Shame is one of the most frequent and often spoken of emotions I come across in mental health practice: “What were you thinking?” “I can’t believe you said that!” “You should have known better, you idiot!” “God must be so disappointed with you.” Can be just a few of the many negative internal scripts we find ourselves entertaining at any moment throughout the day. I have found this true of those that operate a forklift, use a scalpel, speak from a pulpit, or move children to and fro—shame is no respecter of person or station. It can be consistent and hard pressing often repeating what we have internalized in our youth.
Shame or Guilt?
Shame has a myriad of definitions that primarily center around an attitude of regret, disappointment in oneself, embarrassment, and disgrace. In this it is important to recognize the difference between guilt verses shame (It’s easy to get them mixed). As stated in other posts, guilt is something outside of us—something we may have done and that we can repay; shame, on the other hand, is who we are—something that is us and that we can never repay. In trying to move away from shame as a motivator we most certainly are not talking about ignoring or extinguishing guilt that must be made right—we would do ourselves a complete disservice to remove all feelings of guilt when, at times, we are guilty! It’s strange that some of us, even if given the option to turn shame over into guilt, will chose shame because it is what we have always done—continually punishing ourselves for who we are.
From Where Comes Shame?
When we ask where shame comes from it can get a little tricky. Relationship expert Margret Paul, in her popular piece on the Huffington Post Blog, Why We Feel Shame and How to Conquer It, shares that shame initially comes from not being validated as a child, then blaming ourselves, and eventually wanting (and not getting) control over ours and others feelings and emotions (Paul 2011). It can also be amplified by events we went through and feel should have been in our control such as abuse. In such cases, all the following characteristics of shame still apply. I would further submit that there may be something more to shame than just parents and control, which I will go into a bit later.
In considering motivation, we usually operate on a stick and/or carrot principle. The carrot is one of goals and aspirations, the stick that of consequence. Those who move themselves by shame will do so with both the stick AND the carrot, with the script stating: “Can’t you do any better, what is wrong with you?” If a goal is not met (carrot), and a “Don’t screw this up again” for a push to avoid failure (stick). This is seen in the workplace, school, sports team, the home, and the church.
As someone who has worked extensively in the Christian community I find shame to be the “go to” motivator in many people’s lives. Entire congregations will operate on a surface level, (afraid to dig into each other’s lives) for fear of exposing heartbreaking needs and struggles that, they believe, will ban them from the group they so very much need (which is a stick any way you look at it!). This is not exclusive to Christians but I believe it is given more cosmic muscle in the church and so can be harder to snap.
Many of us do not need a church background to be intimately acquainted with shame, below are the five characteristics of those of us who are driven by such a cruel motivator.
1. Negative over Positive Scripts and Emotions:
Shame is unabashedly negative. As demonstrated in the opening lines to this post, the negative scripts that shame generates tend to stir up emotions of fear, ridicule, sadness, frustration, failure, condemnation, the list goes on. In doing so, we as individuals will not only hear negative but will give it as well—after all, it is very difficult to speak positive when we entertain such negative lines between our ears. Many of us are not even aware of how negative these scripts can get until we take serious note, even saying them aloud can give us a shock.
Author Martin Seligman cites in his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life that these negative thoughts can seem personal, pervasive and permanent; that is, it can seem like everything we do is messed up because we are messed up (personal); that everywhere we look and whatever we do will be messed up (pervasive) and that the bad feelings we are having will never change (permanent). So it is with shame and the negative language that perpetuates. (Seligman 1998) What can be even more difficult is actually changing the continual and repeated scripts we have come to dysfunctionally rely on.
2. Demanding and Controlling:
Shame is not only negative, its demanding and never satisfied—which ensures continued feelings of failure. Even for those who are motivated to achieve, if shame is the driver it will always take more than it gives. What ends up happening is that there will never be enough—enough kudos, education, looks, prizes, perfect children or possessions. Translate this into our heads and it might sound like: “Sure you made it, but what about….?” Or “The only reason you really got this far is because…..” The demand shame puts on us will most always result in burning ourselves out—then passing it on to others. In this way, what is demanded of us (from shame) we demand of others, continuing to drive and never letting up.
In so demanding, the rules shame applies are always shifting and never solid. This “unattainable perfection” is yet another example of our inability to extinguish shame. The pattern goes something like this: We make a rule, the rule is met, motivated by shame we are still not satisfied, so we demand just a bit more—first of ourselves and then of others. Any of us who have grown children can attest to this when they may finally come to say, “You were never satisfied with anything I did!” Though this can be painful to hear it should give us pause as to the voice we have used to get ourselves going—the deeper truth being that we were never satisfied with anything we did!
