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Jan Fable, MS, LADC
Short-term Counseling for Individuals and Couples;
Shame is an unrelenting feeling of not being wanted and of being unworthy of being wanted. This kind of shame is experienced whenever what you believe to be your "worthless", "inadequate", or "bad" self is threatened with being exposed and you feel in danger of being humiliated and rejected by others. Excessive shame is a prison. It keeps a person caged in feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, and even despair.
There are several sources for shame, including our genetic and biochemical make-up, chronic depression, for example, our American culture, our families of origin, current relationships which are shaming in nature, and our own self-shaming thoughts and behaviors. It is very likely that excessive shame is what you're dealing with if you are extremely self-conscious and often feel unable to speak or act. Shamed people often find themselves in awkward situations, wanting to escape but incapable of making themselves leave. Shamed people fear that if others really knew them, they'd be disgusted or hate them. People who have been shamed also dread being caught in a mistake of any kind. Some are constantly ready to see or point out the weaknesses of others, or often find themselves furious--inwardly or outwardly--over the slightest perceived affront to themselves or to their dignity.
Shame isn't just a feeling. It has other components as well. In the book, Letting Go of Shame, Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron break shame down into its essential parts. They describe the physical aspects of shame: looking down or away from eye-contact, blushing, a pounding heart, the inability to speak or think, a strong desire to get away, and perhaps, even nausea. They point out that these physical responses are accompanied by predictable actions, like hiding or withdrawing from others, and uncomfortable thoughts, such as "I'm so stupid." "I'm such a burden." "I'm a bitch." or "I'm a total failure."
The basic nature of chronic, or excessive, shame is that the shamed person believes, at some level, that she--or he--should not exist, that she is a worthless, defective and empty human being. This shame is debilitating, toxic, and highly destructive. It separates you from your real self and from others. Shame is a spiritual crisis at the very core of one's being. John Bradshaw, in Healing the Shame That Binds You, calls toxic shame 'spiritual bankruptcy'. He calls it dehumanizing because of its "more than human, less than human polarity," and he says it "is functionally autonomous, which means that it can be triggered internally without any attending stimulus. One can imagine a situation and feel deep shame. One can be alone and trigger a shaming spiral through internal self-talk. The more one experiences shame, the more one is ashamed."
At times shame and guilt are used interchangeably, but they are not the same at all--although it isn't unusual for both to exist simultaneously. Guilt is more concerned with doing something, with transgressions, while shame is about a perceived failure of being, being unworthy, unwanted or bad. Guilty people fear punishment. Shamed people fear abandonment.
Shame is not all bad, though. It can have great value if we are not overwhelmed by it. There would be no sense of privacy or intimacy without shame. Because shame is an uncomfortable feeling, a person who is not overwhelmed by it can use it to alter his or her behavior. Healthy shame tells us something is wrong in our lives and motivates us to change. Healthy shame is temporary. Excessive shame is not.
Paralysis--the inability to do or say anything--is a result of excessive shame and also intensifies it. Another result is diminished energy: shame leaves us feeling smaller, weaker, and less potent. Shamed people build defenses to protect themselves from feeling completely overwhelmed all the time. One defense is escape, a pattern of seeking out private, secure places where one can be alone and unseen. Withdrawal is another defense which includes actually running away as well as emotional withdrawal by developing elaborate masks--like smiling, always pleasing others, trying to appear self-confident and comfortable--that cover the real self. The shamed person sometimes thinks there will be nothing to feel ashamed about if he never makes a mistake, and so defends against shame by becoming a perfectionist who can't allow himself to fall short in anything. Additionally, people who are always criticizing others are usually trying to give the shame away----the critic defends herself against the bad feelings by believing herself to be better than others. The critic may need to feel superior to avoid being submerged in feelings of inferiority. Rage disguises shame too. One way to fight against humiliation is to attack the perceived attacker. Shame and rage in combination can often result in verbal or physical abuse.
If you are caught in the shame trap, get help. Find a psychotherapist, a minister, priest or rabbi, or a support or therapy group. Challenging shame is very difficult, but you don't have to do it alone. Healing shame is a slow process. The first step is awareness. Because shame exists at the very core of one's being and because the shamed person believes his or her worthlessness is an incontrovertible fact, the shamed person doesn't recognize shame as the reason he or she feels worthless. Healing the shame requires patience and the courage to uncover and explore those shaming events which created that core concept. It's also necessary to identify the defenses you have put in place in order to avoid shame. You have to know them before you can begin to even think about letting them go. The healing begins when you begin to embrace the belief that each person belongs to the human race, that no person is totally shameful or subhuman--nor is anyone a god--different from everyone else. Repeating an affirmation that no one person is intrinsically better or worse than anyone else may help you to come to accept it. The books quoted here both contain exercises to assist in the process of redefining one's core concept.
Healing from shame involves dealing with the wounds of childhood, grief work, giving voice to one's inner child, and, in Bradshaw's words again, "the integration of your disowned parts". In other words, accepting all of your self: your shame-bound feelings, needs and wants; your anger, sadness, fears and joys; your sexuality and your assertiveness. These are the parts that were split off out of shame. Writing dialogues with those parts, using visualization, dream work and ritual can help you reunite with and accept the parts. Finally, the most important thing you can do is choose to love yourself. This is the greatest enemy of shame. You cannot count on unconditional love from anyone except yourself, so say these words out loud and say them often. Even if you don't believe them yet, say: "I love myself and I accept myself exactly as I am, right now, at this moment." And just so, the healing has begun.
Related Article: Why Psychotherapy?
Dealing with Loss and Grieving
Feeling Your Feelings
Finding the Therapist for You
Healing into Peace and Wholeness
Living a More Conscious Life
Living in the Moment
Some Thoughts About Resistance
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