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Unveiling the Origins and Impact of our "Skeletons in the Cupboard"

Unveiling the Origins and Impact of our “Skeletons in the Cupboard” – How Shame Drives Our Behaviour

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The phrase “skeletons in the cupboard” is often used to describe concealed secrets or embarrassing truths that individuals or organisations, for that matter, seek to keep hidden. This is to suggest that anything we seek to hide is something we hold in shame – to varying degrees – and we will look at the profound impact shame can have on our lives.

What are the origins of “Skeletons in the Cupboard”?
It has been suggested that the phrase derives from the era of the notorious body snatchers; that is, prior to 1832, when the UK’s Anatomy Act allowed the more extensive use of corpses for medical research. The theory goes that, in a scenario similar to that of the concealment of Catholic priests in priest holes in domestic houses in Elizabethan England, doctors would conceal in cupboards the illegally held skeletons they used for teaching.
Hence, the term’s metaphorical concept alludes to hidden secrets or disgraceful experiences that individuals conceal, akin to skeletons hidden within a cupboard. This imagery aptly encapsulates the notion of shameful secrets lurking within the recesses of one’s personal history. However, this also relates to aspects of ourselves that we don’t like which could be anything from our creativity to our body image – essentially anything whereby we were given the message or interpreted it as such as being ‘negative’; for instance – “Stop singing, you sound like a crow’.

The Profound Influence of Shame

Shame, a potent and intricate emotion, significantly influences human behaviour and social interactions. It constitutes an intensely distressing experience with feelings varying from low threshold shame such as shyness to stronger feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, or a deep fear of exposure to one’s flaws, transgressions or even joy. Shame is intricately connected to our sense of self-identity and therefore possesses the potential to affect our lives in deeply detrimental ways. We may withhold expressing our joy if we were perpetually told to ‘keep quiet’ and grow to believe that we’re simply just not a very happy person.

Fundamentally, shame can exert a profound sway over our self-esteem and self-worth. A sense of shame will often lead to internalising negative self-perceptions, contributing to a diminished self-concept. This can subsequently lead to an array of detrimental emotions such as sorrow, anxiety, and despair, often setting in motion a negative cycle that impacts our overall psychological well-being. Put so aptly by Brené Brown, the leading expert on shame, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change”. Often people are not even aware that the underlying driving factors to their say, sense of sorrow, could be shame-based – that’s how elusive and effective shame is!

Secondly, shame casts ripples across our interpersonal relationships. The fear of exposure and judgement can drive individuals to retreat from social engagement, self-isolate, or adopt defensive behaviours. Self-defense anger is one of the hardest sources of anger to integrate due to its correlation to shame. Moreover, shame contributes to the erosion of trust and intimacy within relationships as individuals grapple with divulging their vulnerabilities or past errors – their fear of judgement being so extreme.

Impacts of Shame on Brain Processing

Research utilising functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has unveiled that the experience of shame triggers activity within various brain regions, including the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula. These regions are intrinsically tied to processing negative emotions, introspection, and interpreting social cues.

Additionally, shame can incite the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, affecting brain function over time. Persistent encounters with shame and stress correlate with compromised cognitive faculties making attention, memory retention, and decision-making more challenging.

Furthermore, humans inherently thrive in social environments, and the fear of social exclusion and ostracism associated with shame triggers the brain’s threat detection mechanism. In fact, you could say that shame is society’s ‘human regulator’. It is so painful being excluded or rejected making shame so powerful. Humanity is designed for connection and anything to the contrary hurts like hell. As a result, feelings of shame can lead to heightened vigilance, augmented anxiety, and an elevated receptivity to social cues, further shaping our conduct and cognitive processing. It starts to matter too much what others think of us. Left unchecked it can have disastrous effects on our psyches and, naturally, our relationships.

Shame profoundly impacts our existence, impacting our self-esteem, worthiness, interpersonal relationships, and overarching psychological well-being. We may think that leaving our “skeletons in the cupboard” is an effective strategy for keeping what we don’t want to acknowledge about ourselves out of the way – but the truth is that shame has a way of keeping us bound. It can rob you of joy, peace, spontaneity, love and connection. All the mechanisms you have in place to keep those skeletons hidden only eat away at your energy, health and true identity. The way to get rid of shame is to air that cupboard – shame cannot survive the full view of your own acknowledgment. It cannot survive empathy.

‘Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot tolerate having words wrapped around it. What it craves is secrecy, silence and judgement. If you stay quiet, you stay in a lot of self-judgement.’ Brené Brown.

If you’re grappling with feelings of shame that have led to frustration with life, seeking assistance and support from the British Association of Anger Management might be beneficial. Our organisation provides comprehensive anger management programmes and valuable tools to foster healthier relationships and self-compassion. Embark on the initial phase towards a more enriching life by delving into our services.

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