When Shame Becomes Rage
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
In an article in the Psychotherapy Networker, therapist Ronald Potter-Efron describes the different types of shame. Like guilt, shame is one of those emotions that feels so terrible that some people try to avoid it at all costs. It’s driven by a flooding of adrenalin. Here is how it works.
We have a conscience and know our values and what ways of acting in which we believe. When we do something different than what we believe in, our conscience nags us to tell us we have done wrong. That is the feeling of guilt. Guilt is situation specific. It has a message to try to get you to stop doing something you find distasteful. It nags, “You did something wrong. Stop doing it.” Guilt can be productive in helping you change your behavior. If you deny what you did wrong and deny the guilty feelings, you cement it in further. You may even use anger to make guilt go away and get the person who is confronting you to back off. Owning your mistakes and inappropriate behavior, apologizing for them and stopping the behavior is the best way to reduce guilt.
Shame is a message about the self esteem that hits in the pit of the stomach. It is global in nature and says, “You are bad. You are different.” It happens when you feel threatened to the very core of who you are. Shame rears its ugly head when there is a threat and you feel helpless, humiliated and dehumanized. If you lose control when you are angry, you have learned to substitute the emotion of rage to take yourself out of the bad feelings of being a victim.
Rage is a much stronger emotion than anger. When you rage, you lose self control and adrenalin and cortisol prepare you to fight. You heat up and go from zero to one hundred twenty miles an hour in ten seconds in a run-away giant semi. And you are not in control of the wheel. Someone very nasty has the pedal to the metal and ugly things are coming out of the mouth which you will feel bad about later. You have been hijacked! You have lost yourself because rage has taken you over when you felt a threat to your self esteem.
The threat is to your sense of who you are and comes out of frustration and shame. According to Potter-Efron four different threats produce four different kinds of hormonal-driven rage that come from different types of shame.
Survival Rage – when you are physically attacked and might be hurt.
Impotent Rage – when you feel threatened and feel utterly helpless and not able to deal with the situation so you rage instead.
Attachment Rage – when you feel threatened because you might be abandoned or rejected by someone you care about. This type may have developed if you had a rejecting type parent who used withdrawal and threats to discipline you.
Shame Rage – when you feel humiliated, embarrassed, or ridiculed and your self esteem takes a drop and you rage to cut off these bad feelings. This type typically develops if you’ve had a critical, abusing parent or partner or were bullied as a child.
Other kinds of shame specific to certain situations where you feel like you are less than others.
I’m Not Trash Shame Rage – if your family was poor or lived in a run down place or your parents were dysfunctional alcoholics or different in some undesirable way, you probably were embarrassed by them as a child. As an adult, you get angry when you are reminded of how you are different from others.
Loss of Function Shame Rage – loss of your identity as a person because you are less than the person you used to be. You may have lost stamina, memory or are disabled and can’t work.
Guilt Piling Up Shame Rage – secretly you feel downright ashamed of yourself because you have not lived up to your values and principles and have become a person you don’t respect. When criticized about your behavior, you resort to rage to get the other person to leave you alone.
Break the Threat-Hormonal Arousal-Shame-Rage Cycle
Potter-Efron says to challenge the five core messages that you get from shame which send you into self-loathing and feeling worthless. 1.) You’re no good. 2.) You aren’t good enough. 3.) You’re unlovable. 4.) You don’t belong. 5.) You shouldn’t be. These are lies that were thrown on you by someone else and your own feelings of helplessness.
Cutting off shame instead of allowing the feeling to come up and be worked through and turning it to rage only keeps the cycle going. As long as you disrupt the feelings of shame, they will stay with you. The best idea is to bring them out into the light and learn to work them through. Understand the dynamics that send you from feeing threatened to rage so that you don’t feel the shame. Read about shame, bullying and scapegoating. Make a personal challenge to break destructive patterns in your life. Figure out what types of shame you have.
What triggers your impotent, helpless feelings and what sets you off? Become aware of what’s happening within to become the master of your feelings instead of letting them master you. Learn to observe the process of feeling a threat (a trigger that threatens self esteem) and the quick shift to rage. Step back and watch how you lose your control and give away your power to do something productive when you feel threatened.
When a vulnerable feelings of disappointment and frustration comes up say, “This is a feeling. It’s only a feeling. Feelings are meant to be felt. That’s why they are called feelings. I choose to breathe through this feeling rather than act it out.”
Allow yourself to feel the emotion of guilt and own up to what you did wrong. Taking responsibility for your own actions can become a way to gain self esteem. Allow yourself to feel the emotion of shame. Leave the upsetting situation and hang out with the feelings of shame. To defuse its power, call it by name. “So this is shame. I’m being flooded with adrenalin. I can handle this. Even though it feels excruciating, I breathe it through.”
Find a therapist to help you look at the pattern of violence that you learned in your family, the neighborhood or at school when you were young or when you were in an abusive relationship. Living with an aggressive person may have affected you so deeply that you took on the energies of the aggressor. Redefine your masculinity or your sense of self as a strong woman as being able to take things as they come up. Real strength is learning to allow feelings of hurt, disappointment and vulnerability instead of losing your cool.
Listen to your body. Catch yourself when you start to trigger, heat up and lose control. Observe how your body reacts when you are about to trigger. Does your stomach knot up or your jaw clench? Do you stop breathing? Do you feel the adrenalin rush as your first clue? Does your heart beat faster? Find your body changes that signal you are about to lose it. Learn body cues to break into the cycle before it goes into nasty behavior.
Show your strength by being the one who chooses not to escalate the fight. Let the other person know that you must leave the situation at once to calm yourself down in order to not hurt yourself or the other person. Give up the need to have the last word or make one more point. Tell yourself that you can be a bigger person by stopping the argument.
Use self talk to keep yourself from blowing up. Talk yourself down. Use several phrases that calm you down such as “This isn’t worth it. I refuse to lose it. I don’t have to go down the rage road. I can leave instead of blowing up and ruining things.” Cool yourself down with deep breathing. Tell yourself, “I will learn to deal with frustrating events.”
Shame is released by processing feelings of entitlement. Challenge your belief that you have the right to vent and scream because you are frustrated. Find a therapist to help you use The Emotional Freedom Technique, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and The Tapas Technique to release old victim feelings and entitlement.
Be gentle with yourself as you are learning these new skills. You are breaking habits of a lifetime. If you mess up and revert back to the mean behavior you dislike, analyze what went wrong. Don’t beat yourself up-that only makes things worse. Tell yourself that you made a slip and you will be more careful next time. Keep at this process of chipping away the shame-rage cycle. You will get better over time if you keep at this task of becoming the best person you can be. Give yourself a break; this process takes time.
You are not a bad person because you rage when you feel helpless or bad about yourself. You are just a good person behaving badly. Forgive yourself for doing what you have learned and vow to be different. Change the destructive reactive pattern of shame/rage and develop into the person you really want to be. Use your power to understand your emotions, own them and work with them instead of acting them out. Learn to behave better even when you feel bad inside. Deeply desire to change and you will. You deserve to have a peaceful, happy life.