect thoughtfulness on the part of the givers? Did you feel that the givers of less thoughtful presents should have felt ashamed of themselves? Just wondering.

      • Susan says:

        Actually, I have one more question: Why do we use the same word, shame, to describe the emotion we feel about things we did that we wish we hadn’t done, and things that were done to us that we wish hadn’t been done? And, why is it easier, at least for me, to get over the former than the latter?

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          Oy, that’s a big question! I’m struggling with all of these issues as I embark on my book about shame and I hope I’ll have better answers a year from now than at present.

      • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

        You raise some good points. Maybe not all of the gifts were equally thoughtful, but I felt that my thoughtlessness reflected something larger about me. For that reason, it wasn’t just a mistake for which I savaged myself; it indicated something … pervasive is too large a concept, but bigger than a one-time event. I can forgive myself for simple errors, but I feel I need to hold myself accountable when there’s a larger character issue involved.

        • Susan says:

          I so appreciate your honesty and your humanity, Dr. Burgo. I like to think that all psychotherapists struggle with issues like shame and pride. And I think we all—therapists and clients alike—have to hold ourselves accountable for our characters, even while we are dealing with what might be much more difficult issues. Being thoughtful about other people is one of the easiest practices to get started on. And like most worthwhile things (like writing, for instance), it takes a lifetime of practice, and we still might not be that good at it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    my intrusive memories, which are very many, also bring about the same physiological response that you point to. I instantly close my eyes and feel my sphincter contract. Mentally i can become paralyzed for a good 5-10 minutes.And yes these strike with the same intensity each time. I fail to guard against them because they just pop up.
    Then follows a screwed up attempt to rationalize, to play down the effect so that i can remain functional and carry on with the day.
    My cringing memories include insignificant instances like being laughed at for using incorrect English on the public announcement system at my school when i was 16,
    to the more recent ones based in my failed attempts to relate. Some memories from school don’t bother me so much now because i am no longer in the same time-space, but memories -recent and distant, of failed attempts to salvage relationships, or of watching my mother inflict self harm do have a strong visceral effect.
    These memories make me feel naked all over again, especially in front the very people, at whose mercy my emotional balance was.
    What i am trying to say is that not only do the memories upset me when they ‘pop up’ generally, but also when they come up when i face the people who became my “shaming agents”. I call them my shaming agents because their rejection has caused me deep sense of self dislike. (i don’t know if i have expressed clearly, and honestly i don’t know if their effect can be tempered.)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You expressed yourself very well. When shame runs deep, it seems inevitably to coincide with a kind of self-dislike or self-hatred that I think is based on idealized expectations of who we ought to be. I’ll have more to say about this later.

      • Steve W says:

        I get mauled by such memories all the time and have been battered by them all my life. They’re crippling. They reinforce the internalized contemptuous judgements of one’s character, quality and prospects. My 51st birthday is a few days away and I’m moodier than usual; I don’t want the gifts and phone calls and cards, which remind me of all I could have been and experienced, and have not.

  4. Lee says:

    Dear Dr. Burgo,
    As someone who puts a great deal of effort when gift buying, I can relate to what you are saying. I recently brought a friend a birthday treat of rum balls. I chose those thinking they would fare the bus ride better than a slice of cake. He pointed out to me quite graciously that he was on the wagon and would have to abstain. I put my hand to my mouth and sputtered out my apology. I could not BELIEVE I had been so daft! I mentioned that it was just flavour, not the actual alcohol, but he declined nicely. I can’t say I felt ashamed. I did feel I had too many details regarding the celebration on my mind. I promised a cake check ( i.e. rain check). An honest mistake is an honest mistake. I think you are being far too hard on yourself Doc!!

    • Lee says:

      PS I had not read your comment on ‘being too hard on yourself’ when I posted mine!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t think I’m just being hard on myself. You were being careful and putting a great deal of effort into the purchase of your gift, I did not. More to the point, these efforts to explore my shame and be real with myself also give rise to feelings of pride. I’m proud that I’m the sort of person who will dig in and explore these feelings. It’s not a feeling of superiority, but I do feel good about myself for doing it.

  5. Claire says:

    Dear Dr. Burgo,
    I haven’t commented on your site before, although I’ve been lurking for several months and now feel pushed by your comment. I must admit I recognize your description of those intrusive shame memories (minus the sphincter sensation) very well. I’ve been trying to cope with them for a long time. I must admit I find them so unpleasant that I usually try to repress them as quickly as possible and reassure myself that everything is basically OK or that the memories are of events so long ago that I can’t change that sequence or that anybody else actually remembers the events as that cringe-worthy I never thought of spending enough time with one of these cringe memories to work out what is going on there. Might be interesting, if I felt I could face up to them.
    Maybe it’s because they feel so intrusive, as if coming from outside, rather than from within myself?
    Anyway, thanks very much for this and your website. I’ve been in counselling for a few months and this website has helped me make sense of some of the things I’m unearthing and put them in a context.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’m glad you’ve emerged from lurking to take part in the conversation! I’ll be interested to hear what you find if you try to spend more time with one of these memories. I think the fact that they feel so alien is part of the problem; we need to understand and integrate them.

  6. Claire says:

    Quick postscript: I never realised that other people got these as well, I always felt like a freak for having them. One of the best things about therapy I think is discovering that the things we berate ourselves most for doing have an emotional logic behind them and once we unearth that logic these activities, thoughts and feelings lose some of their power.

  7. J says:

    I enjoy your blog very much, I’ve learned a lot from you, just wanted to let you know. :)

  8. natalie says:

    Perhaps there aren’t as many responses to this article (brimming with self-honesty) because readers will naturally be reminded of their own careless and hurtful actions towards others leading to their own experiences of shame or guilt. These can be hard to bear and its much easier to rationalise than to have the courage to be honest about our individual shortcomings and mistakes.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I think you must be right. I’m glad to see there are more comments now, but none of us is comfortable with this issue.

  9. Izzy says:

    Seems that what you’re describing (allowing the shame and all of the associated feelings in) is similar to mindfulness, ie really experiencing the pain, feelings, emotions, etc of whatever is surfacing and allowing yourself to accept (without judgment) that those aspects just are what they are in this moment. If so, I think that can be a scary prospect for many people. We’re designed to try to avoid pain and turning toward the shame rather then away goes against that design. But I do agree that it is incredibly helpful and important to do. The more I turn toward the memories that invoke a sense of shame, the more I understand about myself including the reasons for that shame (ie I feel shame about a particular memory from awhile back that indicates that I really needed some attention on a big day in my life – some validation that I was a success…I needed some attention in that context because my family rarely provided it early on and so I never learned to self-validate). However, that process and the acceptance of that past and present has led to many many difficult therapy sessions, sleepless nights, pain, tears, rage, etc. It’s not a comfortable process and I can understand why people may have difficulty with accepting that as the ‘way out.’

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That’s very well put, Izzy. And I agree that it’s not easy. I think it’s why the Brené Brown approach of treating shame as an enemy to be vanquished holds so much more appeal. I fear I will never be popular!

  10. cilipadi says:

    Good article…i look up yr previous post titled ‘trading shame’…makes this one clearer…admitting one is in shame-based relationship takes courage…esp if you are the one with the ‘shame’…i think your description hits the nail on the head.My partner is having shame issues…been having it since we got together almost 20 yrs ago,not sure goes how far back in his original family.He has been having trading-shame games with me all this while…Now i am feeling rather exhausted…i think we are heading for shame-based divorce…He denies shames…

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Ouch. At the end of the day, it’s almost impossible to be truly intimate with someone who can’t bear his own shame.

  11. Emma says:

    Well, you are right. There is something difficult to hear in what you are saying.

