Effects Of Repressed Shame :
We have seen in other articles published on this site that if we have experienced significant childhood trauma we may, as adults, develop profound feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, self-hatred, rock-bottom self-esteem, feelings of being ‘innately bad’ and irrational self-blame for what we experienced. This pernicious brew of feelings about the self can devastate every area of our lives and cause us to live with a deep, abiding sense of shame.
Because feelings of such shame are so psychologically painful to live with, some individuals may develop certain psychological defence mechanisms (the cause of which is generally unconscious) in order to banish them from conscious awareness into the dark recesses of the unconscious where they simmer and fester.
According to the psychoanalyst, Joseph Burgo, PhD., the three main types of defence mechanisms we may unconsciously be driven to employ in a desperate attempt to avoid feeling this shame are as follows:
Let’s look at each of these defence mechanisms in turn.
Narcissists have a relentless and desperate need to prove to both themselves and others that they are superior. They crave admiration from others and aspire to make themselves the object of great envy.
They feel that they must perpetually be the centre of attention and may be driven to achieve, or attempt to achieve, high social status (including ‘social climbing’), earning a high salary, and seeking positions of power.
Or they may always try to appear cleverer, wittier or more interesting than those around them (although these attempts, especially if perceived as desperate, generally serve only to annoy, irritate and alienate others, as opposed to enthralling them).
They tend, too, to treat others as if they are beneath them. However, their view of themselves as superior beings is often strongly out of kilter with reality – in other words, they may suffer something approaching delusions of grandeur. Indeed, they may provoke comments from others such as the following (overused) one: Who does she think she is? The Queen of Sheeba?’ Or others may regard them as a prima donna.
To reiterate, this constant need to view themselves as superior is a desperate attempt to avoid coming face-to-face with who they (deep down) believe they really are, as fully experiencing such a deep sense of worthlessness and shame is psychologically intolerable to them.
Because acceptance of failure would cause the individual who feels worthless and inadequate in the core of his/her being, and who needs to keep these feelings repressed, s/he cannot tolerate criticism and will shift the blame onto others when things go wrong. Such individuals may also be perfectionists.
Another defence mechanism an individual may utilize in an attempt to keep feelings of shame buried in the unconscious is to ‘look down’ on others and to see them as inferior beings to be mocked or pitied. Such individuals may relish the humiliation of others and delight in their failures. The more s/he can view others as beneath him/her, the more effectively s/he can keep his/her own profound feelings of inferiority and shame at bay.
The Role Of Therapy:
Psychoanalysis can help the individual realize that his/her core feelings of inadequacy and shame, hitherto largely unconscious, were caused by his/her childhood trauma that the trauma was not his/her fault and by absolutely no means s/he is inferior, worthless, or, in any way whatsoever, needs to feel ashamed. Under the supervision of a skilled therapist, this can cause the individual’s dysfunctional defence mechanisms to start to melt away so that s/he may start to live an altogether more authentic life.
3 Ways Deep Feelings Of Shame Effect THe Nervous System And Our Behaviour:
INTERNALIZATION DURING CHILDHOOD :
I have described in several other articles that I have published on this site that if we were treated during our childhood by our parents / primary caretakers in an abusive fashion (e.g. made to feel worthless, unlovable, unwanted, inadequate, fundamentally flawed etc.) we are likely to internalize a very negative view of ourselves and, without appropriate therapy, go through life having to endure profound and pervasive feelings of shame that can severely impair our quality of life by making us feel unwanted wherever we go and of less worth than others (Pattison).
PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSES TO SHAME :
In physiological terms, we respond to shame a similar fashion to how we respond to feelings of fear, danger and threat. In evolutionary terms, this response has come about because the perception of shame is linked to the fear of social rejection and ostracization which could, literally, threaten our distant ancestors’ ability to survive; therefore, to be rejected from the group could be fatal.
In the modern-day, of course, social rejection and ostracization are unlikely to prove fatal (unless, of course, it drives us to suicide) but our nervous systems still respond to perceived shame as it did for our ancestors i.e. feelings of shame are equated with being in danger and, as a consequence, the SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM IS ACTIVATED AND WE ENTER THE FIGHT / FLIGHT / FREEZE STATE.
In this state, the body is biologically prepared to deal with danger by either PHYSICALLY FIGHTING or RUNNING AWAY. However, as I have said, this response evolved to help our ancestors and is seldom appropriate in relation to modern-day shame-inducing scenarios so, instead of physically fighting, we may become extremely angry and verbally aggressive (although in extreme cases a person might become physically violent) or hide away (e,g, by not leaving the house, avoiding people etc. – in extreme cases, a person might move to another town, country or, if things are particularly bad, perhaps, continent). This feeling of wanting to hide and escape is encapsulated fairly well by the expression: ‘I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me’ and, of course, by actions such as covering one’s face with one’s hands or averting one’s gaze away from others / looking down at the ground. To reiterate, all these shame responses are directly linked to the activation of our sympathetic nervous system and the potential danger to which our brains are alerted.
However, our most common response to shame is the FREEZE response (which involves part of the nervous system shutting down) because we can’t properly metabolize our feelings of shame via the fight or flight responses. This freeze response can give rise to various unpleasant symptoms such as dissociation, derealization and depersonalization. In this state, we feel trapped, powerless and completely unable to help ourselves or change our situation. It can also deprive us of our ability to think clearly which Nathanson refers to as ‘cognitive shock’ – cognitive shock is a state of panic involving a desperate need to hide from or conceal our shame and stops us from being able to think in a rational way or to exercise moral reasoning (Nathason).
To reiterate: all three reactions to shame, i.e. fight, flight and freeze, are physiological repercussions to being in ‘survival mode’ due to perceived danger. When we are in ‘survival mode’, because all our mental and physiological resources are focused on, in effect, ‘keeping ourselves alive,’ it is almost impossible for us to feel empathy for others.
Shame pervades our very sense of identity, making us feel intrinsically worthless as a person, Furthermore, we are highly liable to ‘feeling ashamed of feeling ashamed‘, creating a vicious cycle whereby shame feeds off shame. (You may wish to read more about this in my previously published article about a phenomenon known as THE SHAME LOOP.)
Because being conscious of our own shame can be exquisitely painful, we sometimes repress it (i.e. block it out of conscious awareness) and protect ourselves from its poisonous effects by employing psychological defence mechanisms. According to Nathanson, four such defences we use against shame are :
- shameful withdrawal
- masochistic submission
- narcissistic avoidance of shame
- the rage of wounded pride
HEALTH EFFECTS OF CHRONIC SHAME :
I stated at the beginning of this article that feelings of chronic shame can stem from an abusive childhood, and it is also associated with PTSD, complex PTSD, social anxiety, body dysmorphic disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
There is also research existing to suggest that chronic shame can lead to :
- eating disorders
- narcissistic rage leading to violence and antisocial behaviour
- weight gain
And, research suggests, because chronic shame is such a powerfully negative emotion, it can increase the level of stress an individual experiences leading to increases in the body of the stress hormone cortisol which, in turn, can impair both cardiovascular health and the immune system.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).