Shame is the painful sense of being flawed or defective. It is so painful to experience this toxic shame that we may find ways to avoid feeling it. Shame is more destructive when it operates secretly.
Here are some common ways that I’ve observed shame operating in many of my psychotherapy clients. Being mindful of the shame that lives inside us is the first step toward healing it and affirming ourselves more deeply.
Here are some hidden ways that shame often operates:
1. Being Defensive
Defensiveness is one way that we protect ourselves from unpleasant feelings. Shame is often an emotion that we don’t allow ourselves to experience because it can be so debilitating. If our partner is upset because we’re late for lunch, we might react by saying, “Well, we were late for the movie last week because you took so long to get ready!”
Being defensive is a way to avoid taking responsibility for our behavior. If we equate responsibility with blame, then we’ll steer clear of it. We find a way to transfer our shame to others by blaming them and being indignant when someone has the audacity to suggest that we’re not perfect.
If we’re not crippled by shame, we might recognize that our partner simply has feelings about our being late. It’s not that there’s something wrong with us. If there is something in us that feels shame for contributing to someone’s hurt or sadness, then we’re likely to get defensive rather than just being able to hear their feelings — and perhaps offering an apology.
The unrealistic desire to be perfect is often a defense against shame. If we’re perfect, no one can criticize us; no one can shame us.
It has been said that a perfectionist is someone who can’t stand making the same mistake once. We may be so shame-ridden, that we don’t allow ourselves to have human imperfections. We keep up a front that looks good to the world. We may spend a lot of time attending to our dress and looks. We might frequently rehearse what we say in order to avoid uttering something we think is dumb or won’t play well.
It takes a lot of energy to attain the impossible feat of being perfect. The shame that drives the quest for perfection can exhaust us. Perfect people don’t exist in this world. Trying to be someone we’re not in order to avoid being shamed creates a disconnection from our authentic self.
Shame can prompt us to be overly apologetic and compliant. We assume that others are right and we’re wrong. Hoping to diffuse a shaming attack, criticism, or conflict, we’re quick to say, “I’m sorry.” We may withdraw from interpersonal encounters when shame has weakened our sense of self.
Conversely, a deep, unconscious shame may prevent us from saying, “I’m sorry, I was wrong, I made a mistake.” We may be so powerfully ruled by this hidden shame that we don’t want to expose ourselves to imagined ridicule. We equate human vulnerability with being weak and shameful.
Think of some politicians who rarely, if ever, admit to being wrong. They are shameless — or try to be. They may project an image of being flawless to cover up a deep insecurity. They rarely change their mind, which raises the question of whether or not they really have one. As Lewis Perelman wisely said, “Dogma is the sacrifice of wisdom to consistency.”
Secure and confident people can freely admit when they’ve been mistaken about something. They have an inner strength and resilience that derives from knowing that they’re not a perfect person. When they notice shame, they are not ashamed of having shame. They recognize that it takes courage to admit flaws.
Sociopaths are shameless. Healthy people can accommodate healthy shame — it doesn’t mean something is wrong with them. As we grow, we realize that there is nothing shameful about making a mistake or being wrong about something. There can be no growth without acknowledge our shortcomings and misperceptions.
Our reasons for procrastinating may confound us. There are things we to want to accomplish and we’re baffled by why we keep putting things off.
A hidden shame often drives our procrastination. If we consider doing an art project, writing an article, or pursuing a new job and it doesn’t turn out well, we might be paralyzed by shame. If we never try, then we don’t have to face possible failure and subsequent shame.
Of course, we might stay depressed or live life in a smaller way, but the part of us that dreads feeling shame is protected and safe — at least for now.
Uncovering shame gives us more options. If we can allow it to be there, we can learn to bring gentleness and caring toward this feeling — or toward ourselves as we notice shame. We can realize that it’s natural to feel shame sometimes. As the author Kimon Nicolaides said, “The sooner you make your first 5000 mistakes, the sooner you will be able to correct them.”
Bringing shame into the light of day gives it an opportunity to heal. Keeping shame hidden allows it to operate in secret, destructive ways. Becoming mindful of the quiet shame that operates inside us — perhaps with the help of a therapist — can be a useful way to bring this secretive emotion to light, diffuse its power, and help us more forward in our lives in a more empowered way.