    I have realized over the past few years that I have cringe-worthy moments of shame, too. I have two types: the first type is when I am remembering a particularly scary or shame-inducing (for lack of a better word) moment from my childhood, and the other type is when I remember something I did that is maybe something I did that was embarassing, or thoughtless, or hurtful.

    When I start to remember a moment such as you talk about in your post–where potentially I have been a bit insensitive, or a bit thoughtless, or a bit mean, I think I mentally “punish” myself a bit more for it than what is truly appropriate because of my basic shame. Is it true that I can say and do insensitive things? You betcha. But I think that I tend to assume that anything “bad”–or less than perfect– that I have done is “proof” that I am really as defective, broken, and unworthy as I fear. It helps to be really honest about how bad my mistake really is, which I guess for me includes a bit of “Don’t worry, Emma, everyone makes mistakes…..” All pathways in my mind lead me back to my basic shame, so I try to remind myself that a “normal” amount of shame is okay, and that I don’t need to let “normal amounts” of shame remind me of the ever-present BIG shame that I feel, if that makes any sense.

    As far as your physical reaction that you describe, I know this is possibly what is making readers most uncomfortable because* I* am quite uncomfortable thinking about my own physical reaction in such situations. Often I can detect almost sexual-like feelings developing in my genital area (sorry for my TMI) when I recall really scary or really shameful times. I am actually quite ashamed of this reaction, and I don’t really understand it, and I bet other people might have physical reactions that unsettle them greatly also. I can also feel my heart being squeezed.

    I hope this response comes off the way I want it too. I think it is very brave to talk about these things, and I appreciate it more than you know. I am just hoping to shed a little light on the whole subject, as well. I think it is very telling that there have been far fewer replies.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yours is a very brave comment, too. I think what you say about how “normal” shame for the kind of errors everyone makes can tap into basic shame is a HUGE issue. It’s why some of us weather the inevitable shame that goes along with being human better than others. We all feel shame, but not all of us have a reservoir of basic shame to go along with it.

    • L says:

      Emma, I don’t know if you will see this but wanted to thank you for putting into words the physical sensations you experience when recalling scary or shameful memories. I too have the same feelings and was worried and ashamed of them (I feel them as well when I put myself in emotionally difficult situations like talking about something difficult with my therapist). – would never have discussed these sensations had I not seen this comment. Thanks for making me feel a little less isolated in my human experience!

  12. Jane says:

    I think the lack of comments shows how difficult it is to stay with, let alone consider, our own shame-producing memories. When I read your post, a few of mine flashed across my mind, but I detained none of them. I don’t ever like to remember them. But, having read your thoughts, I can see the value in staying with them (one at a time!) until I can derive meaning from them which I can use to help me in the present. Thank you, Joe.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You’re welcome. If at some later point, you have some thoughts about “detaining” (nice word) some of those memories, please let us know.

  13. Peggy Payne says:

    And you think I have a ferocious superego?! Wow, yours is also impressive. I’d be surprised if Peter had a negative thought about that book.

    En meme temps, it’s impressive that you dealt here with one of these moments. Couldn’t have been easy.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It may be ferocious, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely wrong. The trick is to fend off the savagery and leave room for the part that’s true. I think a lot of us tend to do the former and not the latter. After reading this post, Peter told me he hasn’t thought of it since, which doesn’t surprise me, but still …

  14. Sheila A says:

    How about the times when you put in great thought and care about a gift for someone and you don’t get the reaction you were thinking of getting. Then you really do a “Doh” and think you are an idiot because you got it all wrong, when you thought you had it all “right”.
    My shame cringes usually come from the “foot-in-mouth” disease. I remember the times that I’ve said something really stupid and I think the person, like me, will remember it for all the days of their life – when in actuality they don’t.
    I do remember and that’s not good, when someone steps in it – if it is emotionally painful – I remember. The words become inbeded in my memory. Like the time we were at my sister-in-law’s cottage we usually get invited when the weather is going to be miserable and none of their friends want to come up – and she said to my husband. “If I knew it was going to be this nice I would have invited someone.” I guess that makes us chopped liver. I finally confronted her with it, ( had no realization that she had verbalized such a hurtful comment) because she had made a similar statement years earlier when she invited me to a concert – because I was the only one available. Later she said that at the last minute she found out someone in her office liked the band. “Too bad I didn’t know, I would have invited her.” So, we all have things that we think we should feel shameful about – break someone else’s rules – feel shame. Say something stupid – feel shame. Show up late for an event – feel shame. Walk out of a public washroom with toilet paper stuck to shoe – feel shame. Write a stupid comment to a blog post – feel shame. I don’t think it’s avoidable really – I wish it was. But if we didn’t have some shame to keep us in check what would life be like? Hmmmmmmm. Okay – this is my stupid reply to your blog post – feel shame, much, much shame – or maybe not.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Not at all stupid! We all have shame, it’s true, and the point you make about how it can “keep us in check” is very important. It’s one of the ways that shame has an actual value for us as a species.

  15. Jeanne says:

    Hi Dr. Burgo,

    I have been following you for several months and really enjoy your candid honesty – It helps me ease the divide I can feel with the patient/ therapist relationship.

    Regarding your post, I was wondering if you felt some unconscious (0r maybe conscious) pressure within your group to get a literary gift due to the nature of the group and the fact that their gifts to you were meaningful books? Were you maybe trying to live up to a “writer’s persona” instead of being true to yourself…a writer who bakes. So much more original than a writer who gives books,min my opinion! I say this as an English teacher who falls prey to comments from people thinking I must know every author known to man, or every definition of every word because there is an expectation of others thrust upon me! Your choice to give baked
    and canned goods as gifts is certainly staying true to yourself, which makes the gift that much more special.

    When I think of my own shame, I often feel what Emma mentioned, which is too difficult for me to even type. I have never heard anyone else ever mention this and I have struggled with this terribly in therapy for the past year. I have had violently sexual dreams and fantasies about my therapist which lead to both pleasure and pain. I cannot look him in the eye and tell him what is going on. I often feel it’s just too much for me to get past with him. He encourages me to stay and to take my time and never pushes me. I know I need to be honest and face the shame, but I simply can’t do it. I know I should stick it out and work through it, but it is just too shameful. You can say therapists don’t judge, but honestly, how is that possible? Therapists are human and my actions ARE judgeable, once I tell, I wont be able to face him at all. It seems I can’t win, or be free of the shame, either way.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      In answer to the first part, absolutely. I don’t know whether there’s pressure within the group but I have definitely felt some internal pressure to live up an ideal “writer’s persona.” Very insightful. And I do feel as if I’m being far more true to myself now. It’s so much better!

      As for the question of therapists judging clients, I suppose you’re right and we do judge to a degree. But for the most part, I feel that I don’t judge clients who are struggling with pain and are unable to feel differently or make better choices. I can’t imagine that any good therapist would judge you for the feelings you have, especially since you don’t act on them. As shameful as it may feel, having particular feelings and fantasies isn’t a crime.

    • Nikki says:

      Hey, if it’s any consolation, you can always tell a trusted friend or another therapist about your dreams and they can help you with it. I had a weird crush and sexual dreams about a security guard at my job for months and I could barely look at him without blushing. I’d never pursue it because he’s married and a co-worker. I never cross those lines. But my friend helped me brainstorm on why I saw him that way and it was basically a rescue fantasy that had little to do with him in real life, just my sense of insecurity as I dealt with difficult traumatic memories and relationships. I wanted someone firmly on my side–like a trustworthy law enforcer!
      Try it, it works!

  16. Nikita Rybak says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Joseph. I have the same difficulty and even seeing other people deal with this is very encouraging. Few things from your post I especially relate to are cursing yourself (“you idiot”) and being unable to tell some memories to anyone (“some of my cringing shame memories are just too painful to discuss”). I look forward to reading all the comments!

    Tori Amos described those as the : things that hurt you, but which you keep carrying inside. The poisonous things you keep ‘dear’. A wonderfully idiosyncratic name.

