We all know the feeling, the hot rush of painful horror when we realise we have said or done something wrong — our clearest indicator that we are somehow wrong. With a red face and stuttering speech, we may either make a rapid exit, or try to tough it out. As Tony Delmedico said, shame is “the swampland of the soul.” It is a powerful, self-shrivelling, social emotion.

Based in comparisons of the self with others, or of the self with one’s own unrealistic standards, shame is based in the tyranny of not-good-enough. It is focused on the self, intensely self-conscious and negative. It isn’t the “I have done something wrong” of guilt, it is the “I am something wrong.”

Highly correlated with addiction, depression, aggression, eating disorders, and suicide, shame is corrosive and damaging. It feeds the darkest parts of ourselves — self loathing, helplessness, and anger — turned outward as aggression, or inward as depression.

We all carry observations of what is expected of us by ourselves, our loved ones, and society at large. When we fail to deliver on those expectations, or take a route that does not emphasise those norms, we are highly susceptible to shame. Brené Brown’s research finds women and men experience the same shame responses, but labor under different notions of what is expected of them. She finds women feel they are supposed to do everything in life perfectly, with no sign of strain — raise the children, go to work, support relationships, be thin, well-dressed, and fun, while men above all are terrified of being perceived as weak. Shame emerges from failure to meet these expectations. Brown speaks of these edicts as straight jackets that restrict us from finding our own authentic paths, and keep us estranged from each other.

Secrecy, silence, and judgement provide the ideal environment for shame to flourish, while empathy and supported vulnerability are the antidotes. Come share your “defects,” and failures with us, and let us break the seal on your isolation. By allowing yourself to speak the unmentionable in the safety of the therapy relationship, the empathy and acceptance you find there will help you move out of the straight jacket, and into the open arena of choice and fearlessness about being yourself.