Shame might be different from what you think it is. While you might define shame in the obvious ways — abuse, ostracism, rejection — it appears in much smaller, seemingly insignificant ways in everyday life.
According to Joseph Burgo, “Most of us find it difficult to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we feel shame.”
In his new book, Shame: Find Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem, Burgo invites us to rethink shame, to challenge that it is something to be avoided, dismissed, or repackaged, and to consider that what we might find in shame is an opportunity to cultivate true self-esteem.
While shame feels toxic, bad, and doesn’t bode well for popularity, it is also unavoidable. Burgo writes, “Human beings everywhere, in every culture, and on every continent the world over, experience shame in exactly the same way: gaze aversion, brief mental confusion, and a longing to disappear, usually accompanied by a blushing of the face, neck, or chest.”
Shame, Burgo contends, can be described as a family of emotions encompassing experiences of humiliation, feeling bad about oneself, feeling insecure about one’s appearance, feeling foolish or embarrassed, feeling left out, vulnerable or exposed, and feeling unworthy, that all result in a painful experience of the self.
And while the popular views of shame see it as largely destructive, Burgo has a different take. He writes, “I believe that a shame experience sometimes contains an important lesson about who we are or the person we’d like to become; if we dismiss or resist it, we lose an opportunity to grow.”
Human beings are social creatures and our feelings of safety, warmth, and security are rooted in the relationships we have. As affect theory holds that emotions evolved to promote pair bonding and facilitate communication among members of a group, shame, Burgo tells us, “evolved as a way to enforce group cohesion and thereby promote the survival of both the individual and the tribe; the capacity to experience shame thus has survival value.”
Rather than trying to heal from shame, we should listen to the message it offers about ourselves and learn from it.
Burgo quotes sociologist and social philosopher Helen Merell Lynd, saying, “It is possible that experiences of shame, confronted full in the face may throw an unexpected light on who one is and point the way toward who one may become. Fully faced, shame may become not primarily something to be covered, but a positive experience of revelation.”
Shame is also a fundamental component of self-respect and the self-esteem that follows, and cannot be overcome with external praise or self-affirmation.
Shielding children from shame and dousing them in praise does not increase self-esteem – it results in an inflated sense of self that is out of touch with reality, a feeling of entitlement that doesn’t match the work necessary to achieve what they desire, and an emphasis on image over substance.
Pride, on the other hand, is the deep feeling of pleasure or satisfaction that is derived from one’s own achievements, and like self-respect, it must be earned. Burgo writes, “You develop self-respect by living up to your own values and expectations.”
Yet shame lies in the experiences of being unloved, excluded, or exposed, many of which occur in everyday life, and many of which cause us to attempt to mask. We may avoid relationships, and public events, we may procrastinate, renounce our ambitions, turn to secrecy, drugs or even promiscuity.
We can also develop an idealized false self, a feeling of superiority and contempt, blame and indignation, narcissistic defenses, self-mockery, self-hatred, and even masochism.
One interesting defense to the feeling of shame is known as “countershaming”.
Burgo writes, “On the level of individual psychology, when shame defiance goes hand in hand with efforts to inspire shame in other people, it often reflects a kind of false sense of pride: I feel good about myself because I’m nothing like you”.
In order to truly learn from shame, we must first disarm our defenses and be willing to face shame, listen to it, and learn from it.
“Moving on from shame defiance and developing robust shame resilience is an important stage on the path toward authentic self-esteem; it helps us to build pride by living up to our own standards and by achieving our self-chosen goals,” writes Burgo.
While pride in achievement has largely been ignored in the realm of self-esteem, it forms the basis of listening to shame, reflecting on what it has to teach us, examining our choices, and pursuing and reaching those goals that give us the greatest sense of joy.
Authentic self-esteem is inclusive, makes room for other people to feel good about themselves, shares in the joy of connection and the understanding that although shame may never leave us, it can, if listened and attended to, lead us toward a better version of ourselves.
Shame: Find Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem
St. Martin’s Press, 2018
Paperback, 255 pages