    I agree that those precious things could be a learning experience and you described it very well. Another important thing you could find through them is self-acceptance. Like you, I’m trying to explore those memories instead of pushing them down, under the surface. And in the process, I found that the person in them wasn’t bad at all. A lot of them are from childhood and that boy was totally confused, but he tried his best. He always wanted to do good to other people, even if it often worked out awkwardly. He doesn’t deserve the condemnation at all (“stupid”). And as I go deeper, I found we have a lot in common with that boy and I actually quite like him.
    That was the new experience for me, given how much time I spent trying to change myself and be someone else.

    Similarly, I think your friends know you, even the unflattering parts, and still like you. You may disagree, but I think for Peter this is just a funny episode by now. Two of you can joke about it (:
    You don’t cling to the minor grudges on other people, and so doesn’t Peter. It’s in human nature to let go (assuming Peter was hurt in first place). Which is another interesting thing I learned.

    Thank you again for bringing this up!
    Nikita

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yes, I find that exploring these memories is definitely an opportunity to learn something. Some of my shameful childhood memories, when I explore them, lead me to recognize how much pain I was in and that mitigates the shame. It makes me like myself better.

      I also agree that other people see us clearly and accept us anyway. I sent this post to everyone in my group and it has started a wonderful dialog about how we all feel about birthdays and presents — how important these celebrations are to us and how concerned we are to give the “right” gift. It makes me feel even more strongly that facing shame has enormous value.

  17. Orange says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, and find it very comforting. I have never commented, but here goes. So I don’t think I necessarily understand the difference between basic shame, social shame, and other types because they seem to run together inside of me. I truly don’t know if I have basic shame and I have never had therapy of the sort that you do.
    I’ll just lay out a cringe worthy moment here…

    Before I left for a two week sleep away camp, at the age of 10, my parents explained that I may be out of place at the camp; that the other campers would have Nike shoes, Izod shirts, and ride horseback.. I was already ostracized at school, and I guess I’d somehow been hoping that camp might be different. I left for the camp, knowing that my parents had gotten the camp to agree to a reduced fee to attend: it was important because my father’s wealthy parents had sent him to the affiliated boys camp across the lake.

    A moment, that stands out still to this day, came when my cabin was rehearsing a dance skit to be performed in the dining hall. I was following along doing some sort of dance step to “We’ve got the beat” by the GoGo’s . I’d never had a dance class, but I was holding my own. I then realized that I had to go to the bathroom, but my fear was too big. I simply could not bring myself to excuse myself and walk across the tether ball court to the bathroom. I held it and held it, and held it. Eventually it was unbearable, but the fear was still too big. To this day I don’t understand the fear, or what it was fear of. It wasn’t a new fear, but a familiar fear that would cause me to deny needing the bathroom to my mother, who would insist that I needed the bathroom (age 4 or 5 there). Finally, my body refused to hold it anymore and I peed my pants right then and there during rehearsal. I was shunned and made fun of even more than I’d already been. A couple of days later I came down with tonsillitis and spent the rest of camp in the infirmary with a fever of 104.

    When my parents picked me up, they told me that the camp director did not want me to come back. I certainly don’t remember acting out in any way; I really never did that at school either.

    To this day the thought of preppy sleep away camp gives me goosebumps, and I guess my physical reaction involves tightness in my chest and a feeling like I might cry. Now that I have kids of my own, I wonder why on earth was I left there for over a week with a huge fever? Why did I not value my own dignity and speak up to use the darn bathroom. What is that fear?
    Today as an adult I really don’t care much about making a fool of myself. I’m quite willing to go to a strange aerobics class and get half the steps wrong. I’m willing to sound like an idiot in a foreign country, but learn the language. In fact the very idea that I’m anonymously posting a description of an incident such as this seems rather unusual. Yes, its anonymous, but you yourself have pointed out that folks are not jumping on this wagon with alacrity.
    I am a socially well-adjusted woman for the most part, but I do occasionally have moments where I’ll tell a story, or give an example that clearly pushes a cringe button in the other person. Their discomfort is palpable, and I wonder where their magical line lies. This leads me to mostly want to hear what other people have to say to me, and to feel that self-disclosure is a bit of a mine-field. I would never tell the camp story over lunch, please understand, but it seems like I don’t have the some of the normal dignity boundaries.
    If it helps any I type out as an ENFP when I take those Meyers Briggs online tests, and I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was about 6 or 7 (late seventies). I just recently started getting medication/psychotherapy treatment 8 months ago, shortly after my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD.
    So is this basic shame? social shame? some other sort?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That is quite a story. Since I don’t know you, I can’t say why it was that you didn’t want to admit you had to go to the bathroom. A lot of shame feelings come up around our bodily functions — the things that reveal us to be animals — and as a society, we tend to shroud them in secrecy to keep them private. Except among our friends, we don’t say, “I have to go pee.” We say “I need to use the men’s room.” Does anyone still say, “I need to use the powder room”? It may be that some basic shame got tied in with this kind of shame and you felt too threatened to reveal yourself. A kind of denial kicked in, and it’s a great lesson in how the defense is often worse than the pain it’s meant to ward off.

      • Orange says:

        Yes, but usually only in my head. I’ll think to myself “I must go powder my nose’ :-) . But usually I’ll say “I’m going to go find the Ladies”, with an implied room at the end.
        Thank you for your thoughtful response. I understand that you can’t answer those questions; they are merely the questions that I grill myself with when the thought comes up in my mind.

        If I understand correctly, my example would show how shame can prevent a functional response to a situation through denial, and your example would show how underlying basic shame can take a somewhat ordinary situation and make it much more shamefully mortifying.
        If I try and put myself in your shoes regarding the retirement book gift, I come up with perhaps not thoughtlessness, but arrogance; as if you feel shame for the fact that your gift choice was motivated by your “better judgement”. This would show that your first regard was for your own idea as opposed to your friend’s probable experience of upcoming retirement. Wouldn’t this be a completely normal response given that you’d had a long tiring day, likely putting yourself in the shoes of others and empathizing all day long. I can imagine how this might make you feel deep shame given your descriptions of having a narcissistic mother. Ack I may be completely off base here too…just my imagination or projection?? hmm.

        I guess if I try to answer my own question regarding not seeming to feel the typical response to shame and fear that my friends experience, I would say that I have seen the bottom of my human existence already, at the age of 10. I truly felt subhuman, as if I was not worthy of even the most basic consideration. I had a teacher who would punish other students by making them sit next to me. I wouldn’t even wash my hair, wearing it in an awful rat’s nest. I recall standing against a wall at recess and my classmates hurling epithets from the safety of their large groups.
        I would say that, as an adult, I feel like I really have nothing to lose, as if I am set free by my view from the bottom. It does set me apart from people experience wise, but I also think its why those same people feel comfortable telling me things that they won’t share with most. I guess I don’t cringe.

        Thank you for your beautiful blog. You create a warm, welcoming place to learn about things that are a little scary. After reading here, I would say that my father is, at the very least, an abusive narcissist. My mother is just completely disengaged.
        I’m really looking forward to reading your book!

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          I’ll have to give some thought to what you said. The way I view it, I’m confronting some defect in my character that requires attention. The initial “You idiot!” feels harsh and perfection, but the turning inward does not. It feels as if I’m trying to face the truth. Doing so, removes the sting and the cringe.

      • Dee says:

        Dr. Burgo,
        Can you clarify what you mean by … -the things that reveal us to be animals?
        Thank you.
        (I have just stumbled across your site & am soaking it all in at this point.)

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          I mean intimate bodily processes: peeing, defecating, having sex. As civilization has developed, we tend to keep those things hidden from view, in part so that we don’t expose our animal nature. If a stranger were to walk in on you doing any of those things, you would feel shame.

