Shame: The One Who Shall Not Be Named

By David Fredrickson, MFT, Certified MSC Teacher

Ouch! Did you feel that? The mere mention of shame can feel shaming. Perhaps you felt a grip in your gut and a strong urge to look the other way. If so, you are not alone. This is the nature of shame. Thanks to Dr. Chris Germer, co-founder of CMSC, and his pioneering work with self-compassion and shame we know that the first courageous and compassionate act is to turn toward and call out “the one who shall not be named.” Once we know shame is in the house, we can begin the journey of transforming this difficult human emotion with the alchemy of tender and fierce self-compassion. This is indeed good news!

Even though shame feels like an emotion worthy of a Harry Potter exorcism, the emotion per se is not the problem. In fact, early in our species’ evolution we figured out that there were better survival odds when we worked as a group and shame helped hold the group together. When we were moving through the jungle and someone fell asleep on their watch or ate more than their fair share, they were shamed into correcting their behavior. Shame (guilt) can be prosocial and guide us towards better behavioral choices. However, when shame moves from what we have done to who we are, from an emotion to a trait, shame becomes toxic and causes harm.

“Why am I always smiling when my heart is so sad.”

Shame is often young and unexamined. Somewhere, and often very early, we discovered that something about us was perceived as unlovable, and it stuck. I spent most of my career working with traumatized children and one of my first teachers was a six-year-old girl with a heartbreaking history. Her behaviors were a determined and heroic effort to prove that she was unlovable. One day in therapy, from a voice that sounded even younger than six, she asked, “Why am I always smiling when my heart is so sad.” To be clear she rarely smiled but the point of her courageous question was that buried beneath her façade was something hidden, alone, and shamed. Her question was the beginning of her relationship to the shame that masked her painful past and the beginning of my understanding that the power of compassion is less about the answer and more about the power of bearing witness to the question.

The power of compassion is less about the answer and more about the power of bearing witness to the question.

Shame feels blameworthy, yet it comes from our most innocent of wishes—the wish to be loved. We didn’t choose this wish; we came into the world with it. Look into the eyes of any baby and you can see it, “Love me please.” Their vulnerability calls forth their need for total and constant care. The wish to be loved holds the primal wish to survive through connection. And as you probably have figured out . . . we never outgrow this wish. Herein lies a paradox. The wish to be loved is both the place we can be disappointed and hurt (shamed) but it also provides the energy and motivation for care and compassion. Specifically, the vulnerability in this wish can call forth our tender and fierce self-compassion allowing us to sooth and support the places where shame has caused us harm. Additionally, these skills create the possibility of resilience for the shame that is yet to come. 

Shame also comes from culture. Sadly, culture often sees those who are different as dangerous. I grew up hearing adults say, “Have they no shame?” It was usually said with tight lips and a shake of the head. The judgment was that “they” should have shame because who they were being, was shameful. Dominant culture has the power to reinforce identities it sees as normal and acceptable by devaluing and shaming those who are different—it can be intentional, systemic, and even violent but also unconscious and unspoken. I knew I was different at an early age. I didn’t know or understand the word “gay” but growing up in the 1960’s, in rural America, and in a conservative religious family, I knew that this difference “Could Not Be Named.” It was unacceptable, unlovable, and dangerous. For those whose religion, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexuality, body type, ability, etc., are different from the dominant culture, the shame of difference is often internalized. In fact, the thing that makes shame so painful is that it is a self-attack for something that others have told us makes us unlovable . . . and we believe them!

I supervised a wonderful out gay therapist who was working with a feisty nine-year-old girl. She was tough as nails and could cuss like a sailor. One day during their session she asked him, “Why do you walk funny?” He didn’t defensively say, “Why do you ask?” or “I don’t walk funny.” He paused, smiled, and then said, “Oh sweetie, I’ve always walked this way.” She said, “OK,” and they moved on to their play therapy. He didn’t take a bite of the shame-apple and she didn’t see his difference as dangerous. I want to live in this world where shame is recognized but not fed.

The good news is that we can have a different relationship to shame.

The good news is that we can have a different relationship to shame. I am honored to be part of the Self-Compassion for Shame Development Team, which includes Chris, Natalie Bell, Cassondra Graff, Laila Narsi and me. The result of this collaboration is the graduate-level, Self-Compassion for Shame 8-Week Course. It is a thoughtfully paced, dynamic, experiential, and practical curriculum for those who have taken the full Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course and wish to explore and respond to shame with more wisdom and compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff, co-founder of CMSC, identified common humanity as one of the pillars of MSC. This is especially true in our work with shame. Shame loosens its grip when we see the common humanity of shame and allow ourselves to take our seat in compassionate community. Please consider joining our next Self-Compassion for Shame course starting October 24th, 2023 or Chris Germer’s Live Online “Self-Compassion: Antidote to Shame” workshop starting November 1st, 2023. 

May all beings be freed from the harm of shame and in that freedom take their place in the circle of compassion that includes all beings and the world we live in.

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About David Fredrickson, MFT, Certified MSC Teacher
Psychotherapist, Certified MSC Teacher, and author, David Fredrickson has worked with and learned from underserved and traumatized communities including at-risk children and families, the LGBTQIAP2S+ community, and those affected by HIV/AIDS. Following his own health crisis, activated by caregiver fatigue, David discovered that his care often did not include himself. Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) became part of his own healing and as a MSC teacher he is committed to bringing this powerful balm to others. He is one of the teachers in the Community for Deepening Practice, a community exploration and practice of MSC over eight months. He shares CMSC Co-Founder Chris Germer’s curiosity and passion for understanding the relationship of self-compassion and shame and is honored to be part of the development of the life-affirming and empowering, Self-Compassion for Shame Course.  Learn more about David.

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