It might masquerade as anger, indifference, or withdrawal. It may show up as perfectionism or control. Its power to morph in to other emotions makes it the master of all illusionists, ensuring it remains hidden in the shadows, dark and unspoken. We go through our lives largely unaware that it is the root cause of most of our destructive behaviour, of most of the struggles we have in our relationships with other people. That emotion is shame.
Shame is rooted in feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy, it is the voice that tells us that we’re failing, that we’re not good enough. It is often confused with guilt but there is an important distinction. With guilt we label a behaviour, something we’ve done, as not being okay; with shame we label ourselves as not being okay.
We encounter shame early on in our lives, often in something as simple as our parents sending us to our room for doing something ‘bad’. As young children we have not yet developed the capacity to separate ourselves from our behaviour, so when we’re told that we’re bad for doing something wrong we’re not able to attribute that label to our behaviour (hitting my friend was a bad thing to do) and instead attribute it to ourselves (I am bad). Because shame is such a painful emotion to feel and because our conscious mind is not yet developed enough to cope with processing that emotion, as children we bury shame deep in our unconscious where it remains through to adulthood, manifesting itself in a range of other emotions and behaviours.
While shame may manifest as anger in both genders there is a key distinction. Men tend to direct their anger outward at others whereas women tend to direct their anger inwards, this is most likely because anger is seen as a more socially acceptable emotion for men than for women.
Anger is often deployed as a kind of shield, used to defend ourselves against shame. If we behave towards someone else in a way that we know is not okay and they call us out on that, in defence of our behaviour it is often anger we turn to to divert attention away from the shame that we’re feeling in that moment. Numerous studies have found a direct correlation between the shame we feel and the anger we direct at others – the more shame we hold inside of us, the more anger we project outward at others.
Have you ever confronted someone about something they did that hurt you only to have them get angry and try and justify their behaviour by listing the things you did to trigger it? Or maybe you yourself have responded that way when someone tried to speak with you about something? Most, if not all of us, will have reacted this way at some point in our lives but what we are probably not aware of is that in trying to attribute blame for our behaviour on to someone else, what we’re really doing is trying to protect ourself by relocating our shame in them so that we don’t have to carry, or be accountable, for it.
There tends to be two different strategies people adopt to deal with feelings of shame. The first is to attack others, lashing out in anger, and becoming defensive, while the second is to turn our attack inward, viewing ourselves as not good enough, and withdrawing. For me, my experiences with shame have almost always resulted in adopting this second strategy and so I want to share with you my most recent experience of this.
About a month ago I joined Instagram and every day I’ve been posting quotes that I’ve either taken from my blog posts or just happen to be the latest thought going round in my head. A close friend made the really helpful comment that one way to grow your Instagram following is to show more of yourself because people connect with people. Now, deep down I did know this but I was bitterly disappointed to have it confirmed because it meant I was going to have to start putting my face out there and I really, really did not want to do that! Why? Because as vain as this is going to make me sound every time I look on Instagram I see these beautiful, polished women with amazingly clear skin, white teeth, and perfect hair who look effortlessly gorgeous and I was ashamed because it’s not effortless for me.
You see I’m more clumsy and awkward than polished, my skin always has a ruddy tinge to it, my teeth aren’t all that white, my hair requires the religious use of hair straighteners and at the first sign of rain or humidity seems to frizz and triple in volume (leaving me resembling something less like a goddess and something closer to Mufasa in the Lion King), my nose is slightly crooked due to an accident a few years back and my face isn’t symmetrical. It takes me at least 10 attempts to get a good selfie shot, (I mean, is that not the saddest thing you’ve ever heard, that I actually use up most of my phone battery trying to get a good shot of myself?!), and someone at work recently told me that one of my ears looks so elvish that it could belong to Arwen in Lord of the Rings. Oh and I have a slightly lazy eye. I mean I am literally a photographers worst nightmare!!
So here I am, with this dream of having a blog, of using it to connect in with others, to be inspired by their stories, hopes, dreams, and struggles and hopefully, in turn, to inspire them with mine, and I’m too ashamed to put my face out there because I don’t think I’m pretty enough for Instagram. I know that probably sounds like a ridiculously shallow example but what I’m trying to illustrate is that the shame we carry often runs so deep that it causes us to retreat and withdraw from the world. It stops us from putting ourselves out there, stops us from pursuing our passions, goals, and dreams, stops us from living our best life.
Shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown, describes perfectionism as “a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feeling of shame.” Perfectionism is the pursuit of flawlessness in one, or many, domains of our lives. It is the relentless striving for an unattainable ideal in an attempt to cover up, or escape from, the shame we carry that we’re not good enough as we are.
While perfectionists are often prone to being critical of others, their harshest criticism is reserved for themselves. It may seem logical to think that perfectionists are the most likely to have the perfect life, but the reverse is often true. Their high standards and deep seated belief that they are unworthy, means they often remain paralysed, unable to move forward for fear that they will fail. Their need to try and control their outer environment, to keep everything looking perfect, reflects the inner turmoil, mess, and chaos they feel inside.
Control and shame go hand in hand because it’s control that protects us from feeling things we don’t want to feel and addressing things we don’t want to address; in that way control serves as somewhat of a protective mechanism against things we don’t want to face.
Those who express their shame as control generally do so as a way of avoiding having to confront the hurt and pain they carry inside of them, if they keep their inner world tightly contained and their outer world tightly controlled then they can fool themselves in to thinking that everything is okay. Like perfectionism, control is an emotional straightjacket that keeps us both in pain, and yet at the same time, unwilling to delve in to, and heal, the wounds of our past that have caused us to carry that pain.
How to Shut Shame Down
The first thing we need to do is to recognise when we’re feeling shame. We may not realise that there are often physical and emotional warning signs such as insomnia, headaches, stomaches, anxiety, panic attacks, and shortness of breath, to name but a few, that may accompany feelings of shame.
The second step is to recognise what our default response is to shame. Linda M. Hartling, Director of Human Dignity and Humiliation studies, suggests that there are three types of responses: moving away from others (withdrawing), moving toward others (people pleasing and appeasing), and moving against others (using anger and aggression). If we’re able to identify which category we fit in to then we have a better chance of being able to pause and reflect before we respond.
Being willing to be vulnerable and sharing our feelings of shame with someone we trust is the next important step. Shame cannot survive when met with empathy – if we tell someone we trust that we did or said something we’re ashamed of and they respond with empathy, the sense of shame we feel lessens and eventually dies. On the other hand, employing one of the above shame masks only serves to water the plant and allow it to continue growing so being vulnerable and naming what we’ve done takes away shames power.
Finally we must have compassion for ourselves and our humanness, to acknowledge that we are going to make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are going to hurt people we love. What we need to understand when we mess up is that it is often not the mistake that does the real damage, it is our unwillingness to own it as our mistake.
We must change the narrative we carry around inside of us that says if we do something wrong that who we are is somehow wrong, We need to stop meeting shame with shame and start making it safe both for ourselves, and others, to speak about the actions and behaviours we’re not proud of and to meet these with love, empathy, and compassion. In the words of Brene Brown: “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”