The experience of shame is poorly understood and often ignored in the psychological literature. In my experience, the experience of shame possibly exerts a more destructive role than any other human emotion/experience. Consequently I will devote considerable attention to this over the next few posts. Interestingly, as I point out in the book, in all my training, no mention of shame was ever uttered. What a shame:) Why is this? possibly because shame is difficult to directly observe. Emotions such as fear can be more directly observed, measured, and manipulated in controlled conditions. Shame, by its very nature is much more “slippery” and therefore difficult to empirically examine. Fortunately, very recently, it is starting to command the attention it deserves.
What is shame? Simplistically stated, shame is the feeling that we are inherently “bad”, “defective”, “incomplete”, “wanting” and just generally not “OK” as we are. As a result of shame we may feel that if we were prettier, taller, more muscular, smarter, more athletic, richer and so on….then we would be better. Stated another way, it is the overriding feeling that we are simply “not enough”.
Now, what we are talking about here is “Toxic Shame”, a term coined by John Bradshaw, a writer/therapist who perhaps can be credited with first bringing this important issue to public attention. The experience of shame is a natural part of being human and probably serves some adaptive functions. But when it elevates to becoming a core part of our identity, then issues can ensue. It is important to note that it is not the experience of shame per se that is the issue, but our endeavors to avoid and control shame that lies at the heart of suffering. Our attempts to avoid/control the experience of shame can lead to innumerable consequences and compels a wide number of actions:
–alcohol/drug abuse to decrease our sense of shame and discomfort in social settings/situations (or anywhere else).
–eating and body dysmorphic disorders are often based in our sense of shame about our bodies.
–surgeries; nose jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts, “boob jobs”, etc. etc.
–co-dependent relationships: shame based individual set low expectations for their partner since they feel they are not deserving of healthier treatment. Consequently, they may tolerate abuse and maltreatment.
–sexual acting out may occur to prevent feelings of alienation, aloness and abandonment that often accompanies a shame based orientation.
–social fear and avoidance is often the result of shame based self-concept. Current research is starting to substantiate this point.
—self-cutting and other self-injurious behavior often are expression of our self-loathing.
—many forms of anxiety may actually have at its roots, the experience of shame.
–inability to communicate/express our feelings and needs due to the shame based conviction that our feelings are not valid, rational, or substantiated. These feelings then get held in, leading to a host of secondary problems/symptoms including anxiety, depression, self-harm etc.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
In the next post, we will explore a bit about the origins of shame.
Please feel free to add your comments, personal experiences, or observations to help make this a more vibrant experience.