Shame the Disowned Part of the Self
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Quick! Think of the most embarrassing experience of your life. Or a time when you were drastically humiliated and ridiculed by someone. How do you feel remembering these events? Could you call forth the feelings or did you numb out quickly? Did you feel anguish looking back or could you toss the event off with laughter? The amount of emotional pain that you felt is related to stuck energy around old feelings of shame. Talk about an unsolved mystery! How does this emotion of shame get such a hold on you?
Shame is a fear-based internal state being, accompanied by beliefs of being unworthy and basically unlovable. Shame is a primary emotion that conjures up brief, intense painful feelings and a fundamental sense of inadequacy. Shame experiences bring forth beliefs of “I am a failure” and “I am bad” which are a threat to the integrity of the self. This perceived deficit of being bad is so humiliating and disgraceful that there is a need to protect and hide the flawed self from others. Fears of being vulnerable, found out, exposed and further humiliated are paramount. Feelings of shame shut people down so that they can distance from the internal painful state of hopelessness.
Shame is a result of early developmental loss either real or perceived. It may begin in parent-infant conflict where there is possible significant loss or threat of loss of the child’s basic security. The child longs for closeness with the mother and father. If there is rejection or love withdrawal from the parent, the child is left with intense, painful emotions. On some level, the beliefs of “I am unlovable” develops and a core of shame starts to build. Anna Freud described these experiences as happening before the child develops language and therefore are not remembered. These feelings of not being loved cause the child to rage and/or go into silent withdrawal. Experiences that cause shame alter the child’s basic trust of others and are at the heart of dysfunctional behavior.
Shame and Guilt
Children often feel guilty as well as ashamed. Guilt is an emotion that rises after a transgression of one’s own or cultural values. Guilt is about actions; shame is about the self. The purpose of guilt is to stop behavior that violates a self, family or societal standard. Guilt keeps score on excesses or deficits of behavior deemed undesirable and is expressed in regret and remorse. Guilt can be tied to perfectionism and setting goals either too high or too low. Engaging in behavior that causes one to feel guilty can lead to deep shame.
The typical shame response is a heightened degree of arousal and self consciousness. The person in emotional pain averts his eyes and his head goes down. New information is blocked. There is intense discomfort and muscular tension. The body collapses inward to protect the self and there is a shrinking of body energy. The skin may become flushed with embarrassment. There are feelings of inadequacy and the fear of self exposure. The person wants to shrink, hide or even die to get away from the painful feelings of mortification. These feelings are so excruciating that the child wants to avoid them at all costs.
Causes of Shame
Adult-induced causes of shame involve betrayal by others and a broken trust through disapproval or humiliation. Parental withdrawal and rejection shown by looks of contempt cause instantaneous shame reactions in children. A child who believes that his parents favor a sibling often believe that there is something basically wrong with him or he would be the chosen child. Shame also occurs when the parents have high standards of behavior and react with anger or embarrassment when the child does not live up to expectations. Punishment for failure and humiliation over the child’s expression of vulnerability, distress, crying or pain typically create shame. Criticism, cruel teasing and ridicule further reinforce the child’s beliefs of unworthiness. Harsh parental discipline of a coercive nature create fears of abandonment in the child. The trauma of physical abuse imprints feelings of being devalued in the child. Empathetic shame happens when the child internalizes humiliation and shame reactions of other people. Sexual abuse typically causes the child to feel dirty and bad and he often absorbs the shame of the adult who committed the offense.
Other types of shame are self induced around events of morally inappropriate behavior and public exposure. It is not what happened to the person but how it is interpreted by the self and others that makes the difference. Excesses of worry about what others may think of him add to the discomfort and the wish to hide. This category of fear of self exposure includes:
- Sexual feelings and actions.
- Impulsive aggressive behavior that is against public standards.
- Issues around bathroom functions, body odors and cleanliness.
- Failure of a task or doing poorly when performing before an audience.
- Humiliation and ridicule by peers.
- Class, social status or racial inequality–being looked down upon by others.
- Being different or one’s parents being different from others–clothes, body size, or physical differences.
- Doing something or saying something that might hurt another person’s feelings.
Shame Equals the Global Inner Belief of “I Am Bad.”
Energy has to go somewhere. Negative feelings and thoughts are energy. If the powerful feelings are not discharged, they are stored in the body. They may be denied and forgotten, but they remain as a negative force and the person goes through life with a nagging belief of not measuring up. When there are many unresolved experiences of shame in a child’s life, the self evaluation becomes global. The child has a core belief of “All of me is bad.” The child with a large amount of shame who makes a mistake does not make a specific attribution regarding an event such as “I did this. It was wrong and I can correct it” but goes automatically to feelings of unworthiness. The child then substitutes another emotion or numbs himself to avoid feeling the shame further stamping in the belief of being inadequate and helpless.
Scheff’s theory is that shame causes a breakdown of the integrated self. The bypassed, unacknowledged pain is not available to be looked at due to the mechanism of denial. Dissociation and repression of the bad feelings allow distance from the shame with a cover up of “I am not this needy. This is not me. I cannot feel this vulnerable.” Tension is discharged partially through substitute emotions but the core of shame grows even bigger as the individual engages in unhealthy behavior.