          • Dee says:

            Thanks for the speedy reply. So what I hear you saying is the fact that we feel shame when intimate bodily processes are exposed outside the realm in which they should be or can be is what differentiates us from animals?

            • Dee says:

              Oh, maybe you are coming from the basis of believing in evolution. Is that your belief?

            • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

              Well, maybe the other way around. We like to believe that we’re not animals, and when we are exposed as such via our bodily processes, we feel shame.

              • Dee says:

                I’m sorry, I still don’t understand. So you believe you’re an animal? Not a human BEING? I grant you that we definitely act like animals sometimes & sometimes animals put us human beings to shame as many of them show more loyalty to a mate than humans do in the till death do we part arena! But as far as shame goes, I’ve never seen an animal coy in shame for marking it’s territory with it’s urine. It does by instinct what it is created to do. Human beings would have no shame if the 1st humans hadn’t chosen to disobey their Creator. We’d all be running around naked & as carefree as can be. No shame in sight. Wrongdoing comes natural to us since the fall of man & we now play the balancing act of trying to live perfect in bodies & in a world that is totally imperfect. Shame comes with imperfection. Without a Savior, we have no hope of ever being perfect. The cure for all our pychological, mental & emotional problems stem from the fact that we are born broken. To find the peace that we all seek after, & acceptance of who we are, we have to come to the end of ourselves & acknowledge we are not God. Do you believe in God Dr. Burgo?

  18. KT says:

    Dr. Burgo,
    A couple of thoughts. When I began reading this post I was thinking, WOW, this is gonna be some really awful thing he did. Like really CRINGY and horrible. Then I was like…Gee that sounds like an ok gift. And then I read about how much energy you put into looking at why and how and going back to the book store and learning something about yourself from this moment so long ago, and I think I’ve ended up respecting you for the whole thing. I figured out that the example itself is just an example. The point is the gut reaction of shame and cringing made you realize something deeper was going on and you explored it (although calling yourself an idiot was a little bit much), but you got through those self hating moments and finally kind of….settled it.
    What do you tell your clients when they call themselves idiots for giving someone a perfectly reasonable gift?
    Would you ever consider speaking with the other who you think you have insulted or shamed and get their insight?
    How much of your basic shame inflated the slightly shameful thing you did so that you were still cringing about it 5 years later?
    Thanks again for the post!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      This way that an underlying basic shame inflates the “slightly shameful” thing is exactly right. Many people without basic shame would have shrugged off the incident but it taps into mine. As for my clients, I take it up in two ways. First, I try to help them recognize the “ideal-person-they’re-supposed to be” and how they beat themselves up with it. They need to see the perfection of their expectations and own it. Too often, this perfection gets treated as a thought process that needs to be corrected but I think it’s important to see how this perfectionism embodies our own wishes for ourselves — to be someone idea; they thoughts also embody a kind of refusal to accept that “loser” self. Sometimes, I try to help my clients do what I do — use it as a learning experience, to discover what it is about themselves that they need to face.

  19. Francesca says:

    For me, I am someone who is very giving emotionally, in terms of empathy in conversation and such, but I really feel very burdened by having to give material gifts, I find it almost depressing. I feel bad about that, but. In truth , I think it annoys me that the form that ‘giving’ has to take is dictated by others, and the most people will put more emphasis on this obvious type of giving rather on the ephemerality of a more ‘pure’ empathy. It’s really easy to judge someone by the obvious/material side of life. Is there any possibility that underneath the shame you feel is some other emotion?

    I haven’t read all your thoughts on shame, but my take on it is that it is the suppression of affect, of any affect, rather than an affect itself. Also, for me, if something is coming back to haunt me that way, I need to work on it some more. Hope I’m not being too bold here!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You’re not being too bold but I disagree. I don’t think shame is the suppression of affect. Reading Tomkins and Nathanson is helping me to sort this out and I’ll have more to say later. Thanks!

  20. Anon says:

    Hi,

    Thank you for your blogs, I’ve been reading for a while and find them useful, comforting and thought provoking amongst other things.

    Sorry to be slightly off topic, but a few people have mentioned embarrassing physical reactions, I’d be interested if you have any further thoughts on this or could direct me to further reading. Not just in relation to shame but also fear and possibly other emotions.

    Thank you for your time, and your honesty in your posts.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I wish I knew something I could recommend. Maybe one of the other site visitors will be able to suggest something.

    • Jeanne says:

      Try looking up Somatic Psychotherapy…somatic means relating to the body. Some interesting info about it online.

  21. I ‘ve just read your article. I have loads of cringing shame memories going right back to childhood beginning when I messed my pants in class in the British equivalent of Second Grade. This was something I couldn’t help, but there are others where I was clearly responsible for my own actions and here I think an abiding sense of shame might actually be useful in aiding self-reflection and a reminder not to behave so badly again. I can always hope!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Hi James. I think we have to distinguish between the two and that’s sometimes difficult, but I agree that shame can be useful in self-reflection.

  22. RC says:

    I don’t mind your TMI description because it’s a great example of how our emotional/psychological state can be reflected in our bodies. I jokingly call what you’re referring to as “clenching,” but it’s really no joke. I think most of us have experienced stressful situations during which our usual “schedule” of things gets messed up because we’re so – well – clenched up inside. Once the situation returns to normal…we de-clench and all is well again, at least in that department.

    The first time I ever experienced a panic attack, it was related to shame. I was on a train in Amsterdam. I was 23, homesick, lonely and hungover from a night of partying with some people I’d met. I was in an empty train car, riding to the hotel where I was staying that night.

    Suddenly I started feeling terrible in an indescribably way. Everything started feeling nightmarish and just off. My head got all foggy in a really frightening way. I didn’t know it at the time because I’d never felt anything like it before, but these were anxiety symptoms. It was at that moment that a memory of something very shameful from my adolescence came into my head. Not only did I cringe at the memory, but I attacked myself for what had happened, calling myself a very harsh name. At that moment, the panic kicked in for real and I thought I was having a nervous breakdown.

    So for me, shameful memories can cause a self-hating response, which then leads to a physical/psychological response.

    I think this has a lot to do with a lack of a solid sense of self and a positive baseline feeling of myself. My therapist says that it’s an internal war between my present, 45-year old self and my shameful, rejected, hurt younger self, and the goal is to somehow integrate this rejected self into who I am today. It’s very difficult work.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That’s interesting about how shame ties into the panic attack and self-hatred. Good luck with the integration part! I understand just how difficult can be.

  23. Warren says:

    Hi Joseph,
    I’ve lost count of how many times such moments of cringing shame, something remembered, has me resounding loudly ‘you idiot’. Funny how we think of these moments as problematic. I mean, conversely, no one ever complains about those other myriad moments when we get it right, and feel pleased with ourselves.

    To lean on Freud a little, I suppose it’s just par for the course to take the occasional kicking from our super-ego. We live in an insanely austere society, where the least trivial nuance of imperfection can make us cringe. Just remember, someone somewhere will be cringing about having swung an axe into someone’s head.

    The more you cringe about minor trivialities, the more you signal to those around you these things should matter to them also, is that how we should live??? There are greater cringe-worthy subjectivities one can fail at. Love the lime green-bubble wallpaper.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Hi Warren, I guess I want to distinguish between the “minor trivialities” and the choices/behaviors that reflect something larger about one’s character that need to be faced. The example I’m offering does the latter and for this reason, I think the Brené Brown approach (she’d very much agree with what you’re saying) isn’t appropriate.

      • Warren says:

        I still think you’re ‘onto’ something. Only, when I post here, I often act as the devils advocate, by way of dialectic. At the risk of sounding Derridian (no love lost there), pride/shame seem to be locked in a binarism. Could thinking about ‘pride’ throw any light on your study of ‘shame’, or would destabilizing the meaning of both open up any new thought?

