“Shame is the most powerful master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” Brene Brown.
The challenge for Jake was to unravel his shame cycle, not only to ease his personal pain but to neutralize the toxic nature of it so his anxiety and depression could be alleviated. We started with self-criticism because it gave us direct access to his shameful feelings. He told the story of his abusive father and alcoholic mother. He realized that in his self-criticism he was mouthing some of the very same words his father used as he felt the pain of his tyranny and then the sting of his mother not being there for him. The intensity of these experiences only infused his agony with self-loathing. He blamed himself.
Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist, once said that “Experience precedes essence.” What he meant was that who we are is formed out of our experiences, and that idea is one of the most important tools that we can use to unravel the hold of shame. How these deeply felt processes are formed is complex and powerful. Shame is derived from the Old Germanic word “skem,” which means to cover or to hide. Because shame is so hidden, it often requires another person to help us see it for what it is: a child’s response to the failure of the parents to be empathic, to see from behind the eyes of their child. Shame is always in the eyes, the windows to our soul. When people feel ashamed, they won’t look in our eyes because they don’t want to expose what they need to keep hidden for fear of humiliation or rejection.
Where does shame come from and how does it form into a cycle?
Shame is different from guilt because it’s about who we are, not what we do. Because shame is an identity, it makes us believe that we are inherently weak, worthless, inadequate or bad. It feels like our shame is in every cell of our body. A way to understand how guilt and shame operate together is: We do bad things and we do them because we are bad. Guilt is the bad thing we did and shame is the belief that we are fundamentally and essentially inadequate, worthless, weak or bad.
Children cannot determine that their pain is caused by an experience outside of themselves; everything is about them, good or bad. It can’t be about their parents who may be hurting them because they need them too much. So they idealize their parents and turn on themselves, taking their pain on as if it’s their fault. Perfectionism, which is a response to feeling deficient, accomplishes two tasks simultaneously: it is an effort to bring distant parents or others closer but also to avoid being punished, criticized, judged or blamed. We develop a profound sense that there is something missing; that we are flawed and we must fix it or hide it. This sense of deficiency is affixed in our minds from these experiences and then operates from a different part of the brain than our thinking and conscious awareness. It is often so locked away that we may spend our whole lives not really knowing what our shame is doing or what effect it is having on all our important relationships. This condition also brings a sense that we are fraud, constantly playing the role of being a perfect person and therefore always feeling isolated. The first step toward healing our shame is to become conscious of it. Only then can we embark on the journey toward actualizing our true self.
When children feel lonely, bad, worthless or weak, it scares them because their brains interpret it as if their survival is at stake. In this way shame associates itself with the fight-or-flight part of the brain known as the amygdala located in the hippocampus part of the corpus callosum. The amygdala has to do with emotion, emotional behavior, rage and motivation—processes that are not available for conscious thought but appear automatically in our minds seemingly out of nowhere. They can only be emanating from the part of our brain that wants to protect us from abandonment and the fear of death. Shame too operates from this island within the self and, when stimulated, will develop defenses to ward off the fear of and the possibility of humiliation and/or irretrievable loss.
What then to do with this very powerful set of feelings and beliefs?
Shame experiences are too painful to be included in our sense of self. They remain hidden, floating like phantoms in our psyche, and, when stimulated, come pouring out in a rage or are converted into defenses against feeling ashamed. Those defenses can operate as: projection, grandiosity, devaluation, obsession, displacing onto others, intellectualization, denial or splitting off from shame as in passive-aggressive behavior. These are but a few of the ways our mind protects us from harm. When all else fails and the throbbing shame becomes too great and unremitting, it causes people to use alcohol and drugs to ease their unrelenting anxiety and pain. Alcohol and drugs mask the symptoms but don’t treat the cause.
The shame / perfection / self-criticism / anxiety / depression cycle can contain other components like procrastination (which is linked to self-criticism, if we are going to criticize the outcome then why start?), low self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive behavior, social phobia (or the fear of humiliation), self-loathing, and the fear of failure or success. We can only be anxious about failure if we essentially don’t trust ourselves. Other symptoms of the shame cycle are: envy of others, self-doubt, lack of sexual desire, taking things personally, unrealistic expectations, pessimism, self-loathing, idealization and subsequent devaluation of others when they fail to live up to our ideal for them. Shame issues can be so pervasive that they can encompass our entire world. The only way to affect shame is to consciously work on it through a process of shifting from our negative thoughts and feelings to a true sense of what is real, who we are and what is actually happening with others in the world. Anais Nin writes in her book Why Men Fall Out of Love, “Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.”
Here are some truths about shame to begin understanding how it works.
- Shame comes from somewhere, it’s not about us but it is about what we experienced.
- Trying to be perfect does not solve one’s inner problem, it is the problem.
- The only thing wrong with us is that we think there is something wrong with us.
- Embracing shame is the key, not shoving it down so it can operate on its own.
- Seeing where shame is coming from is important because it allows us to turn it from a myth into what is real. If we feel inadequate and we know where the feeling came from, we can then turn it to a true sense of ourselves.
- Turning shame into the reality of who we actually help us to define ourselves in a real sense instead of the one that was given to us.
Unraveling the shame cycle takes time, but our sense of ourselves as adequate and confident can be built. Shame never entirely goes away because it is linked to experience. We cannot change our experience but we can change our relationship to it. Shame is essentially irrational because it’s not true, it’s a myth that we believe to be true. How can we be deficient? We would not think of a tree, a deer or any other life form as fundamentally inadequate; why should we define ourselves that way? When we look at shame that way it doesn’t really make sense, and the truth is, it doesn’t.
As Jake embraced his shame and kept it front of him so he could see it and work it through, it helped him to define himself in a true sense instead of the distorted myth that he was living with. As he shifted toward a realistic sense of himself he was able to be more compassionate and empathic with his friends. Through this process he relieved some of the intensity of his shame cycle because he could consciously deconstruct what was happening inside. As he worked through his shame he was able to more easily shift from needing to be perfect and then criticizing himself to a desire to do his best and knowing that it was good enough. His anxiety and depression eased and he found happiness in interests that he developed. Shame is like a block of granite that we chip away at until it becomes so small that it no longer affects what we do or how we think.
Ultimately, if we work through our bad feelings about ourselves we come to realize that we don’t need to fix anything because there is nothing to fix. If we don’t feel inadequate then we don’t have to be perfect to turn it around. Jack Kornfield, who wrote The Wise Heart, once said that “We are perfect but there is always room for improvement.” His intention was to illustrate a truth. Even if we correctly understand that we are fine just the way we are, there is always room to learn and grow. There is nothing shameful in that.