Shame is an insidious little animal sneaking into dwelling places and infesting them with unsanitary conditions.
I am quite intimate with shame. At times it is like an old familiar coat that I can’t seem to relinquish. It causes me to contract, to take back words I’ve expressed and to feel like putting the covers over my head.
By itself, shame is simply an emotion meant to alter our behavior in some way. For instance, think of a young child experimenting with her vocal chords. There is nothing wrong or sinful about a toddler loving to make noise. Yet to the adults in the room, the racket she is making can be irritating and disruptive. Thus, as she gets older and develops language to express her needs, adults start to censor the spontaneous noises she makes that are a pain to listen to. Chances are, she is shushed or scolded at times and as a result, might feel shame.
There is no way around this process because shame serves as a regulatory device and helps ensure our survival. Without shame, we would never check our impulses and might run the risk of being kicked out of our family, village or tribe due to unrestrained behavior. However, because we first experience shame when we’re little, we lack the cognitive development to understand why we are being scolded, laughed at, or told to stop doing something. Thus, we often internalize shame and equate it with being bad ourselves. If nothing eventually challenges this perception, we may over identify with shame and internalize it in unhealthy ways.
There is nothing pleasant about this feeling. Whether we feel shame because we’ve done something wrong, or something others find wrong, or because we feel embarrassed by some aspect of our identity or lives, it is not a fun emotion to experience. Psychiatrist Don Nathanson differentiates shame from guilt saying, “Whereas shame is about the quality of our person or self, guilt is the painful emotion triggered when we are aware that we have acted in a way to bring harm to another person or to violate some important code. Guilt is about action and laws.”
Used constructively, shame can serve us. For instance, studies in neuroplasticity reveal that our brains use sensory input from errors and mistakes to help us learn. The information is short circuited, most likely from fear and shame to alarm us. What we then do with that information is left to our free will, but regardless, we are wired to respond to shame. It operates as an evolutionary function.
Where we can get into trouble is when we don’t interpret the incoming data and use it constructively. Then one of two things typically happens. First, we can become mired in the feeling of shame yet not use it to motivate us. This is like a car getting stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels. Shame can literarily consume us where we let it become part of our identity, yet take no corrective action.
Likewise, there is an aspect of shame that occurs when things happen beyond our control. For instance, on a simple level, think about the childhood tale of the Ugly Duckling. In the story, a swan egg rolls into a nest of duck eggs. Upon hatching, the swan looks nothing like the ducks and as a result is terribly ridiculed. What I find striking about the story is that the Ugly Duckling didn’t do anything to deserve being ostracized. Yet because of being scapegoated, he was filled with deep shame, as if he had done something wrong. What happened to him was totally beyond his control. Therefore, one of the key factors related to shame is that the feeling often manifests with an awareness of our essential vulnerability. We get by, from moment to moment, by creating an illusion of safety. Then when something happens to prove our perceptions of the world to be wrong, we experience a deep disappointment that we often attribute to our own failure or the result of a deep personal flaw.
I imagine the Ugly Duckling initially assumed his family would love him because according to his perception, families are supposed to love and nurture their members. When the whole earth trembles, we can experience a similar disillusionment regardless of the situation. Whether our lover betrays us, a family member dies, or our retirement savings gets wiped out in a day, it feels like having the rug pulled out from underneath us. When our ideas about love or life don’t measure up, we can feel ashamed that our perceptions of security proved false. We might also feel that those who failed us should be ashamed of their contribution to our misfortune. All of a sudden, we realize the perceptions we once had cannot guarantee control and this can feel utterly terrifying. In this way, shame represents an essential wound that we all wrestle with throughout our lives.
A friend of mine recently said, “Shame is an addiction. Not only that, it rears its head when we don’t want to sit in the ambiguity of life and the unknown.” And whether you call it Satan or the ego, when shame is lurking, one of the former have the upper hand. To fight its presence, I have to call on something far bigger than myself and to remember that when I’m feeling like I’m an Ugly Duckling, perhaps I’m actually a swan.