Comprehensive article on the sources of Shame, and the effect on the Self and shamed person. Also includes aspects of the shame spiral and suggestion on how to heal and more specifically NOT heal from a Schame-based dysfundtional Self or family.
Shame, and the negative Illusion of the Self
"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." - Jiddu Krishnamurti
This may come as a surprise to many, but it seems we are all born into a world, a civilization, a culture whose main tool of socialization, is the abusive concept of Coercion and Control. We have come to recognise and name this 'Shame', which may have had its uses in the past, but is now understood to have far reaching negative consequences.
Though traditionally considered an emotion, shame may also variously be considered an affect, cognition, state, or condition. The 'Shame' of this article is one recognised as a 'state of being' that stems from comparison of the individual self with the ideal social standard, that is determined firstly by external and later internal comparison. Thus, shame may stem from volitional action or simply self-regard; no action by the shamed person is required: simply existing, it seems, is enough.
Shame - Feeling as Frauds
Both the comparison and standards are enabled by socialization and its agents, and exacerbated by popular and commercial culture to the extent that it has become a personality disorder based as it seems to be on the very basics of egoic development, at its very early and impressionable stages. 'Shame' in this instance then, is a word for the irrational belief that there is a difference between who we think we are, who we are pretending to be, an idealised self, someone who we will never be, and who we believe ourselves to be at our worst moments of self-doubt and self-punishment. Because we irrationally believe that we are not OK at the core of our being. It is what we hope others, friends and family etc will never find out ... the part that makes us feel we are frauds. It's the, 'if people only knew the real me' kind of experience. It is its own very special spiral if it goes too far ... which it can often do.
The Shame Spiral
'How secret are your supposed secrets?' is what drives this irrational spiral of shame because the secrets we keep - end up keeping us bound in illusion. These 'secrets' are, we will find, often shared by others who also share this rotten feeling of no or low self worth. The wound at the centre of being is about the feeling of being exposed as bad or wrong deep at the core of the self we believe ourselves to be, itself all an illusion. The usual response for those of us who carry a lot of the illusion of shame is to hide. So we conceal it, push it into our subconscious where it festers and grows.
Before too long we have created a monster, this monster is fed by our irrational fear of being 'found out', (irrational, because this shame, has no basis in reality, and contrary to one's opinion, is a feeling shared by many) adding energy to the shame pool. These feelings can become so uncomfortable that in order for us to continue to function in everyday life we feel the need to split off from the feelings. In the splitting off process we lose our sense of aliveness and our sense of connection to our essential beingness. When we are in the illusion of the shame spiral we feel frozen and blank. In this state of being, unable to connect with the self, there is little chance of connection and intimacy with another in any way that is not superficial.
How Shame can be used to Control
Can you recall a time when someone has made a joke about you or another person that somehow triggered a sense in you that you are not OK as you are - you feel shamed, go blank, and become unable to respond? We use a lot of energy and cause ourselves untold stress when we brace ourselves to create a state of virtual non-emotional existence, where we can't feel the irrational fear that we have or will be found out, but when we do this we don't feel very much at all...the 'good' feelings are also blocked. This bracing occurs because the illusionary emotion of shame involves the invalidation of our very being. The feeling is that our right to 'be' is being denied. There is a feeling that we don't have the right to take up space, have needs, have opinions, have feelings, have an existence. In this way Shame can be used to control you or another, either overtly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously. When you have been shamed and go into the confusion of a shame spiral it is very difficult to respond, especially as you don't recognise that you have been shamed. This makes Shame and shaming a powerful tool for the control of others and relationships because it often triggers, in a shame-based person, a sense that they have "no right' to respond. And in a society that is shamed-based this very easy to do. As it taps into the Shame, the core belief system, that has become one's individual sense of self ...in effect a state of never being good enough no matter what one does or does not do.
