How Healing Shame Can Save Our World
Personal growth includes recognizing the many faces of shame and how this hard-to-detect emotion holds us back. The gnawing sense that something is wrong with us keeps us roaming in a trance of unworthiness and self-doubt. A deep sense of being flawed and defective saps our joy and spontaneity.
But have you ever wondered how shame plays out on the larger world stage? Understanding the extent to which political leaders are secretly driven by shame and use shame to steal our vote can shed new light on the hidden ways that this insidious emotion infects today’s political landscape.
It is difficult to directly observe the shame that politicians carry. It’s challenging enough to notice how it lives inside ourselves! But we can notice the effects of shame–how it gets acted out–as a clue to its silent operation. Now more than ever, it’s important to understand what makes people tick rather than judge and shame them, which incites more reactivity, anger, and mutual blame.
Observing politicians of any persuasion, we often encounter those who display an arrogance and know-it-all attitude. At first glance, we might view them as the supremely confident leader who’s got the right stuff to rescue us. But history is littered with fallen leaders whose projection of power and confidence won elections (Hitler, Mussolini, Marcos), but who turned out to be self-serving dictators who cared more about power than people.
Arrogance is driven by shame. When shame looms large–oftentimes due to being brutally shamed growing up–it becomes so overwhelming that our organism has a way of dissociating from it. Some people get depressed as a result of this curious capacity for self-protection. We can observe their somberness, pessimism, or low energy, but not the shame that drives it.
Others become arrogant as a compensation for a shame that is also difficult to see–and which they don’t allow themselves to feel. They bluster, bristle, bully, and intimidate. And there’s a palpable anger that grabs our attention, especially if we are also angry at the “system” or carry some ill-defined anger toward something or somebody. Clever politicians have a way of mobilizing our discontent, then directing it in a way that serves them, not us.
It may seem like a stretch to suggest that loud, self-praising politicians carry a secret shame. But to a large extent, such individuals are raging against their own shame–their inner sense of powerlessness and their fear of failing, which would frustrate their desire for admiration. We may notice their narcissistic penchant to take up lots of space. But what’s hard to spot is their inner fragility and emptiness.
A telltale sign of a shame-driven person is a disinterest in sharing power, compromising, or acknowledging mistakes or uncertainty. When shame rules, they can’t afford any display of vulnerability. They become masters of manipulation. They evoke fear and insecurity with half-truths or untruths and then designate themselves as the hero who will cure the ills that they eloquently exaggerate or manufacture. This is a common tale throughout history.
Anger and Shame: Secret Bedfellows
People who carry a lot of anger are often unaware of its true source. As children, we’re vulnerable. We desperately seek love and acceptance in order to thrive. Some unfortunate children get a particularly hefty dose of conditioning (rewards and punishments) from well-meaning parents to attain worldly success, money, or fame as the price of love and acceptance (and from the relief of being shamed for not excelling). Rather than being valued for their inherent preciousness, these children are ridiculed and cajoled to create a false self to present to the world.
The drive to win and succeed may go beyond the simple desire to support and protect their family; it becomes a life and death struggle to prove their worth and rail against the inner demon of unworthiness. When they fail at something, they’re overwhelmed by shame. They can’t relax into simply being human–having limitations and imperfections like everyone else—and be okay with that. There’s too much shame to embrace humility; they’re invested in being special.
The tragic twist is that for some people, their fabricated self begins to feel like their authentic self. This may lead to what is called a personality disorder—in short, when having a distorted self-view feels natural. They succumb to a devil’s bargain to win adulation and some semblance of love and belonging. But sadly, by clinging to a hardened and rigid self, they pay the price of losing their own soul.
Perilously, such individuals (whether here or abroad) who seek positions of leadership unwittingly spread their silent misery to others. They stoke fear and anger to gather allies and cover up the shame of feeling inferior. Rather than viewing empathy and compassion as strengths, they may characterize these qualities as mere sentimentality that has little place in their cold view of the world.