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          I think you’re right, that examining pride will shed light on shame. I’m at the very beginning of the question though, and feel like I need to get through Nathanson, the title of whose book is SHAME AND PRIDE. You probably know it.

          • Warren says:

            In my view Nathanson does not suffer from an excess of scholarly acumen. This subject is not my bag, but reading carefully all you’re hitherto written here on shame, it’s a therapist’s question, but I feel you would do well to take a cultural-anthropological approach. I trust you to write something that Oprah will ‘NOT’ want as a serial feature on her show.

            • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

              Still, I’d like to feel that it’s possible to bridge affect theory and therapeutic practice. I need shame to make sense in terms of evolution and our biology, too.

              • Warren says:

                I saw these and thought of you:
                Galen Strawson; Don’t tread on me.
                Helen B. Lewis; Shame and Guilt in Neurotics (you can get this on psychoanalytical electronic publishing).
                Also Ronnie Janoff-Bulman is floating around the peripherals of your question too. I seem to remember Nietzsche making an argument about constructing ‘the shameless citizen’, not sure where though. Hope it helps.

                • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

                  Thanks, Warren. I’ll add those to my list. Right now, I’m trying to get my own thoughts clear vis-a-vis Tomkins and Nathanson before moving on. The other night when I was reading ANNA KARENINA, I came across this quote that pretty much nailed it for me. Kitty is at the ball with Vronsky, whom she believes she loves. Up until this moment, she has believed he felt the same way about her.

                  “Kitty looked into his face, which was so close to her own, and long afterwards–for several years after–that look, full of love, to which he made no response, cut her to the heart with an agony of shame.”

                  1877, long before Freud got started. THAT’S the kind of shame I am talking about, just substitute baby and mother.

                • Warren says:

                  My favorite novel of all time by the way. I think I see where you are. Kitty’s shame, which burns her for years, one might say a-historically, seems to be liminoid; whereas, for many of us our moments of shame are temporary, liminal. What I find interesting is that the difference between (and I’m just thinking here) what I might label liminal or liminoid shame, seems to be directly proportional to the depths of one’s psyche from which an affective emotion is transgressed by a sense of shame.

                • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

                  Yes, I think that’s it. But we have to get rid of these words like “liminoid” that few people understand. They’re interesting conceptually but they don’t link to anyone’s felt experience.

  24. Renee Segal says:

    Hi Joe,
    I didn’t take the time to read the other comments so if I have repeated a comment, I apologize. What struck me here was that you went into the shame to find its meaning and I think it is very important to see what shame tells us. Since the action tendency with shame is to hide, the fact that you slowed down to find its meaning is admorable.

    My shame tells me that I don’t know enough, don’t know what I am doing and need to do more. I believe that shame, just like any other emotion has a purpose and it is to move us. It feels awful while it happens and we want to hide it away but if we stay with it as you did it helps us grow. I think that shame has a evolutionary purpose as well. Since all humans have it, and I believe animals do as well. Shame says, “don’t eat too much, don’t offend others, work hard” etc. For example if you a wolf in a wolf pack and eat more than your share , the other wolves will ostracize you, then you will not be able to eat at all and die.

    I am enjoying your shame blogs, shame has a purpose and we need to dig into it rather than try to make it go away.

    Thank you,
    Renee

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Thanks, Renee. I completely agree with you, although I’m still trying to sort out the evolution part. Since shame is an innate affect and part of our inherited human makeup, it must have a survival purpose such as the one you’re describing. I also think it’s tied into regulating behavior that will make the pack more cohesive as a unit: shame brings deviant behavior back in line with the norm so that the pack/tribe functions better. In modern times, this conflicts with the drive toward individual self-expression and the rejection of social norms. It’s all so fascinating! I really like the way you work with your own shame.

  25. Renee Segal says:

    Joe,
    So maybe shame has a relational component, being cohesive. Since we are mammals and want connection this drive toward indivdualism is not so natural. We crave connection and maybe feel “shame” when we aren’t connected in the way want to be in our idealzed version of the self. As a Marriage and Family Therapist and use EFT (emotion focused therapy), I see what happens to couples who are disconnected and how they seek connection or fear it and numb it. Our American Individualized way may not be the best way.

    At any rate, shame is a powerful drving emotion. Most don’t want to feel it and run from it rather than stay with it and unpack its meaning. I am excited to read more of what you have to say about it.
    Renee

  26. msmerlin says:

    By the time I’m reading this, there are a lot of comments, and I’m glad! I always like your articles and the comments that follow, and I’ll read more of the comments later. I really appreciate what you do. My thought on the article, and forgive me if this is too off-point, was that I wondered if you had talked with your friend Peter and told him how you felt and apologized for what you perceived as your failure? Perhaps his perception was different and he just saw it as a thoughtful gift? Perhaps you are beating yourself up for nothing? I understand that that was not the point of the article. A lot of times our shame memories are in the past and we are unable today to do anything about them other than try to work through them inside ourselves. This incident, however, is not that far distant in the past, and it sounds like your friend is still alive and you could open up with him and share your personal embarrassment. Doing that might also bring you to further understandings about dealing with and processing shame. Perhaps you have already done this, but it wasn’t mentioned in your article, so I’m thinking that you didn’t. I’m following this topic of shame very closely, having lots of toxic shame from how I was rasied in an abusive home. Thank you again for your work.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I sent a link to this article to Peter and everyone else in my group; it has been a very positive experience and has opened a discussion among us about how important those birthday parties are but also how much pressure we all feel. I had no idea! My reaction has less to do with the idea of hurting Peter — I was fairly confident that, whatever he felt at the time, he’d moved on — as my tendency at times to be careless, hasty or thoughtless. I didn’t at all feel I was beating myself when I finally explored the memory.

  27. Novometen says:

    When shameful memories come to mind, especially recent ones from adulthood when I should have “known better”, I often blurt out, without thinking about it, a sound like “urgh” or a phrase like “give me a %$#@ing break”. I guess it sort of dissolves the energy around the memory or something. I recently wondered if other people did this and a Google search revealed an entire thread about this on Metafilter: http://ask.metafilter.com/97265/Compelled-to-Blurt. To quote one response: “Metafilter: your solitary compulsion becomes a shared experience.” Thanks for your blog.

  28. Anna says:

    It is quite possible that I am being defensive, but there a few things that bother me about your approach. It seems that, in the example given, you were chiding yourself for not being more thoughtful, but surely it isn’t human to be thoughtful all the time? And then it seemed to me that you felt better by analysing this choice very deeply, almost like you had punished yourself for it, to make yourself better. Wouldn’t it have been better for society just to say to Peter – ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t think enough about the fact you’d been retirement planning for ages already.” ? I think I am abit confused as to how shame comes in to this.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      All I can say is, exploring the memory didn’t feel at all punitive. I felt as if I was taking myself in hand and being brave. The shame comes from the recognition of a “defect of character,” for lack of a better term, some residue of my upbringing that can make me self-absorbed, hasty and thoughtless. By facing this truth about myself, I also felt better for being the kind of person who would be honest and try to do better.

  29. Andi says:

    I whimper when one particularly shameful memory pops up. It’s barely perceptible, but it’s the same every time. I like that you mention “what can I learn from this” because I’m not sure if it’s forgiving myself for the moment (lost my temper) or acceptance of the situation that’s now passed or learning to think about consequences of my actions. Or a mix. For the most part, the memory keeps my mouth shut when I’m about to say something hurtful, so at least perhaps the latter.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Shame definitely has its uses. When I think of “forgiving” myself, I don’t think in terms of normalizing what I did — the way several comments here have tried to make what I did seem like “no big deal,” just whatever everyone occasionally does; rather, I feel a kind of self-compassion, remembering where I came from, the childhood that left its indelible mark upon me, and recognize that I sometimes just have to try harder. It doesn’t feel at all harsh or perfectionistic.

