Shame is one of the most insidious and destructive emotions that we experience on a regular basis. It tends to be a corrosive thread that can eat away at our personal power and consume us in its fire over a period of years. For many, it is so embedded in our psyche that we are not even aware of the influence it plays. If you find yourself cringing, blushing, becoming easily flustered or embarrassed, then shame likely plays a major role in your life. It can be debilitating to the point that we withdraw from all optional social contact and even refuse to engage with others unless absolutely forced to. While extreme examples, there are many who suffer in just this manner.
A more subtle variety afflicts many more; it is the nagging shyness and humiliation that we feel just by going about our daily lives, never quite sure why we always feel so self-conscious and vigilant to what we think others are observing, thinking and judging about us, but convinced it has something to do with our basic flaws. While guilt is usually considered to be a fairly appropriate and healthy emotion as well as an instrument of self regulation; shame is generally considered to be its evil step-child, a source of self-loathing and disempowerment.
Maybe the most poignant feelings that accompany shame are the ever-present regret we experience as a result of our misdeeds, both real or imagined, past and present. These are further accompanied by feelings of embarrassment, self-blame and feelings of responsibility for negative circumstances that have befallen yourself or others. There is typically a sense of remorse for thoughts, feelings, or attitudes that were or are negative, uncomplimentary, or non-accepting of yourself or others. We feel compelled to undo or amend the real or perceived wrongs we think we’ve committed; a compulsion driven by an overly developed moral code that tells us we must not choose the “wrong” course of action. Of course, all of our choices tend to feel somewhat less than perfect with this sort of mindset and our ability to feel and act spontaneously is seriously blunted. These forces collude in an all-out assault on our ego and sense of personal power.
The most dramatic manifestation of shame is always in our relationships and interactions with others. These encounters trigger our shameful thoughts, feelings and their accompanying behaviors in a variety of ways. Normal forms of intimacy are frequently quite disturbed or distorted due to the inability of the guilty or shameful person to draw too close for fear of exposure. There is much secrecy associated with shame as if to admit it will make it even more shameful, hence, the shamed person holds back from many potentially intense interpersonal experiences. We often possess a sense of obligation to people-please, help, placate and “fix” others which hinders the development of normal “interdependency” and may foster unhealthy dependency instead. Typically, the shameful person relinquishes their personal power in these inequitable relationships. In what would be normal encounters for others, we often second-guess our actions and responses and feel frustrated and out of control for mishandling situations. If we do happen to have a primary love relationship, there is often a predictable spiral of our relinquishing power and growing increasingly hurt and angry that we have become enmeshed in such a situation. For many, it is a cycle repeated over and over in a series of broken relationships.
Shame and guilt are power draining emotions that derive from some fairly common roots. The emotional components of living in shame and guilt are several and somewhat varied but the list is fairly predictable from person to person. While its origins can be varied, there is general consensus that the shame components are internalized fairly early in the formation of our personality and are frequently associated with early childhood trauma. However, in many cases this trauma is absent and the shame messages may have been introduced through consistent or even periodic shaming messages from parents, teachers or others in authority. Peers can also play an important role in this process as well and can reinforce parental messages by attaching shame binds, or triggers, to normal childhood activities.
Taking Our Power Back
There are a number of self-interventions we can immediately commence to not only get relief from our shame, but to also reinvent ourselves as persons possessing normal healthy pride in ourselves and our accomplishments. It is no small feat and will take effort and commitment, but certainly no more than we expend fending off the fallout from our shameful identity. The following are exercises and tasks that myself and colleagues have used with toward that end:
1) Do a shame inventory. Yes, that’s correct – write it all down! What are the things about you that make you feel ashamed or guilty? These can be traits and attributes as well as actions you have taken. Go back over the events of your life and pull out those things that still cause you to wince in embarrassment when you remember them. Get this stuff down – don’t avoid it any longer – this is your key to freedom and personal power. When you get it all down you get to share it with the trusted person of your choice. This can be priest or therapist, friend or lover. – but be careful here. This is for the purpose of dumping it, or catharsis as it’s called in the professional parlance, but also acceptance for the total package of who you are. It’s important you don’t pick someone who will react or shame you more, or who has a stake in seeing you suffer further. While this task may seem intimidating, it only feels like a huge deal initially. If you find someone authentic and trustworthy, they will likely share with you some of the same or similar feelings and actions they have engaged in. That’s part of the process, joining the human race by connecting with it at a genuine level. You’ll be able to share this stuff with more people as you find that it holds less and less power over you.
2) End or renegotiate any relationships that keep you in a shame bind. No more compromising who or what you are to seek acceptance and love. No more hanging on to that person who won’t reject you if you just “act right” at the expense of authentic intimacy. This is painful at first, but incredibly empowering as you progress and begin to discover what it is you really want and deserve. This renegotiation also includes your biological family; they trained you to a great extent and you will have to re-train yourself not to respond in your usual shame-induced manor, or else keep some serious emotional distance while you find your power.
3) Consciously challenge your false beliefs, old ideas and self-defeating thoughts in real time. Your self-talk is an important element in perpetuating your shame, so are your thoughts and the attitudes you hold about yourself. As you begin to make changes, these “non-productive” ideas will become more apparent, transparent and objectionable to you, enabling you to reject them immediately rather than allowing them to control your behavior. Thoughts and feelings precede behavior so it is important to interrupt the shame process at its source. Your greatest tool here is your self-awareness. Do not let these old negative demons control your thought process any longer. When you detect them, say “get out of here” Do it in a humorous way, not in a judgmental or angry tone, that only reinforces the shame and guilt. The “Third Eye” can be a useful tool to employ. This is assuming the perspective of observer in our own life. We take on a detached view of ourselves as we go about our daily routines taking note of what we do, think and feel as we go. In this mode, we are not judging, just observing. When we see ourselves engaging in self-defeating behaviors, we can just say” well, I’m doing that thing again, isn’t that interesting”. The key is to engage in this role with a critical, yet non-judgmental approach. Doing this will facilitate an ongoing ability to challenge these behaviors as they continue to crop up.
4) Some of us may be so indoctrinated into our own way of thinking, and so unaware of our own behaviors, that we need help to break out of these destructive patterns. A “coach” can be anyone we entrust with the tasks of helping us to initiate a realistic self-appraisal of our coping style and our self-defeating behaviors. We “empower” this person to give us feedback about when we are engaging in shame-based communication and behavior toward others. With this assistance, we begin to be able to self-monitor much more effectively and assume the role of our own coach.
These are only a few suggestions to get started, but they can be extremely “powerful” aids in commencing your new way of relating to both yourself and the world. As you begin to incorporate new awareness, and as they are expressed in new behavior, you may begin to identify other related issues that need to be addressed. If you find that these are major obstacles to your progress, do not hesitate to seek professional assistance or self-help supports to move forward. This is not a straight-line process, although with the foundation you have laid, it will get easier to enlist the help you need on each new leg of the journey. Best wishes to you.
Douglas Frans, Ph.D. Has been a mental health practitioner, educator, lecturer and researcher over a 30 year professional career. His primary clinical work has focused on personal empowerment and compulsive disorders including: addiction and eating disorders. He has worked in private practice settings and also directed mental health, addiction and eating disorder recovery programs. He has practiced primarily from a competency-based perspective. Dr. Frans consults and writes about water quality issues and water filtration as well.