Shame is a major reason why people who have been unfairly treated do not feel anger and stand up for themselves. The 'Shamer' has inadvertently triggered the sense in the other person that they are wrong at their core and that their experience is invalid, therefore they have 'no right' to be angry. You cannot be angry when you think you have no right to be, and your perceptions are invalid. In fact the felt thought may not even be articulated in the mind, but only felt and the feeling is that they must deserve this unfair treatment, this punishment, because they believe that they are, at their core, shameful, thus perceiving themselves as bad or worthless. Conversely, unfair treatment may result in an irrational display of anger because it taps into this pool of Shame at the core of the belief system about the ego, the self. This feeling of Shame may have originated in early childhood when one's feelings were not validated by one's parents or primary care giver who also may have been carrying their own Shame and lack of empathy or possibly narcissism, which they have kept secret for many years. It is inevitable that situations will arise that tap into these felt, unarticulated, memories, adding to and reinforcing the ego illusion and of the illusion of Shame in particular.
How Shame Grows
Once shame or secret-keeping gets started, every time we feel 'less than' and feel weak the spiral grows. When we haven't measured up to an impossible standard that is usually part of a poorly defined, fanciful, even childish self belief system, the shame grows and the secret, the illusion, gets layered in a little deeper. Eventually anything we do that is less than the illusionary 'perfect' ideal can cause us Shame because it triggers this inner sense of being a fraud. Perhaps the most powerful of these secrets are those of a sexual nature. Abuse of any kind damages the self belief system, but child sexual abuse goes to the core of who we have come to believe ourselves to be. We pay a price for keeping illusionary secrets and the price is the pain of shame and the feeling of utter loneliness.
These secrets, which are really illusions, perpetuate shame. Secrets are about hiding information be it real or imaginary. But it doesn't go away, what you hide you hold inside. When you are holding things inside that you are afraid will be seen by others, you need to close yourself down a little or a lot, to tighten your grip on yourself, make yourself 'less than', smaller. The feeling inside of being reduced in size or diminished is shame. It makes you feel 'less than', less than the ideal which you are, supposedly, to be, or which you may see in others with whom you may constantly compare yourself and takes a great deal of energy ... but if you open up, show your imperfect self, others will ridicule and shame you because you don't measure up ... or worse disown or un-friend you ...
Shame Compared to Guilt
This is bigger and deeper than Guilt, bigger than one or two things you have done that you may deem are especially terrible....which may yet be forgiven. It's a process that isn't healed by private or public disclosure, which helps only for a while and only on the level of guilt for some behaviour. This illusion of Shame goes to the core of who we think ourselves to be, our core self belief system, a system of self belief that we have built usually based on the opinion of trusted others, parents, older siblings, teachers or others authority figures; about who we are and which we have taken upon ourselves as truth. The people we loved and trusted implicitly the most, our so to speak, Higher Powers most likely when we were young and impressionable - hurt us the most. Our fear of intimacy, of being truly 'naked' literally or metaphorically, in the presence of another, trusted other is a direct result of our early childhood experiences, during our ego development and maturation process. Our lives have been lived in reaction to the intellectual paradigms our egos adapted to deal with early emotional trauma. As someone once said, if you don't feel 'at home' at home, when will you ever feel 'at home'? And as Nietzsche once wrote: ";all truths that are kept silent become poisonous". This poison is that of Shame, it affects all of our relationships, but especially that of our relationship to ourselves; we don't feel 'at home' in ourselves.
For this cause there is a difference between EVERYONE'S idealised self, the one we mistakenly strive to be and which we try to show the world ... and the self we secretly believe we are. We become like actors on a stage trapped in a cage of the idealised self, the character we are pretending to be, all the time shouting to be free. At one time or another, there is in all of us this sense of something like, "Oh my god, if they knew the real me!". A loving accepting partner and kind and loving support group or someone close who loves us unconditionally can help with disclosure, but it is not the answer to this spiral of wretchedness because it is never 'enough'. Maybe it will answer for a while, but it's not the whole answer. And the spiral begins again. Every time your mind tells you that you are not enough, that you will never measure up or that you are weak, this spiral builds.
