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Shame - Understanding, Hidden Sources, Recovery

Understanding - There must be something wrong with me

Shame has been described as the cancer of human emotions that eats away from the inside of those who are afflicted by it. Shame robs people of the ability to enjoy their life, destroys relationships and locks away potential. Shame itself is rarely visible from the outside because people will go to extreme lengths to keep it hidden but its effects can be seen everywhere, every day.

So what is this beast?
Shame is the deep seated belief that "there is something wrong with me", "I am defective in some way", "I am not good enough" or "I am fundamentally flawed"
So if it is hidden, how do we recognise it?
People who are afflicted by shame can experience some or all of the following characteristics to varying degrees. It is important to realise that these attributes may have origins other than shame because any human behaviour is far too complex to be reduced to only one cause. They are a guide only.
Shame makes it hard to accept praise because of the belief that "if you really knew what I was like then you wouldn't say that or like me." Criticism however is taken very personally and can result in fierce defence.
Because they can't bear the thought of someone thinking negatively about them or criticising them, they aim to please everyone. This often results in them being very tired, busy and being very reluctant to say "no" to others.
They rarely give honest feedback because they fear hurting others. This can prevent the intimacy that they actually long for because true intimacy is closely linked to honesty and transparency.
They are unable to retain equal power with authority figures, often unable to defend themselves against injustice or misunderstanding in the presence of authority.
They often put themselves down in conversations. They are actually wanting others to challenge those negative beliefs and provide them with affirmation, but if it does come, they either can't hear it or don't believe it. They often put things off till the last minute. This sometimes stems from the fear of criticism and exposure if they don't "get it right".
They are very vulnerable to depression because so many feelings are buried to avoid the reprimand, punishment, rejection or isolation that will occur if they are honest.
Addictions and compulsive behaviours are common because they can meet a need for comfort without having to ask or rely on someone else. Whatever they rely on for comfort is always there and it will never say "no" or reject them.
They avoid true intimacy with others because it might reveal to someone else how defective and flawed they really are.

As adults in relationships, they seek the unconditional love from their partners that they did not receive as children. They seem to expect their partners to just know what they need and are often unable to ask for what they want. Having needs is considered shameful. Also common is having either very high or very low expectations of themselves and others.
They often feel constantly tired because the persistent feeling of "being watched" or "on guard" requires large amounts of energy along with the effort required fighting off the negative thoughts and feelings. Relaxing and taking care of themselves is often difficult, if not impossible.
Daily living becomes hard work when carrying the burden of shame. The good news is that it is never too late to begin the process of shaking it off and beginning to live life as it was intended.

Hidden sources of Shame

So how does the hidden cancer of the emotions known as shame infiltrate our being?

Children are not born believing that there is something wrong with them. Now before I go any further, I need to say that I am seriously not into parent bashing. With only a few exceptions, most parents I know do the best they can in their circumstances and many offer way more to their own children than they ever received themselves.
Children learn about themselves from the adults in their life. They can only believe in themselves to the degree that they see the adults in believing in them. Some of this learning comes from the words that are spoken to them. It's well known that if a child is told that they are stupid often enough then they will believe it. Another common saying in the past was "What is wrong with you? You should have known better than that. You should be ashamed of yourself!"

What is not easily recognised is the conclusions children reach based on their observations and level of understanding at the time. It stands to reason that children are very good at observing but not very proficient at interpreting what they are observing.

An example of this would be the man whose father was a very hard working farmer. As a child, to spend time with his father he had to go and do what his father was doing on the farm so he grew up believing the farm was more important to his dad than he was. It also worked out that he used to take a lot of responsibility to earn praise but whenever he did a job on the farm; his dad would show him how he could have done it better. While his father thought he was doing the right thing in helping him become the best that he could be, the son actually grew up believing that his father didn't believe in him because whatever he did was not good enough. Now at that age he was not able to consider that there might have been something wrong with the way his father was teaching him so he came to the only conclusion he could and that was that "I am not good enough and there must be something wrong with me."

Another example is the situation of a woman whose own mother had been brought up having to do everything for herself. She felt unloved and uncared for so when she had a daughter of her own, she did everything for her. Unfortunately the daughter grew up not believing in herself either because she thought that if her mother really believed in her she would let her make decisions and do things for herself.
Even a child whose parents are too tired to spend time with them can end up believing that it is their fault. Children do not think as adults do and can easily end up drawing totally wrong conclusions from the information they have available to them.

Strategies to Recovery from Shame

There are three pieces of truth that are critical for there to be any chance of challenging the shame.

The first is that "just because you believe something, doesn't make it true." Look how many people believed that the Earth was flat. It is quite probable that many of those people went to the grave still refusing to believe that it was round even in light of the new evidence.
The concept of imprinting suggests that you will believe the first thing that you learn about any given subject and remain believing it until you go back and take another look at it. If you have shame, you will believe that there is something wrong with you based on the evidence and understanding you had at the time even though it wasn't actually true. Recovery will be partly about changing your mind based on new evidence. Are you prepared to go to the grave believing something that was not actually true?

The second is that "just because you may have been told something lots of times does not make it true." Being told that you are stupid, thick, useless or ugly probably gives more information about the person speaking it than the person on the receiving end of those words. As a child you will naturally believe what you are told, particularly if they were spoken by someone who had authority over you such as a parent, teacher or other significant adult in your life. Again it is necessary to take another look at those words as an adult and ask yourself about the truth.

The third is that "just because you feel something does not make it true." The whole movie industry is based on the concept that your feelings can be totally and absolutely wrong. Watching a movie or DVD can make you sad when you haven't actually lost anyone or anything or totally scared when you are not in the slightest bit of danger. It is your brains' job to assess the feelings and decide whether or not they should be listened to. If you ever travel to the United States or Europe where they drive on the other side of the road and hire a car, then it would not be very wise to drive unless you have the ability to tell your feelings to "sit down, shut up - you are wrong. My brain is running this show." Driving on the side that "feels right" would not be smart. If shame is to be challenged then you will have to go against your feelings. Just because you feel inadequate does not mean that you are inadequate. Just because you feel like a failure does not mean you are a failure.

As a pilot relies on a range of instruments to get through cloud or to a long distance destination so people recovering from shame must learn to trust other instruments or evidence rather than their own feelings or beliefs. What do others who know you well and whose judgement you trust say about you?

People aren't born full of shame – somewhere they learnt that they were not good enough. If something can be learned then it can be unlearned and replaced with the truth. It will take time, motivation and support to establish these new thought patterns and may initially feel like one step forward and two back. Remember driving on the other side of the road in another country feels strange and uncomfortable in the early stages – the possibility of a crash motivates us to persevere!







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