  30. Evan says:

    Hi Joseph, I’m with the relief you felt at finding something other than literary fiction.

    I’m also wondering if you aren’t being too hard on yourself. Not in the sense of punishing yourself too harshly but in the sense of not giving yourself credit for positive desires that were part of the picture (if they were).

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      There were definitely some positive feelings — I’m very fond of Peter — but that didn’t feel to me like the place where I could learn something and grow from it.

  31. Jenny says:

    I was sexually abused as a young teenager. It’s taken me a long time (and an awesome psychotherapist) to come to terms with it and not actively blame myself. I’ve been ashamed of it for 40 years. Even so, I have moments of feeling intense shame and I also feel it physically. At least now, I can identify the source of the shame feeling, even though I cannot stop it from happening. Once I identify the source, I’m sometimes able to actively acknowledge it and let it go. I hope someday to be able to do that the majority of time.

    I struggle to find any evolutionary advantage to the shame of things done to you instead of by you. Clearly shame at one’s own actions could serve as a deterrent to socially unacceptable behaviors, but when the action was out of one’s control, it’s hard to see the benefit of it.

    Do you think it’s possible to get to a point where those feelings of shame about things done to us just don’t get triggered at all? It takes a lot of energy to feel that way, and even more to to work it through when it happens.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      First of all, I don’t think there’s any value to the shame feelings aroused by things done to you. Shame is part of our inherited affect system, but this built-in reaction can be triggered by all kinds of trauma and used to manipulate people by oppressive social values. I don’t know if you ever get completely beyond those shame triggers, but in my experience they definitely lessen over time.

  32. rory says:

    Hi Joseph,
    For me, the many “cringing shame memories” that come over me seem to be during or after times when behaviour or verbal addresses cause me to be” seen”. To the public or even my close friends I would be described as outgoing, social, easy going and confident. I can identify with those character traits until someone wants anything more intimate or individualised. I meet and make friends very easy. I have had the pleasure of being surrounded with wonderful individuals from all walks of life. Good people who reach out to me to develope a more meaningful relationship beyond intriguing chats shared in the corner of the room at a social gathering. But, that is where I stop it. I always freeze there. I am more anxious to meet a friend for coffee or go with co workers to a movie than I would be to stand up and talk before a room of 200 people. When you wrote in an earlier post about wanting to be invisible I wondered if that was why I have continuously pulled back from people who extend invitations to better know me. I do not know yet what I have to uncover, or why the thought of being vulnerable or “more known” is so terrible however since finding your site this past summer I have been making slow progress identifying many of my defences that have been masking the self loathing me. The room within me has shelved many different armour that I bring down to shield me from possible sight. Do you think that a cringing shame memory could be a painful time when I felt exposed or seen in a light that I try to keep hidden, ie. vulnerable or imperfect? I am struggling with all of these feelings because the reality is I put alot of effort out to be who I portray to people so why the “run and hide” mode when people want me to be a part of their inner circles. What shame, if any, am I harbouring?
    One last comment. In my efforts to better understand myself your blog has been the only site where information about our actions are presented and discussed in such a thoughtful and compassionate way. Your personal examples lead the way for readers to share their experiences and delve deeper into, “Why do I do that?” In my quest to better understand, I have read Brene Brown and many others and they only skim the topics you cover in these dialogues. You are popular amoung those readers that truly are working hard to move forward and I think those are the readers that you will always want. Thanks again.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      “Do you think that a cringing shame memory could be a painful time when I felt exposed or seen in a light that I try to keep hidden, ie. vulnerable or imperfect?” Absolutely. That fear of being seen or exposed is the defining feature of shame. I’m not sure what shame it is that you’re hiding from but give how honest and hard-working you seem to be in your self-exploration, I trust you’ll find it.

      I’m very grateful for your remarks about how my website differs. So much of what I see out there skims the surface, as you say, but I keep trying to get the word out. I’m glad you found my site.

  33. Jo-Anne says:

    Thanks Dr. Burgo. I admire your self reflection and your willingness to share your ongoing insights. I think your awareness and honesty is very refreshing. I understand your comment about having a feeling of pride as a result.
    I love reading “After Psychotherapy” I don’t know how you manage to write the amount you do! Your writings are well thought out, as are your responses to your readers. So, Nobody is perfect huh?? :-) Thank You!

  34. Gordon says:

    I’ve had my fair share of these cringing memories.
    Ironically, I have one about receiving a badly thought-out gift. When I think about this memory I battle between my anger towards the person (my mother) who made me this badly thought-out gift that makes me feel unimportat to them and my guilt and self-hatred for being so ungrateful and materialistic.
    Lessons learned: I’ll try to be less materialistic by valuing the act of someone giving me a gift and I will let people know how much I like chocolate and how I can’t get enough of it.
    At the end of the day, I would prefer to be surrounded by people who give me badly thought-out gifts than to be alone with objects I like because, no matter how badly thought-out, in every gift there is some love. But it’s still painful when you expect more love than what you get.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yes, it is. One of the ways I talk about shame in my new book is in terms of “disappointed expectations.” When you’re hoping for love and consideration and don’t get it, shame is often the result.

  35. Perstephone says:

    It’s interesting to read your post because I also have shame surrounding gift giving. I can pinpoint when gift giving became shameful for me. When I was in college my mom had been having a rough year. I was going to be out of town for her birthday, so I wanted to do something nice for her. It occurred to me that she had never received flowers for as long as I could remember. So, for her birthday I took great care in picking out some flowers and had them delivered to her work. Little did I know, this would infuriate her. She was so upset with me because she couldn’t use this gift and it would die and she didn’t want the flowers anyway. I felt horrible about it.

    This incident has made me cringe every time I have to get a gift for anyone, even my spouse. And often, I just don’t get gifts unless it’s a situation where a gift is mandatory. When I do buy gifts I second-guess myself to the point where I end up making a very spontaneous decision. I really dislike watching the person unwrap the gift. So many times I have bought a gift, wrapped it and then never give it to them.

    It’s nice to see that you’ve reached a place of confident gift giving and I aspire to be where you are with it!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      That experience sounds traumatic to me, and for that reason, it was shame-inducing. In any objective sense, you have no reason to feel ashamed. You weren’t thoughtless … just the opposite, in fact. Your mother’s insensitive response left you with feelings of shame which I expect have their roots in early childhood experiences of her narcissistic failure to give you what you needed.

      • Perstephone says:

        You pretty much nailed it. I was left at the hospital for long stretches by myself off and on from birth to age 5 and it only went south from there. However, now in my late 30′s I see that her narcissistic issues hurt her way more than they hurt me. At least I was able to escape it. She’s still a slave to it.

  36. Y says:

    I feel shame when I have to reach out to someone else for help. I’m not talking about the kind of help where you want someone to rinse the dishes, but the kind where you need to be held, comforted, or heard. Then I feel angry because I can’t figure out how to express this need in a constructive manner (though I bet others would listen if I could). Then I take that anger out on my spouse because he isn’t clairvoyant. Yikes!

    I would also like to say that I understand the shame involved with your story, Dr. Burgo. My in-laws don’t know me very well (they have never made the attempt), but they do know that I love to read. Instead of taking the time to figure out who some of my favorite writers are, they always just grab some generic book off of the clearance table. It make me feel terrible. At least your friend Peter knows that you truly care about him. That makes all the difference.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I understand that horrible place — feeling you can’t express your needs and then becoming angry that other people don’t read your mind. Are you particularly empathic and prone to looking after other people’s needs first?

      • Y says:

        I was trained from a very young age to care for my mother’s emotional needs while ignoring my own. These early patterns have affected my adult life in so many ways (of course). I wanted to express my needs as a young child, but I felt too ashamed to take the spotlight away from her (I actually believed that she suffered more that I did, and thus deserved my loyal and undivided attention). To this day I still feel completely icky when I find myself filling up with need. So…yes, I’m definitely more comfortable giving emotional support than receiving it.