Our Self-worth is Based on Dysfunction
Growing up and making our way in 'the world', in societies that are, by and large unconsciously dysfunctional, Shame-based and divisive, taught us to equate our worth - and judge the worth of others - based upon external appearances. Judging our internal selves with the external selves of others. We have been taught and experience love as conditional on behaviour. Someone who behaves badly - i.e. not the way we want them to - is a bad person, unworthy of love. Someone who behaves the way we want them to is a good person, worthy of love. You can remember times, I'm sure, when an authority figure, an adult, whoever, someone whom you trusted, made such a statement or implied their love was conditional on whether you obeyed their instruction or not. It is very important to stop judging our individual worth based upon the Shaming, dysfunctional standards of families, groups, or society as a whole, that taught us it was Shameful to be different, to be different became imperfect in the illusion of self, and the time of our biological and egoic development, imperfect, shameful human beings.
How NOT to Heal
How do you undo all this conditioning, this never measuring up or feeling weak or feeling 'less than' human and presenting yourself to the world as you are and not feeling like a fraud? The easy, down-pat, therapy, religious, educated answer is 'just be yourself'. Or even better, 'accept yourself as you are'. If you believe that you are not enough and that you are weak and should be stronger, that just isn't good enough. You believe the thought illusion about yourself fed and watered by your own mind and really who are you? ...except this shamed and wretched less than human being....
If you feel 'shame', you feel shame. If you were shamed as a child, and most of us were to one degree or another, you have an even greater propensity to this Downward Spiral issue. This tendency for the shaming of children learned as we are attempting to grow - we had no choice, the biological imperative pushed us to develop - has a kind of universal flavour to it. A particular adaptation to this shaming process has to do with a 'perfectionism' that focuses on a desire to please others, rather than to relish in one's own unique gifts, strengths, and talents for achieving one's own goals. This desire to please others, sometimes called co-dependency or external dependency is a product of Shame. In other words our value and appreciation for and of ourselves is determined by what we do and its impact upon others.
Shame is an illusionary but felt emotion [energy in motion] of sadness due to the irrational belief that we are bad, wrong or without the right to exist and be respected that we have taken on ourselves from sources external to the self, e.g. the God-like parents or other authority figures.
The energy of shame will not just go away by trying to convince yourself that there is nothing wrong with you through the unrelenting commitment to positive affirmations or other so-called mind altering techniques. The energy of shame is now bound in your being and you need to become intimately acquainted with it. When you embrace the totality of yourself you will find peace and allow the energy that is stuck in your being to move through. As the energy moves through you it releases what has been blocked, locked and separate allowing for a deep feeling of oneness, wholeness and love to occur.
How TO Heal from Shame
If you continue to deny, repress and avoid feeling your shame (and for that matter, all your repressed emotions) you will continue to suffer. This suffering is not punishment, on the contrary, it is a gift waiting to be unwrapped.... it is YOU that is waiting to be unwrapped. The things that are causing you to suffer at the moment are opportunities to unwrap feelings and beliefs that keep you from the feeling of oneness with all things and living in the experience of essential truth and your God nature. You have a pool of sadness that relates to your life when you have felt ashamed and you need to release the hold you have on that energy if you want to feel free, fully alive, whole, and happy.
When you feel ashamed, when that old feeling of shame washes over you, and you haven't been shamed in the current situation, recognise it as an emotional that is being triggered for a healing release and surrender to the energy that wants to move. You may very well have been shamed and hurt in the past and it is perfectly natural for you to feel it and cry it out in the now. Being present and self aware is the key to releasing this illusion of the mind that has you trapped and 'living' in the past. Instead of sitting with the experience and feeling the emotions under it and being empathetic with themselves people berate themselves as stupid, silly, dumb, no good, hopeless, worthless etc.. They have been trained to shame and now they are doing it to themselves. And more often than not to significant others. It has been recognised that 90% of the shame we carry doesn't even belong to us. It was given to us by wounded parents in a process called the inter-generational transfer of shame.
