Understanding emotions, being able to observe them in ourselves, and knowing the information they give us is an important part of living effectively. For example, fear tells us to take action or freeze to protect ourselves. When fear is based on true facts versus imagined or misinterpreted information, that message to self-protect can be lifesaving. That message is perfectly clear — you are in danger.
Sometimes, though, the message our emotions are giving us is more difficult to understand. That’s true of shame.
Webster defines shame as the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, and ridiculous done by oneself or another. It is a kind of injury to one’s pride or self-respect.
I don’t think Webster has really experienced deep shame, or at least he didn’t succeed in capturing words that describe the intense pain that shame creates. That pain is physical in many ways. Distinctive physical responses such as looking down and blushing, combined with the wish to hide or escape from others is part of the shame response. Perhaps desperate to escape from the judgment of others, rather than wishing to escape, might be a better description.
Your face gets warm, your head drops and your chest becomes heavy. You may feel like you are getting smaller and smaller and may feel like a young child. Shame is the belief that you are defective as a human being. Shame is the idea that you are wrong as a person, flawed and un-fixable. (Efon and Efon, 1987). Shame can feel like exposure to others, and is often believed that the reasons for your shame will destroy all that you value.
Shame involves feelings of helplessness, incompetence, inferiority, and powerlessness and generates a desire to escape or avoid contact with others as well as conceal deficiencies. Shame means pretending, wearing a mask to prevent others from realizing how flawed the person is. Shame can be a constant, nagging sense of unworthiness, of being flawed. The constant fear of being “found out” is exhausting.
The Purpose of Shame
Given the intense pain shame can cause, what purpose does shame serve? The research literature offers contradictory ideas. While some researchers see no positive purpose for shame, others see it as the emotion that holds our moral compass and ensures we abide by the norms of the society we live in. Fear of being “kicked” out of an important group or ostracized might facilitate going by the rules of that group. Avoiding shame is believed by some to encourage cooperative behaviors with a group, a result that could be important to the survival of the group.
Fear of shame may help people go slowly in opening themselves up to others and that could be helpful in protecting them from trusting too soon before they know the other person is trustworthy. Perhaps those are reasons for the existence of shame.
Justified and Unjustified Shame
Shame means believing you are flawed as a human being to the point you believe that you will be shunned and abandoned and perhaps lose all that you cherish if others know the truth about you. There is justified shame and unjustified shame. Shame is justified when you would be kicked out of a group that is critical for your survival. Unjustified shame means that you fear being ostracized and kicked out of an important group when in reality that is not likely to happen. (Linehan 2011).
Let’s say you steal money to buy a new car you don’t really need. You steal the money from your charity organization who raised the funds to buy food for the homeless. You are employed by this charity, it is the source of your income, and your friends are all part of this charity. Both guilt and shame are justified in that situation. If the people in your organization learned of your theft then you would likely be expelled from the group, lose your job and your friends.
Now let’s consider unjustified shame. Being angry at your child and raising your voice, wearing the wrong clothes to an event, having a history of trauma, being overweight, or being imperfect are all sources of unjustified shame. Humans all make mistakes and none of us are perfect. You probably won’t be kicked out of an a group that is critical to our survival based on these issues.
Shame and Invalidating Environments
Children learn about themselves and the world from the adults who care for them. If you grew up in an invalidating environment (Linehan, 1993), one where the way you thought, felt and behaved was considered wrong, then you may be experiencing shame that is unjustified.
Perhaps you had a parent who expected you to take care of them, to make decisions that were really only appropriate for an adult. You may have succeeded at that task sometimes, but you probably also failed at that task. How could you not? It isn’t possible for a child to act and think like an adult.
Perhaps your environment taught you that it was wrong to be angry or sad, or that it was wrong to not be able to solve all problems quickly.
As a child you didn’t know that the expectations of the adults in your life were unreasonable and often impossible. You only saw your failure to meet those expectations. You may have feared the loss of the adult’s love as a result of your failure and maybe that happened. That could be the source of your shame.
Perhaps you aren’t clear about the source of your shame. You just “know” that you are inadequate or unworthy as a human being. That too could be the result of growing up in an environment where you were repeatedly told that the way you think and feel is wrong.
In invalidating environments, not only is the way the child thinks and feels considered wrong, but her reasons for feeling that way are seen as wrong as well. For example, the child may say she is sad because even though she studied hard she didn’t make an “A” on a test. The adults in her life may say she didn’t make an “A” because she is lazy and never does her work.
Invalidating environments may foster blame if a child is not being perfect or for less than positive emotions. Invalidating people may call a child names, saying they have undesirable character traits. This can lead the child to believe there is something wrong with her and be angry with herself. She doesn’t know it is normal to not always succeed or that it is normal to make mistakes. She may then experience shame for who she is, even though she has not violated any norms or morals. As an adult, she may have great difficulty solving problems or accepting herself and her emotions.
Note to Readers: If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the questions on my new survey about being emotionally sensitive. Results will be given in a future post. Thank you!
Potter-Efron, R and Potter-Efron, P. Letting Go of Shame. Center City, MN: Hazelton, 2009.
Linehan, M. Workshop on Emotion Regulation. Austin, 2011.
Linehan, M. Cognitive -Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: The Guildford Press, 1993.
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Last reviewed: 22 Jun 2012