“Shame is the shaper of symptoms,” said Donald Nathanson. The unacknowledged thoughts and feelings become repressed and surface later through substitute emotions and dysfunctional behavior. Other emotions are substituted to hide the shame and maintain self esteem. Anger, depression, exaggerated pride, anxiety and helplessness are substituted to keep from feeling the total blackness of being bad. The buried shame is expressed through defense mechanisms that shield negative unconscious material from surfacing.
Anger responses are modeled and learned in some families. The anger response is more comfortable than feeling the shame for some individuals. Families where coercive and humiliating methods of discipline are used develop children who are shame prone. Behavior become driven by defenses that function to keep from feeling bad. Reality becomes distorted to further protect the self from poor self esteem. The transfer of blame to someone else is an indicator of internal shame.
Children who live with constant hostility and criticism learn to defend against the bad feelings inside and externalize blame on others. External assignment of blame is a defense against shame. People who are super critical have a heavy shame core inside. The focus is on finding fault outside yourself but the mistake is never corrected. If the responsibility for blame can be fixed on someone else, the person may feel pride in getting off scot-free. The rigid thinking is I’ll be pure if I can make him wrong. It is not my problem. It is beyond my control. I just can’t allow myself to feel bad inside, so I’ll blame him.”
The child who has been raised with criticism and parental anger may develop the shame/rage spiral. The shame/rage spiral consists of getting angry and raging when upset, then being ashamed and going into rage to avoid the shameful feelings, etc. The shame/rage spiral keeps others away and helps the person avoid intimacy where more pain and shame might be experienced.
Shame and the Fear of Being Found Out
The shame-prone individual’s biggest fear is for others to find out how bad he really feels inside. There is denial of vulnerability, avoidance of negative feelings that are perceived as weak and an inability to be real. Macho behavior in men has a deep shame core at its base. Men who are frightened of feelings learn to wall others away through withdrawing, numbing their feelings and intellectualizing. Other shame-driven behaviors are acting out, depression, anxiety and compulsive behavior. Some people are self deprecating and use submissive behavior to avoid the shaming behaviors of others. Others turn to addictive substances and activities to numb the emotional pain inside. The dissociation disorders are based in shame with distortion of reality and developing separate parts of the personality to hide from the shame.
Exaggerated pride allows the person to build up feelings of superiority again for the purpose of denying the global negative internal beliefs of “I am bad.” The narcissistic individual reduces his own shame by feeling better than others; he elevates his status by putting others down. Prejudice, bigotry, revenge and grudges towards others are mechanisms that keep the self from knowing and experiencing the shame. Individuals who engage in antisocial behavior have a great capacity for shame and denial. Young people who resort to violence and membership in gangs use feeling superior to avoid feeling bad about themselves. Sadly, gang members describe feeling respected by their peers for the first time in their life.
Shame Busting – Acknowledging and Releasing the Belief of I Am Bad
The denial of shame and dysfunctional behavior acts to prevent shame from surfacing by separating the self from the negative feelings. Shame removal can be accomplished by reconnecting with the original feeling of shame and learning to accept one’s self, warts and all. The affect must be expressed and internal awareness gained. The child must feel very secure with an adult for him to let his guard down and become less defended and rigid. This can best be done with a loving, caring individual who accepts the child as he is so that the broken trust can be regained.
In this process the person becomes an observer of his own shame, accepts it and takes mastery over it.
- Bring the shame to a conscious level by recognizing where it is located in the body.
- Feel the feelings. Describe the hurt, sadness, revenge and embarrassment to break into numbed feelings. Own the previously hidden feelings.
- Give the feelings verbal labels.
- Describe the original experience that caused the shame.
- Discuss the negative energy of the person who caused the humiliation or rejection, etc. Explore this person’s reasons for cruelty as related to his own shame.
- Determine if any of the other person’s shame was internalized. Help the child to understand that it is not their shame but someone else. Ask him to release it by visualizing throwing away the other person’s shame.
- Ask for the global belief (I am unworthy/bad/ unlovable.) that defines the secret self.
- Make specific attributions (I did something wrong based on my limited understanding at the time.)
- Find which negative emotions are substituted to keep from feeling bad.
- Find the poor coping behaviors used to keep the global belief away.
- Discuss the public exposure of failure. Admitting one’s faults reduces anxiety. Confession of “one’s discretions” in an atmosphere of safety reduces shame.
- Use laughter and pleasant emotions to reduce the tension. The research shows that individuals have less hostility if an irrelevant, pleasant experience happens at the same time when recalling a traumatic event. Terrifying situations may be defused more easily with humor. Laughter is an indicator of good self esteem–that you feel good enough to laugh about the unpleasant situation.
- Make a metaphor of the shame giving it color, form, shape or an image.
- Using visualization of the metaphor, ask the client to start to move the shame energy around. Have the child imagine dissipating and releasing the shame.
- Ask for a new global belief to replace the “I am bad.”
- Ask the child how he will be different in the future with this new belief. Ask him to imagine seeing himself acting differently in a situation of threat.
The cleaning out of the global “I am bad” belief takes time and much exploration. This exercise may need to be repeated many times depending upon the number of incidences in the person’s life.
Kids are resilient. Don’t give up on them. Help them learn to break the cycle of shame prevalent in their lives. Decision making is where it’s at. Help children gain a sense of self competency by learning new skills to make good decisions. This approach when combined with learning to speak out for one’s self and say no when appropriate along with sharing feelings and stating boundaries gives children tools to avoid further incidents that might be shame provoking.
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