“I’m sorry but I have to cancel our dinner date. I have the flu. I know this is the second time I’ve done this and I wouldn’t blame you one bit if you gave up on me. Or, maybe if you let me pay for dinner next time, we can still be friends. I can’t thank you enough for wanting to get together with me. I’m lucky to have you as a friend. Love ya.”
Shame definitely has a place in our lives when we’ve done something wrong or hurt someone else. But it has no place in our lives when all we are doing is simply being a human being or being different in some way we cannot help. Some of us expect the impossible of ourselves out of fear that we will never be loved. We may get into patterns of self-sacrifice and being scapegoated as we go through life constantly feeling ashamed of ourselves for no observable reason. Life may often leave us with constant feelings of anxiety and depression for no apparent explanation and we may underachieve in our life aspirations. We may see ourselves today as flawed without seeing how our early childhood years have set us up to be who we are. We seldom see other choices other than apologizing for being alive. We deserve a lot more out of life than we are getting.
However, we are the only ones who can save ourselves and unfortunately, sometimes we lack the tools. Perhaps this article can give you some direction and some hope.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘This Is My Story,’ 1937
Difference between healthy and pathological shame
When you’ve harmed someone it’s healthy to feel guilty about what you did and be ashamed of the part of you that made a bad choice. However, when you hate all of who you are simply for living or making a mistake or not living up to some ideal standard, you are exhibiting pathological shame. Pathological shame is about who you are and healthy shame is about what you did. Pathological shame often lies hidden in us and is frequently the root of our addictions. Making amends may alleviate healthy shame. Pathological shame appears unforgivable.
Examples of shameful parenting
The following examples are ways our parents, often unintentionally, may have caused us to feel persistently bad about ourselves throughout our lives:
- being told directly or indirectly that you will never amount to anything or that you are better than everyone else
- getting blamed for all the troubles in a family
- receiving indifference from parents when you achieve or are in trouble
- having your feelings and perceptions regularly discredited or minimized
- being left home alone with no adult guidance
- being sexually or physically abused
- getting the constant message that you are “never good enough” no matter what you do
- having parents in the room but uninvolved with you
- regularly being called derogatory names
- being consistently and unfavorably compared to a sibling
- being made responsible for adult problems
- being catered to by your parents
Frankly most of us would rather not remember such experiences; we repress memories of them and see no connection to how we are affected today by shame parenting.
“I was not born to be what someone else said I was.”—James Baldwin
Impact of pathological shame
No greater harm occurs to children than being treated as worthless or being told you are better than others. Adults from such families often feel like impostors in life. On the outside you appear normal but on the inside you hate yourself. You may not want anybody else to find out who you really are or allow anyone to be intimate with you, even when you’ve done nothing truly wrong. You likely are socially avoidant and underachieve in career aspirations. You cannot accept praise and see yourself as unlovable. You shun real love and instead you unconsciously choose to be in hurtful relationships (or no relationships at all) repeating how you were raised as a child. You may feel strangely validated when people mistreat you and may even try to get abused in healthy relationships.
Or just the opposite may be true. In fact you may enjoy inflicting harm on others simply to relieve yourself of the omnipresent burden of internalized shame. You may resort to impulsive violence or exploit others to relieve yourself of your ever-present envy. Most burdensome of all, you likely feel responsible for other people’s problems even when there is no apparent reason to do so. Essentially you repeat the same problems you grew up with because you feel you have no other choice. It is inconceivable and terrifying for you to receive authentic love or be peacefully in charge of your own life all on your own. The movie “Ladybird” painfully portrays this ordeal with an unexplained happy ending. It is a miracle that most of us harmed by shame in childhood do not permanently hurt others or ourselves.
Often the impact of childhood shame seems burned into your brain like any trauma experience. Fortunately our brains are malleable in the hands of careful and persistent interpersonal healing. You can overcome the scourge of pathological shame if you have the courage and help to face it.
“And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”—Aeschylus (Greek playwright, 525-456 BC)
Overcoming shame: the longest journey to healing and forgiveness
Use this article to see if internalized shame is a theme in your life. Often shame lies hidden in people’s lives and appears in the form of irrational behavior, like avoiding comfort from others, underachieving in career aspirations, and shunning intimate relationships. If you consistently describe yourself or others harshly you are likely plagued by shame. Such a wound cannot be healed by simply reading self-help books, reciting self-affirmations, or being successful in your career. These efforts generally make you feel worse about yourself as they feel inauthentic and shallow.
The key to overcoming shame is to return to the scene of the crime. If you were hurt by shame in important relationships then you need emotional relations to heal. You cannot correct shame on your own. You may need to make emotional corrections with people who truly love you and allow you to openly acknowledge both good and bad aspects of yourself as they stay connected to you. A good self-help group like Alanon and an in-depth relationship with a trusted healer may do the trick. In the process you may see your value as a person not in what you do but in who you really are. It’s the being, not the doing that corrects shame. Often you learn that the worst aspects of yourself serve a useful purpose for you and even benefit others.
You may also learn that your apparent angelic qualities are actually not always so holy. For example, your withdrawing from others in a problematic group may signal to others that they ought to wise up and do the same. Your generosity towards others may be more for your sake than actually benefiting others. Your undesirable qualities may put others at ease as they too share limitations. Sometimes the company of misery is worth a lot more than the lonely adulation of success. The famous old-time movie star, Tallulah Bankhead said it best: “If I had to live my life all over again, I’d make all the same mistakes—only sooner.”
Clearly making amends to those whom you’ve hurt also ought to be part of shame recovery. Think about starting with yourself. Are you still acting out in your addictions and neglecting your health and psychological needs? Do you use derogatory language toward yourself? Do you continue to avoid healthy relationships out of fear and entitlement? Are you not allowing yourself to be appropriately angry with people who have hurt you in your lifetime? And to limit your contact with people who hurt you today? Are you not recognizing the plethora of people who care about you today? Reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown (Hazelden Publishing, 2010) by may help you in your personal inventory. Then it is best to take a one-day-at-a-time approach in making amends to others whom you’ve hurt, provided it is safe to do so. Discover what you’ve missed all these years while also staying away from people who continue to hurt you. Your current bittersweet relationship to your parents may require careful scrutiny and reevaluation with the assistance of trusted others.
You will need to spend the rest of your life on your healing journey. You may wonder why it takes so long to heal shame. It’s because shame is a trauma whose memories physically reside in your body and soul and is intimately wrapped up with your identity and has been since your childhood. Although current shame may roll off you like sweat with a dry rag; childhood shame occurred when your brain was newly forming and resides in your very being. The stubbornness of your injury is a testimony to your resilience and strength like nothing else in your life.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait a lifetime to get relief from shame. The mere walking into a room of recovering people and declaring your wish to heal can be like feeling the relief of an air-conditioned room on a hot day. Your body gets the picture right away! In a reasonably short time people, even those you don’t know, will favorably comment on you saying, “You look a little different today” or “You seem much happier” or “What’s got into you?” Your body will be the first to let every one know that you are well on the road to healing and health. Just realize that you didn’t do it alone and you have many people to thank, starting with yourself.
“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”—Langston Hughes
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). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.