Shame – The Shaper of Symptoms
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Shame is a fear-based internal state accompanied by feelings of being unworthy and unlovable.
Shame conjures up brief, intense painful feelings of mortification due to being seen as inadequate. Shame feelings are a threat to the integrity of the self. It keeps us caught in fear of being found out by others. The perceived deficit is so humiliating that the person goes to great lengths to hide the flawed self.
Induced causes of shame by others include a betrayal by them in some way. Trust in often broken through parental disapproval and judgment. Harsh, critical parental behavior produces shame-prone, perfectionistic children who then pass the family bad habit down to their children. The energy of shame of others is contagious and can be passed from one individual to another. In this manner, family dysfunction is handed down from one generation to the other.
Parental withdrawal, rejection or favoritism of a sibling cause deep fears of abandonment and shame. The child feels that he must be really bad or his parents do not love him. Parents who have too high expectations of behavior, criticism and disapproval for failure create shame as the child cannot realistically live up to the high expectations. Parental humiliation and punishment for distress, crying or making a mistake creates the need in the child to try to hide his vulnerability. He worries incessantly about what others think, fears public failure and stops taking risks due to fear of social disapproval. He is becomes afraid of rejection and abandonment.
When parents point the “bony finger of blame” at a child and say “Shame on you. Shame. Shame. You are a __________. ” the child learns to believe that he is unworthy. He may then act out inappropriately and become what the parent has labeled him. Doing what the parent has accused him up is the self-fulfilling prophesy.
The trauma of being bullied or physical and sexual abuse imprints major feelings of being devalued and unworthy in the victim. Shame can pass from the perpetrator to the victim. People who live in abusive relationships where they feel helpless learn the shame-rage cycle. Shame and rage are passed from one person to another through learning to act like the aggressor.
Some churches use shame to control their members by preaching rigid rules which are inconsistent with human nature. The more that “hell and damnation” are emphasized, the more guilt and shame the members will have.
Guilt is a feeling that we did something wrong. Guilt is usually tied to a specific behavior. Guilt says, “I did something bad. I must pay.” Common causes of guilt are violation of society’s’ values around sexual and aggressive behavior, issues around bathroom functions care and being different and being looked down upon by others. We create guilt and shame in ourselves when we engage in morally-inappropriate behavior and get caught and there is public humiliation.
Guilt is about actions, shame is about the self. Shame says “I am bad. I am different.” The shame core can build up after engaging in behaviors you know are wrong. Accumulated guilt by continuing to act in ways that you know are wrong can turn into shame.
Guilt and shame can build up with repeated incidents of humiliation and lead to internal global beliefs of “I am unworthy. I don’t deserve good things. I am unlovable. ” The feelings around these deep core beliefs are so bad that they must be avoided at all costs. Other more acceptable feelings such as sadness, anger or rage get substituted instead.
Shame is the shaper of symptoms. It creates a false self where you cannot be real. It can create nasty behaviors that you regret later. Repressed shame leads to substituting more acceptable emotions (to you) such as anger, rage, depression and anxiety to reduce the internal tension that is so hard to bear. Other defenses of shame include macho behavior, intellectualization and shutting down feelings. Controlling, blaming, criticizing or feeling superior to others are other common defenses to avoid feelings of shame. Engaging in excessive use of alcohol, substances and addictive behavior may be an indicator of shame. Drunken behavior may then cause more shame. Engaging in behaviors that society frowns upon creates more guilt and shame.
In the shame/rage cycle, there is an instant flooding of adrenalin and cortisol to prepare the person to fight back. You come under the control of fight or flight hormones and attack the other person going for their jugular vein. Your common sense goes out the window as you lose your personal sense of responsibility and then lose control.
Patterns of dysfunctional behavior in a person’s life usually indicate a strong internal shame core. Lack of intimacy and connection to others indicates a lack of trust which was brought about by early feelings of helplessness and humiliation. Repressed shame and guilt cause a lack of trust of others and a deep breach or separation from others and the real self.
Rage is always about entitlement and feeling insecure inside. The person believes he has the right to vent and yell to get the other person to back off. He uses anger to intimidate others to get them to leave you alone. Bad behavior works to reduce the threat, but it damages relationships.
At some point in your, the old defenses of anger, rage and running away from pain no longer work. Shame comes up big time. Your life crashes and you hit an emotional bottom. An important relationship is threatened or ends which may prompt you to seek psychological help.
Shame is the Shaper of Symptoms but It is Also the Way Home
One purpose of the negative emotion is to help us look at those aspects of ourself that is not congruent with our deepest values and understanding of what it means to be human from a soul level. You can use your shameful feelings as a signal that something needs examining. The anxiety around the painful past must be entered into and moved through.
Understanding how shame works helps release it. Shame can be released through owning it, talking about it and processing the original painful experiences. Uncomfortable feeling can be accessed and worked through with the help of a skillful therapist. The shame reduction work must be experiential; it usually cannot be released on an intellectual level. Laughter about one’s predicament sometimes helps shift shame energies.
You can learn to become a detective on your own emotions and behavior so you can break into the hormonal hijackings that spiral you into bad behavior. You can learn to detach and become an observer of your own internal state of shame choosing not to shut down the painful feelings but to stay present and learn from them. When you get upset, step back and watch how the ugly adrenalin-driven behavior takes away from being the person you really want to be. The shame-rage link was learned. The association between hormones and bad behavior can be unlearned.
You can learn to break into beliefs of being entitled to scream and yell to shut the others down. You can break the belief of “I get to hurt others by my ugly words because I feel an uncomfortable feeling.” You can stop the attitude of “I earn the money here so I get to do what I want and violence is justified. You can learn better communication skills. You can stop focusing on blaming your partner and take responsibility for your part of the problem. You can try to see the issue through your partner’s eyes. This is about finally becoming a grown up!
The cleaning out of the global beliefs of “I am bad. I am a bad person. I am not safe. I will be rejected because I am unworthy. I will be abandoned.” takes time and exploration but it can be done with a therapist who understands the process of shame release and can stay present with unconditional love. The other side of shame is “I am worthy even though I make mistakes. I am a good person even if I get angry. I am lovable.” The truth is that you are a beautiful person who was shamed as a child and you now need to claim yourself as being worthy of being loved.
Bring the integrity of who you are forward and work your early painful issues through to create a different understanding of the early painful experiences that caused shame. Turning the shame over to something greater than oneself can negate those global beliefs of unworthiness.
Feelings of guilt and shame can be worked out with a competent, compassionate therapist. When shame release work is combined in therapy with assertiveness training and learning to speak up and say no, to state boundaries and to share feelings, self esteem zooms upward.
No easy task, but there it is. By careful monitoring and studying your shame and rage and breaking into them you can become the master of your feelings. If this is the work that you came to do, then the higher part of who you are says, “Let’s be about the work!”