        BTW, thank you so much for providing this forum. There is nothing else out there like it!

  37. PJ says:

    I dislike gift giving and I avoid gift giving parties, such as bridal and wedding showers. My closest friends all know not to get me gifts and I return the favor by not putting pressure on them to give me gifts. My husband and I do not celebrate Valentine’s day, our anniversary or each other’s birthdays with gifts.

    Sometimes I worry that I am damaged and that I do not feel as if I deserve gifts. When we were dating, my husband sent me a dozen roses and I put them under my desk at work. He’s still sad about this, to this day. I hadn’t wanted him to find out, but at the same time, I’d begged him not to give me a gift and he thought I was pretending, like so many people do, to not want a gift. But I was serious: The gift itself causes me pain.

    After years of being financially strapped, I also dislike spending money on gifts for others.

    So, clearly, mandatory gift-giving occasions are a huge source of anguish for me.

    On the other hand, I also think that forced gifts can be in-authentic. Some of the best gifts that I have given were spontaneous, and not for any occasion.

    As far as cringe-inducing memories: Wow, I have a ton. If I reflect on some of these in the shower, I will gasp aloud and not realize it. And then I’ll say, “no no no, it’s ok,” just to cope with how painful the memory is.

    I’m excited now, after reading your post, to go examine these memories rather than run from them.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Please let me know what you find out when you do examine one of those memories. It’s not easy.

      • PJ says:

        Ok so I’ve got a new one. I made an appointment with my therapist to supposedly discuss one thing but when I got there, I talked about something completely different.

        We both knew that my reason for making the appointment was a guise, and a surface level problem, and then I ended up admitting to some pretty self destructive thoughts from a while ago. Clearly I wanted to talk about this all along but couldn’t just say so when setting it up.

        I have no idea why, but this makes me cringe so badly that this was hard to type.

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          That’s interesting. I don’t understand why it would make you cringe, either. Do you feel this action reveals something shameful about you?

  38. a reader says:

    After reading all these comments , the memory of the song “Gracias a la vida”, finally popped up in my consciousness. However, life or Mother Nature spoons out her gifts unequally. Some are more equal than others, as George Orwell wrote in his master piece Animal Farm. Oh, what better gift than a novel, a fictional story! Yet, there are people who never open a book after school ( and who do it only grudgingly while in school).

    I too have a problem with giving and receiving of gifts. In may ways I think giving of gifts is ridiculous: The giver usually give what he or she thinks highly of, and rarely does it coincide with what the receiver thinks highly of, forcing him or her to fake gratitude. Could be we were better off by just giving a hug, a smile and a verbal Happy Birhtday.(But will he or she appreciate being hugged by me?)

  39. Susan T. says:

    You must be right about the cringe serving a purpose. When shame can be beared, it is the most powerful teacher I know. But often when I remember my own cringing moments, I feel similar physical symptoms to what you described and simply want to blot it out completely. Instead of succeeding at blotting it out, to my horror, every cringing moment of my life occurs to me in an avalanche of cringe-moments and my life begins to feel like a parade of shame. My shame experiences are all wired together neurologically, it seems, and it’s too much to face all at once. This especially happens when I’m upset and can’t sleep. The effort you made to actually dig into the meaning of ONE of your cringing moments really interests me and gives me hope for another way to face things. I wonder how celebrities or politicians whose cringing moments have been viewed or learned of by millions or billions of people deal with this.

  40. Grace says:

    There’s so much I could say, yet only one thing seems important enough to be said….thank you! Thank you for touching a piece of my soul everytime you speak. Thank you for taking time out of your life to speak from your heart in order to leave an imprint on mine. For someone like me, who was lead to believe she wasn’t important or good enough to love, your love for helping other live true, authentic and full lives is remark. You may not be the best gift giver, but you yourself, are a beautiful gift!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      What a very kind thing to say! I increasingly see what I do as this kind of role-modeling, for lack of a better word. I want to bridge the gap between therapist-authority and everyone else, showing how you really deal with shame rather than presenting some phony technique.

  41. Kerri says:

    I’m just curious if your writer’s group reads your blog? Will Peter read this and agree that it was a “thoughtless ” gift or is it possible the way you feel about your gift giving skill is not how those who receive your gifts feel? I understand not wanting to make excuses but think if you are as good of a friend as I imagine you are, then you are a little hard on yourself. What do I know? Just curious if your group read this post, would they be surprised you felt such shame?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yes, they do. Peter understood what I was saying and agreed that the gift didn’t “hit the mark,” as he put it. The point is more about my recognition of something about myself I needed to address. And I continue to find it fascinating that so many readers want to rescue me from this experience when I keep talking about it as a positive, growth-producing experience.

      • Susan M says:

        Dr. Joe, I so appreciate your thoughts and especially your bravery in facing and honestly dealing with your ‘shame’, even though not all feel shame in the same way, or if they do WANT to deal with it. Shame can certainly be subjective, but painful, nonetheless. Growth is a painful but freeing thing. Bravo!

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          Thanks! Like Brené Brown, I believe there is something healing and helpful about allowing yourself to be truly seen. It’s the opposite of narcissism, in a way. The narcissist wants to be seen, but not for his authentic self.

  42. Li Smith says:

    Thank you Dr Burgo for wonderful information on a cringing subject. It inspired me to telephone my friend Karon to thank her (again) for the jar of home-made olives she gave to my husband and me when she visited one Sunday afternoon. A month later the jar remains half-full as we eat them sparingly — they taste so good! The olives are from trees in her garden grown naturally without fertilizers or pesticides, and the processing of the olives takes a long time. Our present comes in a glass peanut butter jar with a label ‘Thistle Cottage Olives, 8 May 2012′, and is wrapped with a thin black and silver ribbon.

    I like Renee Segals comment about wolves having to live in harmony within the pack, and that shame motivates them to better behavior.

  43. Greg says:

    Your description of “shame memories” was very interesting for me, because it is so similar to what my wife has described to me as what she often experiences.

    What fascinates me is that I don’t react this way, at all. So the ongoing nature of it, the vivid memories and physiological reaction, are so alien to me.

    I’ve had shameful experiences, of course. And I had similar physiological reactions to them at the time. And shortly afterward, diminishing quickly. But soon it simply becomes … the past. I make what amends I can (if appropriate) but the memories don’t have that hold on me. I can sort of academically remember how it felt, but the vividness is gone.

    I’ve tended to associate her experience of this with her BPD diagnosis. But now I wonder – is it my experience that is the more unusual?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t know. Maybe you’re just healthier and able to move on. I think when someone isn’t afflicted with a core kind of shame, shame is a passing experience; it doesn’t take hold and persist.

  44. AuntieCrash says:

    I stumbled onto your web site a few months ago, after doing a search on anything related to what clients may feel “after psychotherapy” and “feeling abandoned by therapists when they go on vacation”. I wanted to know how therapists felt about things on their side of the fence. Well, all I can say is “thank you” for sharing your insights, thoughts and feelings. It’s nice to know therapists are human, too!

    Regarding feelings of abandonment and shame, I can relate on so many levels and even on some I may not be aware of yet. Briefly, I lost my biological parents in car accident when I was approx 6 months old (I’m now the tender age of 48). To the best of my knowledge, I was brought up in a Catholic orphanage run by some not so nice people for about 2 years. Enter shame from first abandonment. To add insult to injury, I was supposedly taken out for a “test drive” by a couple for about 6 months, only to be brought back to the orphanage because I was “too hard to handle”. Add more shame brought on by another type of abandonment. According to my adoptive parents, they entered into the picture a few months later. For that I’m so extremely thankful/ grateful. But, the challenge I’ve been (trying) to work through the last couple of years with a truly fantastic therapist, is dealing with all the damage that was done before I became their daughter. Regardless of how much they believe my life started only at that point, I can’t help but feel so much damage was done before I came to them. And, no matter how loving and well-meaning they are as parents, they cannot undo it. I feel shame in so many ways, big and small, and mostly just want to remain invisible because that’s all I feel I deserve. No matter what logic I try to use, common sense thoughts do not factor in anywhere in journey I find myself on.

