Shame keeps us apart

January 23rd, 2020

This article is the compilation of our learnings from 3 global dinners held in 2020.

This month, we hosted dinners on “Shame” in 3 cities around the world. More than any other dinner, the topic of shame highlighted the depth of pain and suffering many of us experience. Tales of suicidal thoughts, addiction (drugs, alcohol, shopping, food), mental health issues and body shame… reminded us that most of us live with these feelings in isolation. And because of that, we so often believe that we are alone.

And now our key takeaways…

From an early age many of us are taught that we are simply NOT ENOUGH

Women around our tables shared stories of growing up with parents, caregivers and peers who would ignore or reject them for simply being themselves. For some, it was their personality was wrong — they grew up understanding they were too loud, too angry or too emotional. For others, it was their bodies — they were told they weren’t skinny enough or pretty enough. This creates tremendous insecurity and self-loathing, leading many of us to constantly compare ourselves to others. And for so many of us it was our sexuality — they grew up to believe they were too sexual, not sexual enough, or perhaps that their sexual preferences were simply not okay.

Whatever the narrative, at some point we begin to believe that there’s inherently something wrong with who we areand that we are not worthy. This belief system is the root for so many of the struggles women face today.

So we go through life trying to find proof that we ARE enough

Low self-worth creates an internal void which we try so hard to fill from the outside. Some of us strive to have a certain kind of body, and develop eating disorders when we fail to achieve a cultural standard of beauty. Others attempt to climb the corporate ladder to achieve recognition, and feel miserable if we fall short. Some of us engage in promiscuous sex or abuse drugs and alcohol to feel happy and loved, but end up feeling even more empty and lonely once the high wears off. But trying to get “full” from the outside leads to addiction, suffering, trauma — and ultimately, a deep sense of shame.

The Shameful LOOP

It’s easy to feel shameful, but it can be challenging to shake it off…

  1. We enter into the “shame core” — Something happens that triggers a past trauma or core wound (eg. a friend ignores us and we feel unloved, our jeans feel tight and we resent our bodies) and we enter a loop of self-doubt, embarrassment, self-hatred and pain.

  2. We feel shame in our body — Shame can feel so heavy and so dark, that we simply do not want to be present in our bodies to feel it — so we clench down and dissociate, avoiding dealing with the core parts of ourselves that we cannot accept.

  3. We isolate in our shame — We hide because we don’t what to share our pain or embarrassment with others (we want to “fit in”). We then feel so alone, further exacerbating our sense of shame.

  4. Avoid, suppress, escape — We engage in harmful behaviors to mask the pain of our shame and isolation. Whether it’s drugs/alcohol, shopping, technology or sex, we attempt to self-medicate with the very activities that so often cause us shame in the first place.

The antidotes to shame are self-compassion and community

When we feel shame, we believe we are not worthy and isolate ourselves from others, believing deep down that we are alone in our wretchedness. However, when we share our stories of shame in safe spaces (like Between Us!) we can connect to others and tap into a sense of compassion and empathy. It’s easy to forget, but remembering that we are connected and not alone feels like medicine. Sharing, acknowledging and connecting allows us to release the physical clench of shame, and soften us into self-awareness and understanding. When we share our shame, it suddenly has less of a hold on us — we can understand where it comes from and love it to release it.

Post-Script — Self shame vs. cultural shame

There’s a lot of shame that’s generated within us, but culture also plays an important role. Someone can feel good about having a certain body or a certain kind of parents or a particular kind of personality YET when our societies constantly tell us that there’s something wrong with us, it can eventually hurt even the most confident amongst us. How can we continue to build our own resilience and self-esteem WHILE also pushing to create a culture that feels more inclusive and kind?


1. Can you identify what messages created shame in your upbringing? Where and when were you told you weren’t “enough” when you were simply being who you were? The first step to releasing our shame is identifying where it comes from!

2. Find a safe person or a safe space to share something you feel shameful about. When we can open up and share, we feel less alone and can learn to accept ourselves for all that we are.

Written by Sybil Ottenstein and Veronica Marquez in collaboration with our host Rebecca Roebber in Seattle.

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