Shame has been at epidemic proportions for some time. Yet despite this prevalence, we rarely pay attention to it. It stays forbidden both at a cultural level and in consciousness. The consequences of shame can be devastating on how a human functions in the world. Shame has very high links with depression, suicide, violence, relationship difficulties, anger, different forms of aggression to name a few.
One of the difficulties in contending with shame is that many people confuse guilt with shame. Shame can also be confused with embarrassment or shyness but the main confusion stems around guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are actually two different sets of phenomena and it is important to be able to distinguish between them. When we say we give ourselves a guilt trip, we often instead are indulging in shame trip. The latter has different consequences than the former.
A way to distinguish between shame and guilt is that shame is focussed on self. Guilt by contrast is focussed on behaviour. For example:
Shame = I am bad.
Guilt = I did something bad.
Guilt is a lot easier to contend with for a person because typically it is less tied to identity. Shame however is very tied to identity and by its nature is much harder to content with. Shame generates a false self (ego) that gives a sense of worthlessness and failure in life. Most often, shame surfaces when a person feels stressed by life circumstances or feels emotionally or psychologically threatened at some level of being.
Shame is difficult to contend with for a person because the person perceives the feelings of worthless and failure as something to do with self. In actuality, however these are sets of very powerful feelings and in turn, ideas that is covering what is underneath. We can think of shame as one of the things that colours the lenses in how we view life. It is grime that needs to be wiped clean from consciousness.
As stated previously shame can have devastating consequences for a person because shame is nearly always held at bay and is rarely talked about. We are more likely to confess that we made a mistake rather than stating sorry I am a mistake.
But it is the latter that needs to be expressed so that the accompanying feelings can be let out and the inner perception of being a mistake challenged. The sense of never being good enough can be challenged and a person can learn to view themselves in more realistic and reasonable terms.
The shame trip can be learned to be dispensed with over time. Both the emotional and cognitive components of shame need to be dealt with. This is difficult for a person to deal with. One of the common mechanisms for a person who experiences shame is to push away people when the feelings of shame are close to being contacted. The person feels vulnerable and in this state of vulnerability, the person’s psychological defences are bought forward. These defences protect a false self. A self based on worthlessness, inferiority and perceived failure in different areas of life.
What we can begin to do is to become more conscious of our internal feelings and thoughts. Inside of our heads are we telling ourselves we are failures, unworthy, feel hopeless etc? Notice that if we are close to a place of the emotional content of shame we do bring out the big guns of our psychological defences.
What we want to get a sense of is how often these feelings occur and under what circumstances do they occur. We want to trace it back into our past as far as we can. When have we had similar feelings?
What we are trying to do is put our pattern of responding out into the open so we can better deal with it. Though the feelings and thoughts may be overwhelming, we need to try to remember that shame is a learned behaviour. As such, it can be unlearned with some time and effort.
Our first port of call is to learn to identify shame. The second is to identify the pattern of shame. The third is to start to unravel it and disengage from this poisonous form of identity formation.
Research suggests that there is a gender difference in shame. For a woman shame is often bound up in perfection. It is a do it all mentality e.g., cook, clean, raise kids, have a career and do all of them exceedingly well.
That does not mean that men cannot be orientated in the same way, nor does it mean that something else is occurring for women. It only means that it is a more common orientation in women. We must be careful to not generalize too much as individual differences will vary greatly.
In general, men’s orientation is to not be perceived as weak. Their identity is often based around the notion that to expose their vulnerability is a sign of weakness. I will write a little more on gender differences in an upcoming post.