This article first appeared in our April 2007 issue of The Phoenix Spirit.
Many people believe that punishing and explosive anger is a sign of power, confidence and “being on top of your game.” In face, this is not the case at all. Disrespectful anger and even all out rage actually come out of a deep sense of powerlessness, inadequacy and despair. Another word for that place is shame.
Shame is a significant part of all human misery. Shame can lead to a whole host of compulsive, addictive, irresponsible, and demoralizing attitudes and behaviors and is a major contributor to all sorts of emotional and physical distress that human beings experience.
One primary indicator that shame is present in many people’s lives is disrespectful, punishing, or explosive anger that leads to destructive and self-defeating attitudes or hurtful and abusive actions toward themselves or others. When people basically feel “okay” about themselves, they do not feel a need to hurt and demean themselves or those around them.
The Shape of Things to Come
Think back for a moment to your time as a child. For some, childhood memories involve chatter and fun at the family dinner table, sitting with your parents as they read stories to you, having teachers show an interest in who you were and what you did, and playing happily in your backyard with other neighborhood kids.
For others, however, the memories are not nearly so rosy. You may remember punishing and demeaning lectures directed at you by a parent or teacher whenever you made a mistake. You might remember hostile and abusive scenes whenever your parents fought. You may also recall being picked on and ridiculed by other children inside and outside school.
These kinds of experiences can lead to an almost constant state of anxiety, self-doubt, and insecurity. This second set of memories is what sets the stage for the development of toxic shame within you. Once the shame is there, some people end up converting this shame into anger and even rage directed at themselves and others.
What you heard, saw, and experienced as a child shapes the way you look at yourself and your life today. The reality is that people generally learn to be negative, hostile, cynical, disrespectful and abusive. And these attitudes and behaviors come directly from shame and feelings of defectiveness and inadequacy that were often first instilled in you when you were young. When you think about it, your experience as a child is very much like being in a laboratory where you discover what it is to be human. This is where you learn who you are, how to relate to others, and how you fit into the world around you.
If you grew up in a hurtful, disrespectful or neglectful family or you were the target of hostile and abusive treatment by peers or adults, you received some very distorted and perverted messages about the way life is and the way life can be. Shame is the end result of these messages and can quickly lead to acting out your anger in some hurtful and unproductive ways.
When shame becomes a part of you, you end up experiencing a gnawing sense that something is vaguely and indescribably wrong with who you are and the way you are living your life. Shame leads to doubts about yourself at your very core and to the idea that you are somehow flawed and do not quite measure up to your own or others’ expectations. These beliefs lead to a tendency to harshly judge yourself and other people for mistakes and shortcomings. These judgments can also lead to feeling angry and even full of rage at times.
You may have learned to face each day with a sense of fear and dread, which has gotten in the way of handling life’s challenges. You may have learned that other people cannot be trusted and that you need to be constantly “on guard” so that others do not hurt or take advantage of you. Needless to say, this sets the stage for you to feel hostile, cynical, and angry much of the time and gets in the way of developing close relationships with others.
You may have tried a myriad of strategies to medicate the pain that you sense is there: drinking or eating too much, spending or gambling compulsively, or working all the time with little energy left for yourself and your family. Or you may have tried to confront and address people and problems around you with explosive, punishing, and disrespectful anger. None of these is actually effective in removing the pain that shame creates. Saddest of all, it may seem like there is no way out of this vision you have of the way things are.
There is an Alternative
The first step in moving beyond your shame is to understand what shame is and how it affects your day-to-day life. If you don’t understand what shame is, there is no way to begin to change it.
Everyone experiences some shame just through the process of growing up. Being smaller, less skilled, and not knowing as much as your parents, older siblings, and others creates a sense of shame: you are not as effective and knowledgeable as some of the people around you. In a nurturing, loving, and safe environment, however, helps you develop a realistic appraisal of yourself: you are not perfect and you do not know everything. This realization ideally leads to a sense of humility.
But that is not what I am addressing here. Rather, what I am talking about is toxic shame, an overwhelming belief and feeling that you are defective and never quite good enough. This belief, for many people, creates enormous tension and the anger and rage that can go along with it.
