An Old Norse root for the English word shame – kinnroði – denotes “cheek-redness.” Our body as well as our mind protests when we break a rule we have for ourselves, when we do or are something we’ve been telling ourselves we shouldn’t do or be. We may want to continue holding onto rules like Thou shalt not kill. And we may find other rules – I must always be ladylike or I must always be manly – produce more suffering than benefit for ourselves and others.
In his autobiography Albert Ellis wrote “Shame is often the essence of what we call human neurosis or disturbance. For whenever anyone – including, of course, you – feels ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated, anxious, or self-downing, you are foolishly and needlessly upsetting yourself. No feeling of shame is really healthy. If you feel sorry, regretful or displeased with any of your acts … that is sensible and healthy. But if in addition you feel thoroughly ashamed or embarrassed about that asinine or immoral act, then you’re not only putting it down as socially obnoxious or self-defeating, you’re also putting you down for committing that behavior. Your self put-down and shame will lead you to behave badly in the present and the future.”
In 1968 Ellis invented shame attacking, an in vivo exposure method designed to reduce or eliminate shame, self-consciousness and social anxiety. When we find the social rules we’ve set for ourselves have become oppressive, we can set out to break those rules in a public setting and collect data about what happens next. Very often, this data helps us see an old rule is unnecessary for our safety, wellness and connection with others. We may also find that being our true, rule-breaking selves is a much more relaxed, fun and human road forward.
I recently chatted with my colleagues Leigh Harrington and Heather Clague about shame, shame attacking, and All Things CBT’s 2021 World Shame Attacking Championships. Enter our contest for a chance to win valuable prizes here.