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.’
What Is Shame?
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.
Effects On Relationships :
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.’
Other Possible Effects Of Shame :
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’).
– perfectionism / ‘workaholism’ (in a desperate attempt to compensate for the profound inner feelings of inadequacy and inferiority that may accompany a pervasive sense of shame).’Workaholism’ and perfectionism are both extremely precarious ways 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.
Differentiating Between Three Types Of Shame :
We can differentiate between three specific types of shame. These are :
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 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).
THE SHAME LOOP :
Scheff (1990) proposes that in response to a childhood in which we were persistently shamed to a significant degree we can become trapped in a SHAME LOOP in which :
- (Stage one) shame becomes internalized and cannot be discharged which, in turn, leads to :
- (Stage two) feeling shame for feeling ashamed, which results in :
- (Stage three) the feelings of shame intensifying; this builds up even greater feelings of shame being fed back into the shame loop so that :
- Stage one is reactivated with still greater destructive energy and the cycle, in the absence of effective therapeutic intervention, is reinvigorated.
RELUCTANCE TO SEEK TREATMENT :
And, as you might guess because individuals feel shame for feeling ashamed, they find it very hard indeed to confide in others about what they perceive as their ‘dark secret’, thus failing to seek professional help and compounding their problems.
DEFENCES AGAINST INTENSE FEELINGS OF SHAME :
Nathanson (1992) identified four main ways in which an individual may respond to feelings of shame in an attempt (conscious or unconscious) to defend and protect him/herself from the emotional suffering such feelings can evoke.
The Four Defenses Against Shame :
Nathanson proposed that the main four defence mechanisms employed against shame (which he believed to be largely learned in early childhood to protect the self from intolerable feelings) are :
- attack self
- attack others
Nathanson also suggests that whilst individuals may employ more than one of the above defences against shame (depending upon the particular conditions which have given rise to feelings of shame) they tend to have a kind of ‘default mode’ (i.e. a specific main defensive strategy against shame) which they most frequently rely upon.
The Compass Of Shame :
Nathanson referred to the above four defences against shame (withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, attack others) as making up what he referred to as ‘The Compass Of Shame‘. He further explained that all four defences were best seen as existing on a continuum running from ‘mild’ to ‘extreme’.
So, for example, a ‘mild’ enactment of withdrawal is the aversion of one’s gaze whereas, at the ‘extreme’ end of the spectrum, one might withdraw from others completely and live in a wooden hut in the forest as a hermit.
The Continuums :
So now let’s briefly look at the four continuums upon which the four shame defences lie :
1) DEFENCE AGAINST SHAME: WITHDRAWAL
MILD END OF CONTINUUM: slumped shoulders, looking downwards, blushing, covering mouth with the hand, staying silent, averted gaze, chronic loneliness
EXTREME END OF CONTINUUM: physical, cognitive and emotional withdrawal, isolation, depression, retreat into ‘own internal world’, chronic loneliness, presentation of only a false and superficial self to the world, hypersensitivity to rejection and criticism (particularly criticism of character)
2) DEFENCE AGAINST SHAME: ATTACK SELF
MILD END OF CONTINUUM: deferential behaviour, modesty, shyness, self-deprecating humour
MIDDLE OF CONTINUUM: self-sabotage, self-neglect, self-humiliation, self-effacement, obsequiousness, subservience
EXTREME END OF CONTINUUM: self-hatred, self-disgust, self-contempt, masochism, self-debasement, self-harm (e.g. cutting self, burning self with cigarettes etc), suicidal ideation / suicidal behaviour
3) DEFENCE AGAINST SHAME: AVOIDANCE
MILD END OF CONTINUUM: self-deception, disowned shame, self-deprecating charm, impostor syndrome
MIDDLE OF CONTINUUM: ostentatious behaviour/displays of wealth (jewellery, clothes etc.) arrogance, competitiveness, thrill-seeking / risk-taking, hedonism, perfectionism,
EXTREME END OF CONTINUUM: pathological lying, narcissism, grandiosity, self-aggrandisement, addictions (e.g excessive use of alcohol, obsessive sexual activity,
4) DEFENCE AGAINST SHAME: ATTACK OTHERS
MILD END OF CONTINUUM: teasing, put-downs, banter
MIDDLE OF CONTINUUM: bullying, humiliated fury, rage
EXTREME END OF CONTINUUM: violence
Whilst some of the above defences against shame are clearly healthier than others, even these mostly fail to fully alleviate deeply entrenched shameful feelings – in such cases, therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy and compassion-focused therapy can be of significant benefit.
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Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self: Affect, Sex and the Birth of Self Kindle Edition (1994).
Scheff, T. J. (1990). Microsociology: Discourse, emotion, and social structure. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.