When you experience and internalize others’ shaming, punishing and demeaning messages, toxic shame is created. It becomes your way of looking at yourself, other people, and the world around you. It also becomes a way of actually living your life that has, at its foundation, control, perfectionism, blame, reactivity, cynicism, despair, and stagnation. Shame is often initially created when you were hurt, wounded, and devalued by people who were important to you in some way.
Your parents might have created these wounds, if they were abusive and neglectful. Your siblings or other children could have created them if you were demeaned and put down by them. Teachers or coaches might have created them if you were humiliated in school or disciplined in a punishing way. Or others could have created them, even perfect strangers, who treated you disrespectfully and acted as if you were insignificant and had no worth.
Think back to thinks that were said to you. Do any of the examples below sound familiar?
“Hey fat ass.”
“What a ‘retard!”
“How can you be so stupid?”
“You never could do anything right.”
“Shut your face. Nobody wants to know what you think.”
“If you think it’s so bad here, wait ’til you get out in the real world.”
“If you don’t like the rules I have, you can hit the road.”
“You’re a damn loser and you’ll never amount to anything.”
“You’ve ruined my life.”
“Nobody could ever care about anyone like you.”
“If it weren’t for you, I’d be somebody.”
“I wish you’d never been born.”
These are the kinds of statements that destroy self-esteem and self-respect and set the stage for shame to overwhelm your sense of self. When people around you took out their life’s pain on you by saying things like those noted above or treated you like an object rather than a person with human dignity (e.g. using intimidation, pushing, grabbing, cuffing, or hitting with you), you were affected. You may have even noticed it at the time but you might not have wanted to admit it to yourself or anyone else. Or you might not have been clear about its effect on you. Or you may have simply struggled on, doing the best you could under the circumstances.
When you were treated in a punishing and hurtful way or simply neglected and ignored, you may have taken these messages in and begun to believe that they were an accurate representation of who you really were: “They say (or act like) I’m worthless and unimportant; I guess I really am.” These distortions and lies became your vision for how you looked at yourself and how you related to the world around you. They created and became the roles that you took on and played in your life over the years to the present.
Essentially, what happened in this process is that someone else wrote a life script for you. You were told, through the ways that you were spoken to and treated, who to be and how to live. In a shame-based system, you do not really ever have the opportunity to figure out who you actually are and want to be. In this situation, you are certainly not allowed to be a part of writing your own life script.
It is literally as if you were enlisted to act out a role in a painful and destructive drama that was written, directed, and produced by someone else. And unfortunately, that “someone” didn’t have your best interests at heart. What makes this even worse is that there is a lifelong commitment to this production with no “escape clause.” You are expected to live and die with this contract that was created for you by the original shamers.
Living the Script
Exactly what is the contract you had with the writers, the directors and the producers of this script? The contract is based on a set of unrealistic, distorted and rigid core beliefs. These are the rules and values you attempt to live by: what you expect from yourself, other people and the world around you.
Everyone has core beliefs. These are the values that are important to us. Unfortunately, if you were shamed, yours were developed and shaped by the negative and disrespectful messages you received from the people who hurt, demeaned, and devalued you. These messages communicated in a clear and powerful way to you, even up to the present, that you as a human being, are defective , inadequate, powerless, incompetent, unlovable, and completely alone. Being put down, ridiculed, or ignored by others gave you the message that you didn’t really “count” and that you were unimportant and of little value. This does not help you feel very good about yourself. And it has the potential to create anxiety, anger and even rage within you.
Often, people will vow to themselves, unconsciously or sometimes even consciously, that they will never allow others to treat them in any way that they perceive to be similar to this again. And, as adults, they are big, strong, and powerful enough to go right back at that other person, even if it means becoming disrespectful, explosive, and abusive themselves.
These shaming messages also communicate that the world around you is a frightening and dangerous place. You never quite “fit in” or find anywhere that feels comfortable or safe. That means you cannot really trust other people. You need to be constantly wary to avoid being hurt, disrespected, and taken advantage of by others in the present. You start to believe that, in order to be okay, you need play a role that presents a facade to everyone around you.
