If we suffered significant childhood trauma it is likely we were not instilled with an adequate sense of self-acceptance or self-assurance when we were young. Perhaps we were made to feel inadequate and inherently flawed as individuals.
Such feelings can extend well into our adult lives, or, without therapy, last the whole of our lives.
As a result, we may have been led to over-focus, and exaggerate in our own minds, any weaknesses we have and any mistakes we make, perhaps, even, to the point of obsession.
Now, as adults, as a result of such a childhood, it is possible we have developed a highly self-deprecating personality – this can mean, for example, we find it very hard to accept compliments. Furthermore, we may :
– downplay our achievements and accomplishments
– feel embarrassed if someone refers to our achievements and accomplishments
– become obsessed with mistakes we make
– believe that if someone praises us they do not really mean it but are just trying to be kind
– feel that compliments given to us are not really warranted and that we don’t really deserve them
– even if we do very well at something, we may very well tend to focus on why we did not achieve perfection; this leads us to the next section :
If unreasonable demands were made of us as children, we may find that, as adults, we need to get everything ‘perfectly right’; this is likely to be a largely unconscious attempt to finally gain parental approval and acceptance.
However, this leads us to set standards for ourselves that are unrealistic and impossible for us to meet. For example, we might be obsessed with ensuring that nothing we do ever goes wrong, that we can always fully meet the needs of others who are dependent upon us, and that, if we fail in such areas, we must be ‘deeply flawed individuals.
However, because it is impossible to go through life without ever making mistakes, taking wrong decisions, or making the wrong choices, we frequently become filled with intense feelings of self-reproach.
Setting ourselves impossibly unrealistic targets means we become far too demanding of ourselves and, therefore, we find ourselves constantly criticizing ourselves and being disappointed in ourselves for failing always to meet our self-imposed, highly exacting demands.
SHAME AND GUILT:
The feelings, beliefs, and behaviors described above are likely to have arisen because we were made to feel shame and guilt when we failed to be perfect as children – it is likely that our parent/parents/primary carer made us feel that we were ‘never quite good enough and that we were a constant source of disappointment.
As adults, then, we have displaced our parent’s/parents’ unreasonable expectations of us onto our current relationships with others. Insight into this problem is the first step to freeing us from our perpetual, unreasonable self-demands
SHAME AND ITS AGONIZING EFFECTS:
There are 3 main types of shame:
1) INTERNAL SHAME
2) EXTERNAL SHAME
3) REFLECTED SHAME
I define these three types of shame below:
Internal Shame: this is a sense of shame we feel about ourselves.
External Shame: this is when we perceive that others have a very low view of us which makes us feel ashamed.
Reflected Shame: this is when we feel shame vicariously due to how someone else connected to us has behaved, such as a family member or a member of a group with which we identify.
Often, a sense of internal shame and external shame co-exist within the same person. However, in the case of shame related to childhood trauma, we may (irrationally) feel a strong sense of internal shame even though we can accept that others are not negatively evaluating us as a result of what happened to us (i.e. there is an absence of external shame).
Feelings of shame can be excruciatingly painful; at their worst, they can cause us to completely isolate ourselves so that we avoid contact with others to the extent that we may become virtual recluses, perhaps only daring to venture out of our house or flat when absolutely necessary. Indeed, the word ‘shame‘ derives from the Indian word ‘sham‘ which means ‘to hide.’
When we feel ashamed we feel very negatively about ourselves and believe we are, to put it simply, a deeply bad person. We also tend to assume that others are judging us in a similarly disparaging manner. The sensation of shame also frequently involves feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, incompetence, self-disgust, self-hatred, anxiety, anger, bodily tension, nausea, and sweating/feeling too hot.
Because of our own jaundiced and self-lacerating view of ourselves, we assume others will feel the same way about us (or soon will do once they ‘discover’ what a ‘horrible and disgusting’ person we are). We, therefore, avoid trying to form close relationships, believing such efforts to be futile given that we will ‘inevitably be rejected’ once the ‘real’ us is ‘discovered.’
We may also try to psychologically defend ourselves from deep-rooted feelings of shame. For example, we may become preoccupied with managing a superficial image of ourselves when interacting with others which we desperately hope will keep ‘our true badness‘ concealed; this can lead to the creation of a ‘false self’ which precludes any chance of authentic or meaningful interaction with others (in other words, we ‘become afraid to be who we are’). Or we may develop ‘workaholism’(in a desperate attempt to compensate for the profound inner feelings of inadequacy and inferiority that may accompany a pervasive sense of shame). Unfortunately, however, ’workaholism’ is an extremely precarious way of maintaining some semblance of self-respect and self-esteem as we tend to continually set ourselves targets which, inevitably, we sometimes fail to achieve. We are then highly vulnerable to suffering a catastrophic collapse in our sense of self-worth as it has not been built upon strong enough, nor sustainable, foundations.
Other psychological defense mechanisms against intense feelings of shame that are so unbearable they need to be banished from conscious awareness but, unfortunately, will continue to fester in the dark recesses of the unconscious mind are, according to the psychoanalyst, Joseph Burgo, PhD., are:
Let’s look at each of these defense 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 center 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 defense 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.
There is evidence to suggest that COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THERAPY (CBT) and COMPASSION FOCUSED THERAPY (CFT) may be of particular benefit to those suffering from distress connected to the experience of a negative self-view and shame. The difference between CBT and CFT is that whilst CBT focuses mainly on how an individual thinks and how his/her style of thinking might be unhelpful (due to what CBT therapists sometimes refer to as ‘cognitive errors’ or ‘cognitive distortions’), CFT is more inclined to focus on the feelings and emotions that underlie such thoughts.