Shame and Intimacy
Shame takes its toll on intimacy. Abuse survivors may feel an inner sense of shame, no matter what they say or do. This shame interferes with having fulfilling intimate relationships with others. Shame is often at the root of marital problems. For example, if one member of the couple wants more intimacy, and/or communication than the other, both may feel shame as a result. The one wanting more intimacy may feel rejected and shamed for wanting too much, the other may feel shame for either not being comfortable with more closeness, or for wanting more distance than the other. The shame, because it is so painful, is often bypassed, and can turn into blaming each other ("You don't love me!", or "You're too needy!"). Unfortunately this results in an increase in shame for both people, resulting in an escalation of blame, a vicious cycle that can have devastating results.
People connect on similarities and grow on resolving differences. If we have developed a tendency to cope with toxic shame by surrendering to it, then we will re-experience the shame over and over again. We will choose people who are shame-based to shame us more we will make the same "mistakes" over and over again that leave us feeling more shame, and we will look for evidence that we should be ashamed while deleting and discounting compliments from others for the good things we do. Our choices and behaviours set up patterns so that we feel shameful most of the time.
If we have a tendency to fight against shame then we will exhibit some level of "shamelessness". Shameless behaviour is demonstrated by people who tend to externalize or project their pain. But shameless behaviour is not just projection; it is primarily a subconscious defence mechanism.
Coping with shame through this subconscious defence is what happens when the subconscious mind flips an inner-state around so that it surfaces in the conscious awareness as an opposite state. In this case, shame is experienced as shamelessness, or arrogance, and sometimes even as narcissism. And for this to be an effective defence, the person must really feel shameless even though they may find a nagging feeling of self doubt if they look inside.
Shamelessness and Abusive Relationships
These are the people who those who Internalise shame may subconsciously choose for partners. There is a compatibility that comes with this arrangement because the one makes things "all-about-me" and the other makes things "all-about-others". The tables can and frequently DO get turned in a relationship like this.
Shamelessness, taken to the extreme, is necessary in order for a person to become an abuser, rapist, or other perpetrator who excercise "god-like" power over another. Shameless people have contempt for others because they really believe the other to be weak and less intelligent than themselves. You will not be able to get through to them or get them to see the errors of their ways because they are too well defended. In other words, they must let their defences down willingly and face their shame and feelings of original pain before recovery is possible.
Lastly one may try avoiding shame by staying out of relationships altogether or being emotionally cut off while engaging in some sort of work addiction. Neither of these methods are effective in coping with shame because in the former strategy, being alone all the time soon causes an inner-state of loneliness to surface and with it comes self-talk about being undesirable, or unlovable, or unfit for relationships. In the latter, the emotionally disengaged partner sooner or later gets confronted by an unfulfilled partner or by children who are tired of broken promises.
Principles Governing Shame-based Families
The following points are the operative principles that govern shame-based families or groups of any size:
You are a human being not a human doing ... Self-worth determined by what we do is not life-affirming, nor is it personally and emotionally sustaining. We can never do ";good" enough to free us from the shackles of low self-esteem, self-doubt and insecurity.
You are OK!
You are OK the way you are. Sometimes you are going to make mistakes and its OK, you are just as precious. Your love-ability is not dependent on what you do or how you do it, but on your degree of openness and willingness to reveal yourself to your present self and to trusted and supportive others. Your essence is and always will be beyond judgement and indeed description. We can be engrossed in judging and criticising and invalidating ourselves that it is often difficult for us to perceive of our original self as totally OK. It is easier for us to experience the nature of our essential self if we don't focus on our personality which is an illusion. Part of our belief system is that we are this illusion of our personality and there is no separation between our personality, which may not be at all consistent in all areas of our lives, and the I am, they are both awareness manifesting but the 'I AM' is focused less contextually.
The 5 Freedoms
There is no easy fix ... being present to all we are and awareness is the key to wellness ... Change is possible. Believe it. In this regard it is of benefit to remember just what the five freedoms, enunciated by Virginia Satir and mentioned above, actually are:
A Vision for your Life can help heal Shame
Along the way a vision for your life can help heal shame. A vision, though not for everyone, is something that is greater than you, which can take you out of yourself and drive your life. It is something expansive to live for. It is the place where something is important enough to you, and your place in the world, that you take the risks to make it happen. It's what you do that is important enough that you might fail. It's something that you have to do, a way you have to live ... to be you. It can undo shame because you have to take a chance, to risk, and live on the edge, at least to some degree.