Never being satisfied can put us straight on a course of needing to be in control—of ours and others feelings, attitudes, and actions—leading to feelings of anger, disappointment, and hurt. This control exacts itself in never being satisfied to be sure, but it also shows itself by unmet expectations, being overwhelmed or angry at other’s emotions, inability to accept another way, and being unwilling (or unable) to change or roll with the punches. Those who operate off shame will most certainly encounter a near meltdown when things become out of their perceived control—with either getting abrasive and loud, or crushed and heartbroken. Such reactions show control in either an overt or a covert manner. Overt control is the type we can all see readily—the loud, abrasive, finger pointing boss; whereas, covert control is one that attempts to quietly move the people and pieces around them so they don’t feel bad or uneasy. In our culture, the overt side of the controlling aspect of shame is ever present in the form of “shaming”—the boundary violating means of societal pressure.
Paradoxically, we are want to control others by shaming but cry “foul” when we perceive others attempting to shame us. Consequently, when control is not attained, the shame ramps up, “Why can’t you get your crap together”, “You need to do this or else”, “If you don’t help them and something happens, it’s going to be on your head!”—both to ourselves and others.
3. Comparing and Blaming:
Shame loves to make comparisons to everyone around us. When we are working so hard at doing right, running from the “not screwing up again” and “Why can’t you….?” can leave us trying to run at a frantic pace. In the demands of shame, we will either just meet what it asks or (more likely) never attain what it asks. As such, our human tendency to find “okayness” through the weeds of failure can leave us comparing and blaming ourselves and others. When we are comparing, the internal dialogue may go something like this: “Well, at least I am not that bad” or “She has it together, what is wrong with you (me)?” The comparing script of shame can take us in one of two directions: Self-righteous or self-condemning—conjoined twins of the shame narrative.
Self-righteousness has us using others as a shield from shame for our acceptance. If we are working hard, checking all the boxes, members of the right group, and saying the right things, then to perceive someone as not trying as hard immediately sets us at odds; thus, coming close to someone who may not live up to our standards brings us nearer to the shame we are running so hard from. From this we may try to control others’ behaviors and attitudes—blaming (and shaming) them all the while for the problems of the world. The subconscious attitude being, “I’m doing what is right, why can’t you!”—bearing that all too familiar shame script that drives us. If this continues we may have a very difficult time empathizing with others and being moved to sensitivity. In fact, our first reaction to those that are “less than” will be contempt and punishment.
Conversely, self-condemnation closely rides the heels of self-righteousness and can catch us at any moment. Self-condemnation has us using ourselves as the shield (taking the arrows of shame full-on) for others, for our acceptance. As the self-righteous blames others, the self-condemned blame themselves. With this mindset, we see others as more worthy, beautiful, healthy, and holy. Prompted by shame, we long to have what they have and are repeatedly unsatisfied and disappointed with ourselves and the things we have, compared to those around us. In this way, the contempt and punishment are then turned toward us, picking up those arrows that missed us and finishing the job!
As someone who has grown up in the church, I see this self-righteous/self-condemnation cycle play out ad infinitum. In fact, each complement each other! The condemned will gladly take the arrow the self-righteous fires off (the blamer finds the blamed!). In fact, it’s as though each are trapped by the rules of a game no one can ever win but each sign up for (more on that later). This “push/pull” dynamic can fill entire congregations as each scrap and struggle to obtain an acceptance foothold, either working hard pointing at, or punishing, others and themselves. The irony in all of this is that such behavior blocks true connection and emotional intimacy—which we need to overcome shame. The struggles each side has are not confessed and so no one believes anyone struggles with anything. Another brand of this comes in the form of weak and marginal honesty, the “general confession” many call it. This is when we offer watered down statements such as, “Oh yes, we all struggle” and, “I’m just not where I want to be” as a distancing tool from shame—and others. To be fair we obviously don’t confess everything to everyone, but in this environment the intimate few are just a notion and not a reality.
4. Avoiding and Protecting:
As shame drives us, we can find ourselves in a pattern of avoiding situations and others that touch a tender nerve. In this way, shame has a way of protecting itself from being changed or letting go. Avoidance can appear in many different forms: avoiding situations (such as finding a job, ignoring a problem and/or blaming the circumstance or others), avoiding people, (loved ones, co-workers, and friends) and avoiding ourselves (denial, endless self-distractions, a packed schedule). This avoidance seeks to curb the immediate pain of a situation but most always prolongs the agony. Often, the primary emotion accompanying shame that leads to avoidance is fear—fear of something different, of putting ourselves “out there” and of rejection. I have counseled some that have undergone remarkable pain and felt they had to “do it alone” by not sharing or confessing their hurts and struggles with others—the shame and fear too great to reach out. Those who suffer from depression are want to isolate themselves and avoid others all-together, entertaining shame scripts such as, “You are so pathetic!” and “no one cares anyway”. In this way, even people with a great deal of social support alongside feel as though they are completely alone.
