Shame: The Quintessential Emotion
It’s the quintessential human emotion, says New Brunswick, N.J., psychologist Michael Lewis, Ph.D., in his writings.
All extravagant behaviors are reactions to it, says Philadelphia psychiatrist Donald I. Nathanson, M.D.
It’s the root of dysfunctions in families, says Montpelier, Vt.-based Jane Middelton-Moz, author of “Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise.”
After decades of obscurity — spent, Middelton-Moz says, confused with and overshadowed by guilt — shame is increasingly recognized as a powerful, painful and potentially dangerous emotion,- especially for those who don’t understand its origins or know how to manage it.
A Complex Response
According to Alen J. Salerian, M.D., psychiatrist and medical director of the Washington, D.C., Psychiatric Center Outpatient Clinic, shame is a complex emotional response that all humans acquire during early development. “It’s a normal feeling about ourselves and our behavior,” he said, “not necessarily a symptom of an illness or pathology. In many situations, it’s abnormal if we don’t experience it.”
Embarrassment and shyness, for example, are two forms of shame that seldom cause trouble — unless they’re extreme or long lasting. And humility, another of the forms shame can take, is generally considered socially desirable.
But there’s mounting evidence that problems occur when shame or humiliation becomes an integral part of a person’s self-image or sense of self-worth. Over the past two decades, psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals have reported that abnormal styles of handling shame play an important role in social phobias, eating disorders, domestic violence, substance abuse, road rage, schoolyard and workplace rampages, sexual offenses and a host of other personal and social problems.
The Importance of Feeling Adequate
Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D., author of “Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem” and clinical psychologist in Portland, Ore., explains how such disorders originate.
“Early in life, individuals develop an internalized view of themselves as adequate or inadequate within the world,” she said. “Children who are continually criticized, severely punished, neglected, abandoned, or in other ways abused or mistreated get the message that they do not ‘fit’ in the world — that they are inadequate, inferior or unworthy.”
These feelings of inferiority are the genesis of low self-esteem, Sorenson says.
“Individuals with low self-esteem become overly sensitive and fearful in many situations,” she said. “They are afraid they won’t know the rules or that they’ve blundered, misspoken or acted in ways others might consider inappropriate. Or they might perceive that others reject or are critical of them.”
Once low self-esteem is formed, the person becomes hypersensitive — they experience “self-esteem attacks” that take the form of embarrassment or shame, Sorenson adds.
“Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong,” she said, “shame is the feeling of being something wrong. When a person experiences shame, they feel ‘there is something basically wrong with me.'”
Middelton-Moz says this is a common emotional response in adult children of alcoholic parents, as well as those who grew up with depressed parents, abuse, religious fanaticism, war, cultural oppression, or adult or sibling death. All of these experiences cause an individual to feel vulnerable, helpless and shamed.
A Deep, Unproductive Well
Aaron Kipnis, Ph.D., author of “Angry Young Men: How Parents, Teachers and Counselors Can Help Bad Boys Become Good Men” and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara, Calif., agrees. He says that shame’s effects are more damaging than those of guilt.
“Guilt is positive,” he said. “It’s a response of psychologically healthy individuals who realize they have done something wrong. It helps them act more positively, more responsibly, often to correct what they’ve done.”
But shame is not productive, Kipnis says. “Shame tends to direct individuals into destructive behaviors. When we focus on what we did wrong, we can correct it; but when we’re convinced that we are wrong as a result of shame, our whole sense of self is eroded.”
That’s why guilt doesn’t produce the anger, rage or other irrational behaviors shame does, Kipnis adds. “Many violent behaviors lead back to a deep well of shame,” he said.