    My cringing shame memories feel like they number in the thousands but thanks to sites like this and insight from people like yourself are helping make the journey just wee bit less painful. Thank you for that, Dr. Burgo.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Knowing we’re not alone in our shame is a liberating experience. When we’re saddled with this kind of shame, our tendency is to idealize other people, to believe that we’re alone in our shame, which makes it so much worse.

  45. Erica says:

    You’re example of a shame inducing act totally resonated with me. I’ve been on the other end of bad gift giving. My father somehow always manages to give me gifts that reflect a stereotyped idea of me and his desire to be the hero rather than truly being things that make me happy. I often try to understand what about this makes me cringe, as it’s not the worst thing for a father to give a ‘bad’ gift. I believe it’s because the gift serves his own needs more than mine in ways that relate to relationship in general, and I feel shame for him and in myself in having to play alOng.

    As a side question, I am a psychologist in training. How do you recommend helping people lean into shameful experiences during therapy? Much of what is taught on graduate school are techniques for challenging and rationalizing away shameful thoughts. How do you confront statements in therapy that reveal underlying shame in a way that is not threatening but does not push the issue under the rug? I have been working on this. This is obviously a complex topic as you are writing a book about it, but any suggestions would be helpful!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yes, it is complex … and difficult, because you can’t press too forcefully into shame or the client will run. What I try to do is help the client see what’s “true” about the shame — to find a place in between denial of shame on the one hand and brutal, perfectionistic self-hatred on the other. It takes time to clear a space where we can think and feel together about what the shame means. I also try to help my clients see the ways in which they refuse to accept the reality of who they are, including the damage and limitations, and continue insisting that they will become that ideal self they long to be. It’s very hard work.

  46. Terezin says:

    What if Peter ‘re-gifted’ that book shortly after receiving it?

  47. Sara says:

    Hey, make sure the chutney recepient is a chutney eating person. Otherwise, that’s like getting a fruitcake.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Good advice! I’ve known these people for years so I’m pretty clear on what they will and won’t eat.

  48. Hope says:

    I can’t read this without inserting myself into your story and wondering how I would feel. To be very honest, if I were your friend, I would be pleasantly surprised if I got such a book from you. Maybe it would not be the perfect gift, but it does have “retirement” in the title, and it shows that you thought of me while you bought it. I guess what I am saying is that sometimes our shame may be internal, i.e., that we “fail” to live up to our own expectations (giver of the perfect gift) and project the disappointment we feel onto the other party (your friend). I also think about how much healing power that we all have inside of us that we can give as a gift to others. Sometimes for me, the most healing thing that I can do is to “rewrite the story”, in a way. When I am in a position to give someone something that I was never given, instead of withholding it, it makes me feel very empowered. For example, my parents never praised me because they were worried that I would become arrogant, I suppose. This instilled in me the belief that nothing I would ever do would be good enough. I have talked about it a lot in therapy but have had limited success. But sometimes small things happen; I was at a friend’s house and her little girl was showing me all the artwork that she had done at school that year. I honestly complemented the pictures that I thought were special, and told her details about why I liked them. I was amazed at how good it felt to give a child, right at the same age I was, something I longed for but never got. She went on to show both me and her mom some more of her schoolwork, and described her favorite ones with a little bit of shy pride. I listened and told her what I liked about the things she showed me. I was amazed days later at how healing that was, and now I am thinking a lot about how they hole that I have from what I never was given, may never be filled because that time has passed. But maybe “doing the whole thing over again” and “doing it right”, i.e., reliving the scenario but making my own healthy ending to it, can be part of the answer. It’s just a thought, and I may not be right, but it gives me a lot of hope about the future.

  49. maya says:

    ive been reading your posts and nodding my head because you seem to have a grasp on the experience i have been going through… im a therapist currently in therapy and am one of the clients who like to remain invisible. being seen is terrifying and even though i intellectually know it is not true, i deeply believe if people truly saw me i will be abandoned. i am a narcissist in certain aspects of my life but i want to hide in every other way. i am in a very loving and supportive therapeutic relationship with my therapist and i do let myself seen… most of the time anyways… i feel it is ok to be me with him… but it is always followed by intense shame. i have the physical reaction… i would be doing something completely unrelated and all of a sudden i will have the memory intrude out of nowhere and my heart constricts and my face flinches and i jump up like i just received a shock. moments of shame are followed by dreams that are very unsettling, involving detached body parts and blood. my therapist and i have talked about it as a sign of dissociation. i have been struggling to understand this reaction… and your posts have been very helpful. i hope you will be writing a book on shame…

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I am, in fact, writing a book on shame. What happens immediately after that shocking moment of shame? Are you able to think about it and why it happened, or do you just feel the powerful urge to move away as quickly as possible?

      • maya says:

        i get startled by it… right now it is an emotional reaction… i feel very exposed and vulnerable and it is usually followed by tears… sometimes it is self-punishing thoughts… “how can you be so delusional and stupid!” or “you should no better”… i do try to move away from it but sometimes if im in the mood for curiosity and am amused by how strong it feels… looking forward to your book!

  50. Diana says:

    Hi Joseph,
    I discovered your site this week after finally realising that the most overwhelming feeling behind my recurrent depression, loneliness and “immobility” i.e. feeling stuck, is Shame. This cringing shame you describe is what I feel about almost my whole self, not just isolated incidents. I can’t bear most memories about myself, I hate seeing myself in a mirror or in photos, I run away by changing cities, jobs, even countries and try to not look back at the past because it is too painful to do so. I’ve underachieved all my life because I can not put myself out there; why would anyone want to listen to me? I want to hide, disappear, the typical feelings you have when you cringe with shame. I’m not sure why I feel this way or what I can do to relieve it but I’m hoping that reading your posts may point a way out of my confusion.

    Thank you for helping people to form a clearer picture of their suffering.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      You’re welcome, Diana. I expect that the dread of vulnerability and being truly “seen” is a part of your experience, as well as the sense of inner defect that lies at the heart of shame.

  51. Mike says:

    Funny how many comments this initially ignored post has now gotten!

    I don’t know if you were too hard on yourself, it seemed to work for you, but one thing you said did kind of irk me:

    “I resist the urge to make excuses for myself with thoughts like, “Everybody does that kind of thing from time to time.””

    I disagree with the idea that recognizing your imperfection and common humanity is an “excuse.” This seems to present a false dichotomy between being warm and understanding towards yourself and changing your behavior. As has been shown (for example in the eating habits study I linked to in my previous comment), there’s no such dichotomy. In fact there’s evidence that those who show self-compassion are more motivated to change than those who don’t. Self-compassion, according to Kristin Neff, has 3 main aspects: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness. So I think it’s OK to remind ourselves that everyone makes mistakes.

  52. Katie says:

    Thank you. I have very bad reactions to these shame moments and I was also wondering if anyone else experienced the same thing. It often happens when I am alone with myself during my commute to work or just before I’m about to fall asleep at night. I then often find myself paralysed and then after unable to sleep. I think I knew these were messages about my character but honestly didn’t want to address them. As difficult as it may be, this needs to happen in order for the feelings to stop, I think. Although I can’t still help but wonder of this is attached to something larger. I recently moved countries and have been feeling some identity loss and lack of ability to communicate with those around me even though we speak the same language. I also think in some way these shame memories are linked to that in a way as well. Which, I must admit I don’t know if knowing that makes it easier or more difficult to move past…

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