At its most basic shame is an interruption of positive feelings, and the interruption informs us of that our internal state is one of feeling inadequate, unworthy, broken and disconnected.
Not meeting our own ideals and expectations, mostly formed in our childhood, can trigger shame but so can other people and circumstances. Shame leads us to feel flawed and unacceptable, and unworthy of inclusion and like we do not belong, it motivates us to hide all or parts of us, and to do things that we think saves face. It is not hard to see how shame can lead to a lot of emotional pain that in turns leads you to withdraw from others and situations, and even to addiction as you try to mask the effect it has on you.
It is sometimes hard to distinguish between guilt and shame. Guilt is more about behaviour and we are more likely to want to make amends for the behaviour, to admit guilt and to talk to others about how we feel. Shame on the other hand is about whom we think we are and it does not make a distinction between the self and the behaviour.
A situation does not have to be real to trigger shame. Shame may be brought on by when you start to compare yourself to others and feel inadequate, or when we think others will become aware of flaws we are trying to hide. Shame is triggered when we anticipate being viewed as being inadequate and/or lacking in intellect, appearance or ability. You may avoid going out in public; for example, if shame is triggered by being seen in public because you believe that your appearance is flawed. You devalue yourself and you have an expectation that others will too, and that they will judge you.
I have already spoken about how our own shame makes us judge others in other posts about shame. Attacking others can serve as a way of separating shame from the person feeling it. Expressing it towards another person externalises it and transfers it on to another. In relationships, a partner may denigrate their partner to manipulate their self-esteem. When they become more reliant on the partner’s approval they feel stronger and may blame any failures on the weaker partner. Relocating shame in this way is a typically self-protective manoeuvre that, for example, narcissists use. At the core of narcissism is unbearable internalized shame that is denied consciousness. Narcissists compensate by self-inflating and being entitled, provoking envy in people around them.
Shame is contagious if you take on what another person is projecting especially if that person is abusive. For children this is particularly toxic. Shame is hard to spot because the person experiencing it is trying to conceal it especially if they have been victims of violence and abuse. In school, shame can lead to bullying in an attempt to pass on the feeling of shame to others. Children who bully quickly figure out what makes other children feel shame and become skilled in triggering it in other children.
As children, if we are emotionally or physically abandoned or neglected in any other way, weboften take on shame that belongs to the adults in our life, especially the adults that hurt us. We often assume that the adult’s behaviour is because we are bad. Some children even behave in ways that make them culpable to their parents’ shame. Children’s behaviours can also trigger shame in adults. Some shame triggered parents will deny culpability while others will accept too much responsibility for the child’s behaviour.
It is common for shame to trigger anger and rage as a way of avoiding feeling the shame and externalising it. Inciting envy, threatening abandonment or preventing someone else’s happiness are expressions of the anger and rage as well as violence. The anger a person feeling shame is experiencing becomes the focus of conscious thought. If a person consumed by shame manages to share it with another person then that person will experience it too. When someone takes on another’s shame, the effect can make that person physically and emotionally ill, and it can trigger severe anxiety.
It does not matter what triggers the shame, the effects of it can be devastating. Shame not only brings envy, anger, rage and anxiety but also sadness, depression, loneliness, separateness and emptiness. This makes shame incredibly dangerous. It colours how you view yourself in relation to the world in a very negative way and it affects how you deem your ability to recover self-esteem when you lose it.
When someone decides to recover from shame it is the stepping back and taking a look at what is going on within them that helps the most. Learning about yourself and how you can change your thinking is crucial in recovery. Shame is tricky because it is shaped by the emotional memories of when it was first and previously experienced. The accumulation of memories becomes part of our story and is activated in the present when shame is triggered. These emotional memories influence decisions and actions. Because shame makes us want to hide it, and it is crucial to understand that, that it is what it makes us want to do. Shame often triggers other behaviours that also trigger shame, like addiction, compulsive behaviours, self-criticism and self-denigration.
Observing your own behaviour provides the opportunity learn, change, improve or changing the behaviour, and it makes it easier to begin recovery and to not take on the shame of others.
Check out next week’s post for more on shame.