Hidden shame is a powerful emotional and physiological reaction. It fills our being in covert ways. It can cause us to become violent or withdrawn from life and it can prompt us to bring out the better parts of ourselves in ways we never expected. It is both a curse and a blessing. Typically we may have some glimmer of how it operates in our lives but mostly we’re unaware of how much of our existence is driven by shame. It is often the obscured answer to such questions as: “Why did he murder all those people? or “Why can’t I have a healthy relationship?” or “Why do I have no ambition?” or “What drove me to go on a humanitarian mission?” It is the passion that drives us and is anything but boring and bland.
By definition shame is an intense disliking of our self. It is unlike guilt which is based more on an evaluation of how we behave. It often remains hidden because it is such an intolerable emotion, so much so, that our psyche would rather not recognize it and instead deny its existence. Shame very much reflects cultural values but is often more dependent on how we were raised. It can be very healthy. Feeling bad about ourselves can actually help us become better human beings, as the story below suggests:
You know my siblings have really had it in for me ever since our aging mom needed more home care due to her increasing memory loss. I always told them, “You take care of mom if you want to. She never had a kind word for me growing up. Why should I go out of my way for her now?” Besides I don’t even know how to help her out. She is just nuts a lot of the time. Of course, getting the cold shoulder from my sisters at holiday gatherings only made me feel like two cents. Deep down I knew I was being unfair to my sibs. This idea was echoed by my wife who said, “Caring for your mom is more about caring for your siblings who are burdened by her care. It is also about living up to your personal values. That’s why their criticisms hurt so much. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” This was a tough message to swallow as only my wife could deliver it. But I knew she was right. Now I bite my tongue, see mom one afternoon a week and feel better about myself and my sibs, who are warmer than ever to me. I feel like I really have a family now.
Shame can also have a very dark side and cripple our lives. The ways we hide from it — violence, social withdrawal, addictions, criminal behaviors, paranoia and some forms of mental illness — are even worse than the crippling self-loathing of such toxic shame. These patterns only reconfirm that we are not worth knowing or being loved and get other people to hate us too. The experience of toxic shame is not just a thinking process, it is the total embodiment of who we are as human beings. It is something we want no one to know about ourselves, often including ourselves. The most important thing to know about toxic shame is that it is not earned from our own misbehavior or failing but is instead a memory state based on our past abuse. Many of us have acclimated ourselves to living with toxic shame as a customary part of our existence and we have terrible mood disorders as a result. Many people with chronic toxic shame never have genuinely happy days nor do they expect to have happier days down the road:
I don’t know how my life got so off kilter. I have a nice home, been a mailman for 25 years and have no real bad habits. People who see me say, “Oh there goes happy Joe.” Oh yes, I do try to be kind to everybody and treat people with respect. I just keep to myself and smile a lot when I’m out in public, but I am hardly smiling inside. If they only knew. Here I am 55-years-old and I have never had a girlfriend. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Oh, I’ve had crushes on ladies but that is as far as it ever goes. I can’t think about this too long as it gets too depressing. Better get back to my routines.
Although these personal experiences with shame are incredibly discouraging and persistent, it’s essential to hear that with careful efforts they are changeable. Toxic shame is not an accurate description of who we really are; it is more a description of what we grew up with. It is in fact a false self-impression. It is possible to live with less toxic shame and more healthy shame. It is possible with hard work and support to lessen toxic shame and increase healthy shame in ourselves. Shame is not a psychological death sentence.
Most of us have a hard time acknowledging shame in ourselves. We hardly know what it looks like. Most of us can understand embarrassment when we are caught doing something bad. Few of us can witness long standing chronic shame in ourselves. And of course, what we don’t see does hurt us. To lessen shame we have to first see it in ourselves. Healthy shame is about hurting others; toxic shame is about hurting ourselves (and possibly others). Shame does register in our bodies and can sit there for years. Generally you can identify shame by seeing how you act it out. We can see its “footprint” in our lives. The following are likely signals of shame:
- continual sense of feeling defective for no apparent reason
- unwillingness to expose our vulnerabilities to others
- grandiose attitude that we are a cut above others
- an urge to keep a secret or be reticent after we have done some wrong
- patterns of procrastination and underachievement
- slumped posture and avoidance of eye contact with others
- perfectionism and a preoccupation with personal achievement
- persistent feelings of fraudulence
- tendency to over- apologize to others for minor transgressions
- inability to accept compliments and help
- unexplained exaggerated bouts of rage and blaming of others
- personality split between one’s public and private selves
- having an excuse for everything and denying personal responsibility
- facility with convincing others that everything is their fault and what is obvious is untrue
- avoidance of serious personal friendships and love relationships
- intolerance with being alone with oneself for extended periods
- sensations of heaviness and dread in our bodies as if we are about to die
- unwillingness to forgive or holding a long-term grudge towards others
Origins of toxic shame
Most healthy shame has it roots in the ethos of family and culture. Being taught the difference between right and wrong or how to conform to the norms of society in how we treat others gets rooted in ourselves in early family and social experiences. Most of us develop a fully formed personal and social conscience by the age of 12. We may not do better but we do know better. Positive relationships with kin and community teach us healthy shame.
Toxic shame is a form of emotional trauma where our attempts to connect with family members at earliest ages get met with ridicule, indifference, neglect and rejection. We get hit where it hurts and we internalize a very negative self-image to conform to what important people think of us. We become brainwashed and crushed by other people’s views of us. We don’t see how these views are more about our accusers than ourselves and we adopt these views of ourselves for life. We do this unconsciously to simply fit in: Having no family is not a viable alternative for a child. Today’s toxic shame feelings are our body’s way of telling us that we need to be deficient in order to belong. Such experiences are inaccurate descriptions of who we really are and reflect the true deficiencies of the family in which we were born. Unlike healthy shame which is an accurate reading of who we are when we have done wrong, toxic shame is a false reading. We live with this false reading in a perpetual state of trauma especially when we can’t see shame in ourselves.
Guidelines for growth
There is no magic wand or happy pill to remove toxic shame from our identities or to be appropriately shameful when we need to. This balancing act of lessening toxic shame and increasing healthy shame can only be learned over time with much real life practice. It involves brain rewiring much like learning to play a musical instrument after you’ve been taught to hate music. A caring and wise relationship with a helper and support group is required to learn the sweet harmonies of self-acceptance, forgiveness of oneself and others and an abiding sense of personal responsibility. Problematic shame results from betrayals of trust in personal relationships and they require reparative personal relationships to heal. Healing shame is not just an intellectual experience; it is a sacred experience of being moved by the music of love with another human being. No book or workshop or class alone can heal shame in us. We need to have a deep intimate relationship with another human being to help us transform ourselves. And learn the music of love in our bodies.
Clearly word of mouth referrals by trusted friends may help us find such guidance. Although healing is a long process, the actual efforts to heal will already help us recognize we are on the right track and give us hope.
There are practical things to do to get started. Learn about shame. Read Gerhsen Kaufman’s book, Shame: the Power of Caring (Schenkman Books, 1985). Do some self-appraisal. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “Am I really that motivated to accept myself?” and “What practical value would it serve for me to do so?” Most of us sabotage our own efforts in healing shame and are more willing to go with what is customary and see ourselves as defective. That may be quite enough for now. On the other hand we may be really motivated to overcome hurtful shame. We don’t need to know how to do it; we just need to get a good “music teacher” to teach us the language of love. In my many years of healing I can tell you that love always wins out. It is music to the ears.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). Call 651-699-4573.