Shame is one of the most destructive emotions. Shame is that painful, sinking feeling that tells us that we’re flawed or defective. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre described shame as that “immediate shudder which runs through me from head to foot.”
Psychologist Gershen Kaufman explains how shame is the sudden rupture of the interpersonal bridge, which happens when someone relates to us in a degrading, critical way — or when we anticipate being criticized or attacked. Such shame can have a toxic and paralyzing effect on our well-being. Recognizing and healing destructive shame is a central aspect of personal growth. Living with a joyful spontaneity is not possible when toxic shame rules.
The Positive Aspect of Shame
But is all shame bad? Sociopaths and pathological liars are people who feel no shame. They feel free to disrespect and injure others without the inconvenience of feeling badly about it. They are adept at dissociating from a shame that is deeply buried. Most likely, they had so much shaming growing up that their survival strategy depended on compartmentalizing shame — distancing themselves from it so that they could move forward in their lives. But sadly, their direction forward often includes rolling over others’ sensibilities.
Individuals who freely shame and hurt others are usually people who are driven by an unconscious shame. They find a way to shift their shame to others. As Gershen Kaufman puts it:
“If I feel humiliated, I can reduce this affect by blaming someone else. The blaming directly transfers shame to that other person, enabling me to feel better about myself.”
As the years pass, one’s defenses against shame may solidify. One’s personality structure can become so hardened that it becomes difficult to access the primary emotions that have been guarded against for so long. As empathy and kindness toward one’s own feelings are no longer accessible, there is little empathy toward the feelings and wants of others.
Dissociating from shame is an important and often overlooked aspect of the etiology of personality disorders. People build and invest in a self that is far removed from who they really are. As this false self feels more and more “natural,” there is an ever-more robust disconnection from their vulnerable, tender, authentic self.
A positive aspect of shame is that it tells us when we’ve hurt someone, when we’ve crossed a boundary that violates a person’s dignity.
Shame may arise naturally when we’ve broken the interpersonal bridge, when we’ve spoken or acted in a way that has broken trust or wounded a relationship. Shame gets our attention. If we can pause and notice it rather than plow forward, we have an opportunity to correct our behavior or apologize.
For example, we might shout angry, hurtful words, such as, “You’re so self-centered” or “You’re being a jerk!” Sometime later, we may feel shame for having attacked someone we care about — or for having violated a person’s human dignity. Being mindful of our shame offers an option to apologize as a way to rebuild trust. We might also notice the more vulnerable feelings that underlie our attack — perhaps sadness related to a hurtful comment received or a fear of losing the relationship.
There is nothing shameful about feeling shame. It is simply a part of our wiring. While shame can be debilitating, it can also be an early warning system for when we’re poised to break trust and injure a person. Such friendly shame protects us from doing or saying something that might come back to haunt us. Such shame enables us to preserve trust and safeguard our relationships.
If we can recognize shame at an early moment, we can focus on it and get a sense of what kind of shame it is.
Perhaps this a toxic shame that says, “You don’t have a right to express your true feelings and wants. You’re bad and wrong for feeling this way. You don’t have a right to take up space in the world.”
Or, perhaps this a friendly shame trying to tell us, “Stop! You’re about to hurt someone.” We might then pause, take a deep breath, notice the anger, and uncover the more vulnerable feelings that are happening inside.”
It’s a lifetime practice to differentiate toxic shame from healthy, friendly shame. Recognizing the toxic shame that holds us back from being and affirming ourselves is a helpful step towards reducing it. Noticing healthy shame that informs us when we’re violating another’s boundaries and dignity can help us become more sensitized to how we’re affecting others.
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Woman feeling shame photo available from Shutterstock