"Your vision emerges from immersing yourself in your goals. As you consider them, write about them, meditate upon them; a vision of what gives your life meaning will begin to emerge. It will emerge as your passion. Your vision is about how you will add your nature, or your soul, to the Universe and give it your 'stamp'. Your vision is your passion and your legacy. It is what you want to accomplish with your life." Dr. William Kent
We can help heal shame by having goals that lead to, or are expressive of, a vision that is important enough that we take risks to make it happen. Living with risk and being vulnerable to making what we want happen can be scary at first but it has the power to cut right through the illusionary spiral of shame and helplessness. Shame hides us in fear from what we really want to do with our lives and convinces us that we are not worth our own vision, or even having a vision of our own, that we should live someone else's vision for our lives.
How we Buy into Shame
Shame really comes from listening to, and taking on board, the 'shoulds', 'musts' and 'oughts' of the world around us, and its agents, generally parents or caregivers until we are living according to a standard or measure that is really not ours, even though we have bought into it. We will always fall short of the idealised measure or standard of strength and competence that is not our own measure but one of the belief system we were born into and have taken upon ourselves to explain who we are to ourselves ... it is a construct, a delusion, a fantasy ... now we know better ... you are not who you think you are ... you are much more, much, much more.
You have to take chances to overcome shame. It isn't just a matter of 'accepting yourself as you are'. And positive affirmations. If you don't have a vision and you don't have goals, and you don't take chances, how do you ever know who you are enough to accept it? This is the journey out of the spiral of shame and lack of self-esteem. It is your vision for your own life, lived out in the vulnerability of maybe getting it wrong time and again before you get it right. In the journey, we find our own courage and we discover the way out of the illusion of shame. The major goal in life is to become our own choice makers, agents and architects of our life and relationships.
Be vulnerable, take the risks, take the chances, and live your vision for you.
All human beings at heart are beings of love and intelligence who seek to grow, express their creativity, intelligence, and basic goodness; need to be validated, connect, and find their own inner treasure.
Two books worth reading in regard to healing Shame are:
- The Knight in Rusty Armor by Robert Fisher
- The Princess Who Believed In Fairy Tales by Marcia Grad
© John Stibbs 2015
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Domestic Violence Articles
Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self by Charles L. Whitfield
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
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You can now also download some of the poems submitted to Hidden Hurt to your Kindle! Read the thoughts and feelings of other victims and survivors and give your little bit to help support Hidden Hurt.
You can now also download some of the poems submitted to Hidden Hurt to your Kindle! Read the thoughts and feelings of other victims and survivors and give your little bit to help support Hidden Hurt.
In The UK: Hidden Hurt Survivor Poetry II: Poetry written by domestic abuse victims, survivors and their children, but also some poems written by friends of those ... to escape. (Hidden Hurt Series Book 2)
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The long-awaited book from our very own Steve from the Hidden Hurt Message Forum as finally arrived!
THE JERK RADAR
Have you ever gone out with someone who seemed perfect at first, but ended
up being a nightmare? Do you find yourself falling in love but ending up feeling
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It will give you concrete ways to test out his intentions in the course of
a normal conversation. And the Jerk Radar Quiz provides an effective tool
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no punches in exposing what Jerks do and why we fall for it. This is a useful,
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To order in the US: Jerk Radar: How to Stop an Abusive Relationship Before It Starts
To order in the UK:Jerk Radar: How to Stop an Abusive Relationship Before It Starts
Steve McCrea, MS, has worked for over 20 years with survivors
of domestic abuse and their children. He has participated in many local collaboartive
projects on domestic abuse, and has provided community trainings on working
effectively with domestic abuse survivors. He currently works as an advocate
for children in the foster care system. He has volunteered for the past 9
years as facilitator for an on-line abuse survivor community, whose members
contributed most of the stories in the book.
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