The sting of embarrassment burns as we protect against the pointing finger of inadequacy. Often the harsh judgment originates from within and not from actual social rejection. Feeling shame keeps us social animals in line. The social bonds are essential for survival and fulfillment. But when on steroids, shame disrupts and destroys. Instead of encouraging healthy action it drives us into hiding, severing the very bonds that the emotion is designed to create.
Shame is a painful feeling of humiliation awakened from self-consciousness of perceived wrongs or foolish actions that expose our inadequacies to others. Shame is the embarrassment of how our action will be received by others. Our need for group acceptance pushes socially acceptable actions. We quickly learn not to pick our nose in class or laugh when someone recants a sorrowful experience. With a healthy sense of others, we avoid criminal behaviors in adulthood by marching to society norms.
Melvin R. Lansky and Andrew P. Morrison define shame as “the affect that signals the threat of danger to the social bond or to a sense of integrity and regard for the self” (1997). Harriet Learner list shame along with anxiety and fear as the “big three that muck up our lives” (2005).
Shame is a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation arises from a judgmental perception of having done something dishonorable, immoral, or improper. Some suggest that shame is directed at ones own character compared to guilt which is directed at a specific behavior.
But the correcting feelings guiding appropriate social action easily go haywire. The demands for acceptance can overwhelm—often a painful byproduct of a neglectful childhood. The work for appreciation and connection with disjointed parents never complete, lingers in adulthood, disrupting bonds, and driving non-stop anxiety. Every action stirs the familiar shame of inadequacy. The familiar pointing parental finger, now engrained in our psyche, pokes us in the chest and shouts, “Shame on you!”
The powerful weight of shame easily overwhelms and screeches appropriate action to a halt. Frozen in fear, we withdraw instead of connect. The slightest rebuff from an unwelcomed embrace, ignored request, or painful inattention sends our system into protective overdrive. We feel shame, our underlying fears are exposed, and a deep sense of unworthiness envelopes our soul. In despair, we wish to simply disappear. The powerful shame diverts psychic energy from productive connecting action to self-protective defenses.
“The work for appreciation and connection with disjointed parents never complete, lingers in adulthood, disrupting bonds, and driving non-stop anxiety.”~T. Franklin Murphy
Shame Can Live Deep Inside
But shame can be deeper and darker than over-reaction to actual rebuffs. Shame can live inside our minds, when we have adopted a negative global assessment of self. From this state, we construct damaging meaning from mundane interactions, supporting our hurtful beliefs about ourselves. The self-perceived defectiveness snowballs, building on faulty meanings, exaggerated encounters, and hurtful separations.
We are not condemned to life of shame. We can lighten the load and return to a healthier response to the nasty stings of unworthiness. However, we might need a skilled guide to hold our hand, directing us back to a more secure foundation, giving non-judging positive regard, and bringing faulty adaptations to light.
A Defensive Reaction to Feeling Shame
One maladaptive response to feeling shame is avoiding any imperfect behavior. Brené Brown wrote we often say to ourselves “if I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” However, she continues, “perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal” (2010). Moreover, not only is perfection an impossible goal it sets us up for another failure to feel shame over. We must learn to live with imperfection and find better ways to regulate shame.
Ways to Improve Behavioral Responses to Feelings of Shame
Successful escape from this debilitating disease of shame requires a holistic approach, addressing the hurt from many different angles. We can attend to the wound by implementing these six approaches:
The opposite of shame is pride. Healthy pride consists of more than simple positive thoughts. The foundation of pride is healthy, connecting behaviors. When we act in ways that signify our relevance in this world, demonstrating our resilience, we have fodder for healthy pride.
Mindful Awareness of Shame
Feelings intrude, force action and then fade into a wave of justifying thoughts. The neuro-affects of shame are easily denied, morphed into anger, guilt, or sorrow. We can’t address unhealthy adaptations to the cutting feelings until we recognize them.
We can allow the feelings of shame to coexist with healthy action. Our harsh global judgments of self magnify the power of the feeling, forcing maladaptive escape routes. Feel the emotion arise, label it, observe it, and then act in accord with healthy intentions instead of the damaging reactive protections.
Limit Association with those Damaging to Self-Esteem
Unfortunately, shame is not all in our head. The powerful emotion is often used as a manipulation tool. Parents, partners and coworkers often resort to a shame tactic to fulfill their needs and soothe their own pains. We cannot live a healthy life on a diet of self-image-destroying remarks. We need people in our lives, willing to gently hold our hand, as we regain a healthy sense of worth.
Sharing of Feelings
Shame lives in the dark. We not only feel shame, but we are ashamed we are ashamed. Our mature friends allow us to expose these private feelings without judgment, or harmful pity. They hear, embrace and accept. Brown wrote, “shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it—it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes” (2010, Kindle location 279).
Minimize Shame Tactics
Human interaction is complex. We are ashamed but we also shame. Our spiritual growth mustn’t have a solitary focus on the self. Shame is a social emotion flowing both ways. Hence, we must examine our actions for unintended jabs of shame to procure our desires.
A Few Final Words By Psychology Fanatic
We can live harmoniously with the occasional stings of shame, noting their presence, examining the context, and deciding whether the emotion is serving as an appropriate signal to suppress an action separating us from those we need or as a rebel from the past protecting us from threats that don’t exist. As our awareness widens, and our practice in wellness improves, we no longer fear. We know relationships require attentiveness and we welcome the occasional evolutionary waves of feeling to signal a little closer examination to the dynamic give and take of human connection.
Brown, Brené (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing; 1st edition.
Lansky, Melvin R.; Morrison, Andrew P. (1997). The Widening Scope of Shame. Routledge; 1st edition
Learner, Harriet (2005). The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear, and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self. Perennial Currents; Reprint edition