Shame-based anger is a heat-seeking missile searching for a target. The shame that is too threatening to feel gets transferred to others, such as ethnic groups or other nations. Through scathing criticisms and blame, they make others feel the shame that they’re unwilling to face within themselves.
Shame-driven people lash-out when they feel shame. Simply observe their impulsive threats or rants when criticized. But it’s their own shame—the possibility of being wrong or flawed–that’s really driving them crazy. Having scant inner resources for allowing and processing it, they immediately go to anger as a bulwark against an unbearable shame.
Anger is a seductive energy. It can be used by an authoritarian leader not only to cover up their own shame, but also to harness other people’s anger and “empower” them to cover up their shame, whether from their history or from a legitimately difficult life. People may applaud such a “leader” for giving voice to the deep resentment they also feel. So we’re seeing a gathering storm of wailing individuals, but no real solutions to the enormously complex problems we face. In fact, problems often worsen without an appreciation for nuance and complexity.
Keeping Pace with Psychological Manipulation
Democracy depends upon having an educated electorate. Informed decisions can only be based on facts and truth. Those of any political persuasion who claim to love democracy are actually putting democracy at risk whenever they shamelessly distort the truth and assault their opponent’s character rather than courageously expose their own positions.
The founding fathers could never have anticipated the advent of mass media and how truths get spun and twisted through sophisticated methods of psychological manipulation–and how a ratings-driven media goes along for the ride by giving airtime to the most creatively outrageous characters.
Keeping pace with such unprecedented manipulation and dirty tricks means revisiting what it means to have an educated electorate, which would provide some immunity to such manipulation. This includes ratcheting up awareness of simple psychological principles, such as realizing how we’re prone to manipulation, shedding light on how shame operates, and recognizing how politicians who fan fears and shame their opponents are being driven by something other than good will.
A more psychologically aware electorate would be attuned to the smell of manipulation. There would be more awareness of when we’re being swept into a fear-driven, addictive media frenzy. There would be a growing awareness of who appears to be seeking power as compensation for their poor self-worth. There would be more appreciation for transparent politicians who have the integrity and wisdom to deal with issues that have complexity, even if such leaders are a little boring.
If I appear to be asking too much of the public to become more psychologically savvy, take comfort: having an advanced degree in psychology isn’t required to have an intact bs detector.
Shame creates a myopic brand of leadership that encourages its followers to cling to a narrow identity, whether to an extreme nationalism, an ethnic, racial, or religious identity—or being part of the 1% who control most of the wealth. Today’s world is seeing a proliferation of extremist ideologies driven by fear, ignorance, and insecurity. Such narrow clinging weds us to a self-identity devoid of tolerance and compassion, which sets a stage for conflict and war.
Seeking solace in a limiting identification tears us away from our humanity and the simple truth of our interconnectedness. The awareness that we share one small planet—that there is one environment that we need to cherish and protect—just as we need to treasure the vulnerable self that has gone into hiding through a barrage of shaming—is vital to our very survival.
I’m more trusting of politicians who reveal their limitations, acknowledge mistakes, and show vulnerability–and who have the humility to put scientific discoveries (even inconvenient ones) ahead of their own self-comforting beliefs and fantasies. It is noteworthy that the Dalai Lama, the Nobel prize winning leader of Tibetan Buddhists, has declared that if science makes discoveries that conflict with Buddhism, then Buddhism needs to change–not science. Refreshingly, the Dalai Lama is not paralyzed by the shame of being wrong.
Many Americans are being swept into despair and hopelessness. But new hope can dawn with the growth of understanding and increased awareness of what makes people do what they do.
Whether or not it makes sense to you to dig deeper into how shame is a hidden factor that drives many people to rail and to rally, consider this. When politicians are campaigning, listen to something deeper than your surface emotions. Who appears to have the emotional maturity, wisdom, and compassion to truly care about you and lead us toward a better life?
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Amodeo, J. (2020). How Healing Shame Can Save Our World. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-healing-shame-can-save-our-world/