The corollary to the avoidance that shame instills is that, by avoiding, shame is sure to protect itself from being dislodged. I cannot recount how many times I have pointed out the shame narrative in people’s lives, only to be met with, “That’s how I get things done” or, “But it’s true, I am pathetic”. I have often equated shame to a small room, with feces thick on the walls and the overpowering smell that comes with it. (apologies for the graphic!) If told that the door was unlocked with several undiscovered, clean, comfortable rooms just outside, would those of us driven by shame step through that door? At first telling the answer would seem to be “yes” but the truth is, we most often would not; why? because the room is what we know and the mystery on the other side too frightening to move toward. This stagnation then perpetuates the feelings of worthlessness and helplessness making shame all the more powerful. If this analogy seems outrageous, consider the ways in which all of us may have “reasonable” protections against changing our shame behavior, scripts and expectations.
5. Familiar and “Safe”
As strange as it sounds, we are often hesitant to give up our shame scripts because they offer a type of safety. Fear governs whether or not we “open the door to our shame room” and walk out—fear of what we do not know. In this way, shame becomes a place we grow horribly comfortable with. This false sense of safety is not safe at all but only seems less scary and uncomfortable than the unknown. When couples come to me in locked disagreement, we discuss how the place they are in has only broken and worn-out tools—albeit tools they have grown comfortable with. This “comfort” with the broken has a way of settling us into good enough, which then keeps us from feeling good about who we are and where we are going. The new tools (which exist in the rooms outside of shame) are strange and clunky, but are so much more effective and healthy.
The root of familiar is family, which means that, more than likely, we learned to grow comfortable in our shame language from the home we grew up in. Even the subtle, “You could have done so much better”, meant to bolster one’s potential, has a way of amplifying the underlying failure. Negative undertones, difficult standards, and the stick of motivation from our families cultivate the seed of shame inside all of us. Indeed, having worked with many who have come from homes of abuse, I see grown adults who have resented and hated the treatment their parents have given them—only to agree to continue the abuse in their head upon moving out. Even in good homes the perceived perfection required of them comes from a filter of shame.
Did Our Childhood Do This to Us?
Child development experts agree that, as children, we gauge our emotions and attitudes on what our caregivers provide, which can include acceptance and/or shame; as time progresses, however, it becomes imperative to develop our own personhood and boundaries in relation to emotions and attitudes (something families may have a difficult time doing). If our relational roles were confused we continue to grow in stature but not emotional maturity. In other words, we will repeatedly rely on others to define our emotions and who we are, much like we did as children. So, if we continue the mantra of “my parents did this to me” it does very little for our present situation. Even if we are coming from abuse we may continue to identify ourselves by that abuse—never allowing another avenue into who we are. It is my contention that in adulthood we must develop our personal boundaries (in our head), relational boundaries (with others) and external boundaries (with the world around us) if we are going to get any kind of joy out of life. If these areas are lacking, then we will continue to dive into shame for ourselves and others—always hoping and expecting but never satisfied. So to answer the question: what our parents may have started we do not want to be guilty by taking part in.
What Can We Do About Where Shame Comes From?
Whereas its true that the way we were raised certainly has its influence, I would contend that, even if our parents were poor at validating our feelings, shame comes innate in all of us from the start—which returns us back to the distinction of guilt vs. shame: guilt = I have a problem; shame = I am a problem. First, we have to chase down whether the shame we are feeling is really guilt, which we should make right. If it is not guilt (or we cannot repay) then we need to reconsider the why of shame. In this, the hard, and compelling, crux of the matter is: we do have a problem! (Which can be a shock to some but manifest to others) The thought follows that if we are born of imperfect people, then we have every possibility of making the same mistakes they make—even if we don’t want to (Remember the “shame contract” we agree to continue after we leave home?). Such behavior points to something inside of us that agrees to the hurt we have received—and will tend to pass on. For those that are battling shame from childhood abuse it is important to remember that such treatment did not start the shame but does intensely amplify it. This innate shame ties us back to the idea of “shaming” others in our culture—the shame inside of us becoming a kind of manipulative currency. Societally, we cannot be shamed unless we are in some agreement to the accusations! When we recognize that we do make bad decisions because of something inside of us, rather than just perpetuating the shame, we can ask ourselves what the shame could be telling us—or pointing to (the why). If it is not just our parents, or others, that give us shame (after all, they have their weaknesses too) then this piece of who we are may have no other out then to have someone greater than us save us from us. Keep in mind that if we continually hope that individuals as flawed as we are will take on the mass of our shame we are sure to be hurt and disappointed every time. This asking of an “other” to deliver us from shame is a tendency in all of us (after all, we do it all the time); however, what (or who) we rely on to take our shame away must be strong enough to bear the weight of what we ask (as a Christian I have more thoughts in this!). In this way, shame can either be confronted and dissipated, or nurtured and cultivated to grow and take over our lives.
If you have any thoughts or ideas on this matter, please go to our Facebook Page at Downey Park Counseling Associates or even check out my website blog on www.chrisoneth.com/blog
Paul, Margaret (October 6, 2011) Why We Feel Shame and How to Conquer It. Huffington Post. Retrieved From: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-paul-phd/dealing-with-shame_b_994991.html
Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Pocket Books New York, NY