How many times did you hear growing up that “You should be ashamed of yourself!”? We had done something wrong and should have known better, and so part of our scolding included our parents making sure we felt shame hoping that would keep us from making the same mistake again. Most learned that concept so well, that we still say as adults, that “I feel so ashamed”. Most of us mean we feel embarrassed. We hope no one, or very few people find out. We certainly wouldn’t want anyone to judge us, think less of us, lose respect for us, or criticize us.
For some of us, these experiences and this type of shame is not a big deal and did not damage us. But for a great many, shame was an everyday occurrence and became a very common feeling and experience. Some of you can distinctly remember giving up trying to please your parents and saying that “they’re never satisfied”, or “it’ll never be enough, no matter what I do or how hard I try”. Even when you did well, it wasn’t enough. If you came in second place in a race, it should have first place, if you got a “B+”, it should have been an “A”. Many parents compared their children to other children, pointing out how they didn’t measure up; weren’t as pretty, or as smart, weighed too much and needed to lose weight, until the point that you learned all too well to spend your life comparing yourself to others, and never feeling like you measure up. It has become the negative lens you see yourself through. You do not know any other perspective and you don’t believe anyone else’s opinion.
How could anyone develop a healthy self-esteem and self-worth when all they received was negative feedback? Low self-esteem depletes any motivation to learn, grow, improve, or overcome an obstacle. Eventually a “f–k it” attitude takes over and you no longer care what anyone thinks nor what consequences ensue. Shame is now controlling your life and your decisions. You’ve given up! You have lost any hope of things improving.
This is when adolescents turn to drugs and alcohol, drop out of activities and quit sports teams, and start hanging out with the wrong crowd. Melody Beattie, author of a daily meditation book called “The Language of Letting Go”, (and “Codependent No More”), states that “shame can be extremely debilitating and can propel us deeper into self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors” (page 34). This is a very difficult and painful place to end up. Without proper help to interrupt such behavior and motivate the person to change, it will continue throughout adulthood.
Of course not everyone reacts as drastically to shame and they remain much more functional, but unhappy in certain areas of life, especially relationships. For most people, shame is very misunderstood and in many cases goes unidentified. Many people do not know that it is shame that is holding them back and causing them their pain. Shame can be a very powerful force in our life. Shame starts in childhood and continues into our adult life infesting our relationships and our capacity to interact with others.
Becoming aware of shame is the first thing necessary in order to heal from it. There are many books written on shame and the damage it causes. John Bradshaw calls shame “toxic” in his book, “Healing the Shame that Binds You” (1988). There is another book called “Shame: Spiritual Suicide” (written by Vicki Underland–Roscow 1995). Doesn’t that title say at all?!
Shame versus Guilt
Another very important distinction is to understand the difference between shame and guilt. Basically, “shame” is “I am bad” and “guilt” is “I did something bad”. Shame defines us as a bad person and guilt defines a specific behavior that needs to be adjusted. With shame there is an overwhelming sense that who we are is not okay. Isn’t it too bad that so many parents, teachers, coaches, didn’t understand this difference?! Shame disempowers us leaving us feeling unworthy and unlovable, and guilt empowers us to change.
The book “Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise”, written by Jane Middleton-Moz, states “there is more personal power in the experience of guilt.” Even though we feel guilty for what we have done, we have control over future choices. However, when we experience shame, we feel “helplessness and powerlessness” (pg 55).
Melody Beattie defines “authentic legitimate guilt” as the “feeling or thought that what we did is not okay. It indicates that our behavior needs to be corrected and an amends needs to be made”. (Beattie, pg 34). Making the decision to change a behavior and to make amends is a personal choice made possible because you feel your power to do so. It provides relief from the guilt, liberating us and healing can take place.
Middleton-Moz points out that when we experience guilt, we fear punishment, when we experience shame, we fear abandonment. The guilt is resolved by fulfilling the punishment and making amends, but the fear of abandonment ensues. When we experience guilt, we blame our behavior, when we experience shame, we blame our character, further perpetuating our feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. Each time we are shamed, we are wounded and our self-esteem suffers (pg 55, 56). The more we fear abandonment and rejection, the harder we try to please others, especially our parents, denying our own feelings, especially anger, and internalizing the pain. We deny who we are, our needs and desires, and fail to develop a strong sense of self. We feel unlovable and our need for approval persists, and we become willing to do or say anything to receive approval, avoid judgment and criticism, and potentially rejection and abandonment.
In order to change the quality of our life and break the pain cycle of shame, we must stop attaching to it just because it’s familiar. Melody Beattie encourages us to learn to “reject shame”. We must learn to accept that it’s okay to be who we are, that we are good enough, that feelings are okay, and that it’s okay to have problems, make mistakes, and struggle to find our path!! (This is worth repeating to yourself every day!) In doing so, we accept our past; the family dysfunction, the abuse, the trauma, and stop letting it define us. (pg 34).
We must accept our humanness! Accepting ourselves and letting go of shame are the beginning of journey of recovery of “self”.
Written by: Giselle Belanger, RN, LCSW (psychotherapist) Available for appointments in person, by phone, or by Skype or Facetime. Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org , Mex cell: (322) 138-9552 or US cell: (312) 914-5203.