Sadly, along with this role, there is an intense fear that, at some point, others will actually see through this false image and realize how bad and flawed you truly are. Then, you think it is just a matter of time before they will judge, disrespect, or abandon you. This makes it very difficult to connect in an emotionally meaningful way with just about anyone.
What fuels the contract and keeps the script alive in your day-to-day life is your own negative thought process. You have accepted the shaming statements and actions by others as your reality. It is as if they have found a place in your head and your heart and have taken over your way of thinking and feeling about yourself and the world around you. You have learned the “lines” that you were expected to know and rehearsed them over and over again. Now the original shamers are no longer even necessary to carry on the painful legacy of what you have been handed.
Your self-talk, the words, phrases, and sentences that you think to yourself becomes negative and punishing. This creates an atmosphere within you where you continually judge and condemn yourself and others for differences, shortcomings, and mistakes. You have now fully integrated the role that you were expected to play in the life script that was produced for you.
This is the ultimate internalization of the shaming things that were said or done to you. You may even find yourself saying the very same words and phrases to yourself that you heard from others so many years ago. You may call yourself “stupid,” “ugly,” or a “loser.” If part of your life script is to be the “angry young man” (or woman) you may end up thinking about others in equally disrespectful and demeaning ways.
Continuing to live the shame-based script that was foisted on you can turn your life into a catastrophe. Your sense of defectiveness leads to a variety of negative outcomes based on what you think and how you behave as you go through the motions of your life, the shame-based drama you are living out. This can include angry and hostile attitudes that only get worse as you age and drive away even the people who try to be close to you. True intimacy is beyond your grasp. The script keeps you from being able to connect with others in an honest and meaningful way. The idea of being close is just too scary. You tend to expect that they will end up hurting you in the same way that you were hurt in the past. And this expectation often sets up “real-life” situations where that is exactly what happens. A profound feeling of loneliness and estrangement follows and you may not even know why.
A shame-based person experiences an interruption of spontaneous behavior, a loss of energy, paralysis, and immobilization. It takes an enormous amount of energy to play roles that contradict who you really are and have the potential to be. This saps your motivation and often limits your ability to take positive risks. It frequently leads to feeling trapped or stuck in your personal or professional life.
Shame is often accompanied by the belief that you are powerless and being victimized by everyone and everything around you. This only increases your anger, hostility, and desire for revenge and control. This belief also decreases further your willingness to actually do something positive to move your life in a more healthy direction. Sadly, however, shame often does promote your willingness to take negative and self-destructive risks such as drinking and driving, spending or losing money you don’t have, and verbally and physically assaulting others which only creates consequences and even more shame.
The end result of this role you have taken on is an overwhelming sense of despair, cynicism, hopelessness, and stagnation. This is one dramatic production where it is critical to review the part you’ve been playing up to now, work hard to discover your true self, and then start to consciously and proactively live that out.
Often, beginning to recognize and address your shame feels overwhelming, depressing and shaming in and of itself. It is not a pleasant task. Identifying the roles chosen for you by others and then actually rewriting the script you have been given into the script you wish to play is the process that has to occur in order for anything to change. You are the only one who can do it (with the help of others who truly care about you in the present).
As you understand more about what shame is and how it may be affecting you, start to know and embrace the characters and roles that have kept you stuck in your life up to this point. If disrespectful, punishing and explosive anger is an issue for you, do not deny it! If you deny that you are an angry person when in fact you are, the anger takes on a life of its own and it controls you rather than your making the necessary decisions to remain in control of it.
Work hard to accept anger as part of who you are and who you have been and set out to change the messages you still carry that created this script in the first place and keep it alive within you today. You may feel frightened and overwhelmed as you begin to uncover how you have been shamed and how it has contributed to the disrespectful anger you have all too often directed at others. This journey is worth the pain.
Dave Decker, MA, is a licensed psychologist in private practice in St.Paul, MN. He has authored several books, “Stopping The Violence: A Group Model To Change Men’s Abusive Attitudes and Behaviors” and “Embracing the Dark Side: Learning to Recognize and Handle the Emotions Within and Around You“.