You won’t find “disorders of shame” as a category in the DSM-5 (the official American catalogue over mental health diagnoses), and yet shame is probably the biggest single cause of most of our psychological problems.
Shame is often the secret engine that get us started on a path of disordered eating, makes us feel bad about our bodies, causes us to be depressed or have social anxiety, makes us engage in pathological lying, leads us to feel lonely and empty in our relationships with others, and makes us escape into addictions of all kinds.
Shame: A Personal Story
When I was first starting out in this business and had to learn to market my private psychology practice, I had a very shameful experience.
I had been invited to a radio show to talk about my views of therapy. Thinking that this would be an excellent opportunity to plug my practice, I spoke at length about how listeners could contact me, and sought to market my website and my blog. After the show was over, the radio host did not realize that he was still on air as he turned to his assistant and bad-mouthed me for being so self-promoting. My initial reaction was one of embarrassment. The radio host had seen me and judged me in a way that was not flattering, and had pronounced it to the world. He had attributed qualities to me that I both recognized as somewhat true and felt were undesirable and incongruent with how I would want to be seen. In spite of this, the experience was probably most shameful for the radio host who had been caught off guard in a role that put his professionalism into question. He too must have felt ashamed that these private thoughts had now been broadcast to the world and to his radio show guest.
The example illustrates well what shame is really about. It is about being seen by others in a way we do not want to be seen and in a way that make others pass negative judgment on us.
The initial reaction that comes with shame is the urge to hide or run away. We feel as if we would rather cease to exist for a period of time as evidenced by the expression: to “die of shame”. And yet, if all goes well, we learn through these experiences to adjust our behaviors to become more acceptable to others: to be less self-promoting, or be more careful about what we say and when we say it. In short, we learn from our mistakes, and forgive ourselves and forgive others for their faux-passes.
Shame, in this way, is not altogether bad. In fact, without out it, we would not be able to adjust or regulate our behaviors to the socially acceptable norms, and would not be able to coexist with others.
The Benefits of Shame:
Shame makes us inhibit ourselves to preserve and protect social bonds. It is what makes people not just prattle on endlessly about themselves at a party, and it is what makes us “get a hint” when someone politely brushes us off. In this way it makes us able to function in our society without getting shunned or bothering others too much. Some people who have too little shame, may in fact find it very difficult to get along with others and may feel shunned and rejected in their lives, without quite knowing why.
Shame only becomes disordered when it over-functions or over-regulates our behavior. Instead of becoming a learning experience about the particular norms of a situation, it may instead become a permanent mark on our personality or a permanent rejection of some aspect of who we are. Instead of just becoming the occasion of embarrassment, it may turn into a more permanent sense of ourselves as bad, wrong, repugnant, or unlovable.
The wish to hide now gets attached to an aspect of the self, which we can no longer allow others to see because it would be mortifying for that to happen. We may become ashamed of our body, our sexual desire, our need for others, our desire for independence, or any number of other things. When the shame is really deep, we can’t even access these attributes of ourselves without confusing them with our judgment of them. I may for example refer to any consideration for myself and what I need as a sign of “selfishness”, I may think of sex as inherently “bad” or “dirty", or I may think of a healthy ability to rely on others as “being needy” or “weak”.
The more powerful my experience of shame, the more I have a need to hide those aspects from others, and even from myself. A part of who I am or how I feel must now be disowned, silenced, or hidden at all cost, and I essentially become estranged from a part of myself.
The problem with this desire to push aspects of myself away is that my shame continues to exercise influence even when it is disowned or goes unacknowledged.
Unhealthy Ways of Dealing with Shame:
Whenever who we want to be begins to diverge from who we inherently are, the result is almost always some form of psychopathology.
Many people with histories of shame develop an obsession with becoming someone other than who they are. Their entire life may now become a flight from self and a desire to merge with an ideal image of themselves. They want to be free from blemishes and embarrassing traits, but can only hope to achieve this by cutting off a part of who they are.
Unfortunately, the solution they are seeking and the problem they are trying to escape, are two sides of the same coin. The more I pursue my aspiration to become other than myself, the more I increase my judgment on who I really am. Shame and the pursuit of overcoming shame are thus often one and the same.
The problem is of course that I cannot run away from my past, nor can I heal the wounds of shame by simple trying to run away from myself. Shame will always follow me as my shadow, unless I attend to it and address its root cause.
No amount of money in the future can ever heal the wounds of childhood of someone who grew up poor and was teased and ostracized by his classmates, and no amount of self-sacrifice can ever heal the shame of someone who adopted the belief that their lack of love for their parents was what led to their parents divorce.
If we want to overcome our shame, the cure does not lie in ridding ourselves of our shameful attributes, but rather in learning to accept who we really are.
The Cure for Shame:
The antidote to shame is love and self-compassion. However, since shame is such an interpersonal experience and is tied to how we view ourselves in relation to others, simply reciting self-affirmations or telling ourselves we love ourselves, will not produce any real results.
Since shame was created through an emotional experience originating in a social encounter, or was internalized from messages we received from others about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, the cure for shame must be “a corrective emotional experience”. Love for oneself has to come from the experience of being lovable or acceptable to others. One has to be able to open up to others, to show oneself as one is, and to experience that others can still love and accept one in one’s most vulnerable and exposed state.
This corrective experience is in large part what therapy is about. Therapy helps create the safety and trust to reveal ever more of who one truly is from underneath the layers of social pretense. Sometimes this means getting in touch with facets of one’s experience, which are even foreign to oneself, since one has spent most of one’s energy repressing them in order to fit in and become what one thinks others want one to be.
Ironically, the greatest change in oneself and how one feels about oneself, doesn’t come from changing who one is, but rather from truly becoming who one is. Too many people are embroiled in battles of self-improvement that are nothing but concealed manifestations of an underlying shame. The distance between who one truly is and who one feels a need to be in order to fit in, be normal, or be acceptable, is often the culprit of many of the psychological problems that people report with in therapy, and is often what needs to be dealt with if a person is going to experience lasting peace and happiness in their life.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, Texas who helps people get to the root of their psychological problems, so they can experience real change and not just temporary gains.