Shame. We all know what it feels like. That devastating moment when you realize somehow you’ve crossed the line from “good person” to “bad person”. At least, with that visceral feeling of a knife in your heart, that is certainly what it seems.
Shame is contingent on a desire to belong. When we do or say something that causes a breach in our relationships with others, sociologically speaking, we fear being ousted from society. Evolutionarily speaking, this shame is hardwired to keep us alive by restricting our behavior to fall within the parameters of what has evolved as best for the tribe.
But let’s look at shame. There are two kinds. One is the shame of knowing you have harmed someone, inadvertently or worse, purposely – through anger or resentment. The other is the shame you feel about your self; that something is essentially wrong with you.
The first kind of shame is useful, it tells us when we have betrayed the social contract. We could call this guilt.The second kind is not useful. It is based on early patterns that carry over into adulthood. It manifests in self-loathing. We could call this a maladaptive defense.
The good news is, both have a remedy. The remedy for the first is simple, make amends. The remedy for the second is not so simple. It will require a psychological and, for some people, spiritual intervention.
Naturally, since I am a therapist, I will focus more on the second, but I want to say something about the first before I go there, as there are certainly psychological difficulties implied by “making amends” as well. While the solution of making amends, of apologizing, of mending a relationship rupture as an antidote to guilt is self evident, it can be challenging. This is a time where we must take a good look at our action, assess it, and determine the best course of action to repair the damage.
Logically, your thoughtless action is not you. You must use your higher self, your “observer” to separate your self from the action in order to chart the best course of repair. Look at the action itself. How can you remedy it? Did you call someone “stupid” in the heat of an argument? Your apology might be: “I’m sorry, I was just so overcome with anger that I misspoke. I don’t think you’re stupid, I have respect for you, and I was wrong to say what I said. I hope you will accept my apology, and I value you as a person”
That sounds easy enough. And it should be. And it is an excellent mindful practice to make it a point to do so. It’s obvious to most of us that discrete, often momentary actions do not necessarily define us.
However, let’s look at this situation from the standpoint of self-loathing; an attribute many of us may possess, to varying degrees. For some reason, even though we know our bad action is separate from who we really are, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Why? What happens when, even after we apologize, we go home and ruminate over what we did and how bad we are, even with the offended party might have accepted the apology and may never even think about it again?
The answer to this can be complicated, and of course will vary greatly from person to person. What happens essentially, is a misstep triggers inherent shame about oneself. This is a deep shame whose roots may be very early. This is the shame of self-attack and self-loathing.
So how does this kind of shame develop?
We are hardwired to attach to our parents/caregivers. This is so critical a truth that there is not even any reason for me to provide evidence. We know this. Therefore, a small child will do anything and everything to maintain that bond. Optimally, this bond is reciprocal. The parent and child are attuned, and each bonds to the other as the relationship develops and thrives.
Of course, the real situation is not always optimal. Parents are subject to all manner of stressors, problems, mental health issues. At the far end of the spectrum, some parents are downright abusive, and some worse than that….
From these sub-optimal parenting situations come varying degrees that the child must hide, as D.W. Winnicott phrased it, her “true self”. This natural and authentic expression of the child’s selfhood often gets the message that some or all of it must go into hiding in order to appease or please the parent. These early mechanisms to hide or stifle are formed with the inchoate worldview of a child, who can only determine, by her parent’s rejection, that she is bad and the parent is good.
So where does shame come in? Again, shame is an evolutionarily hard-wired behavior inhibitor. Give a child the message often enough, and a pattern develops where the shame shuts down the true expression of self. As the child grows, these early patterns of stifling the true self remain embedded as patterns of relating. This maladaptive defense continues to serve to keep relationships intact.
Trauma expert Dr Janina Fisher sees the young shamed self as a separate entity that “hijacks” the adult with shame when triggered by something in the adult relationship that reminds us, consciously or unconsciously, of that early bond rupture.
In the adult, this shame that once served a valuable purpose to the child carries on in the adult as self-loathing as in, “I am bad for my tendency to upset others”. This self-loathing in turn contributes to depression, anxiety and other psychological problems.
The remedy for this is therapy. In psychodynamic therapy, we go back to these early parts and unravel their pull on the adult, often by exploring unconscious expressions, so that they can be resolved and integrated. Using Fisher’s parts work as a tool, we open a dialog with the younger parts, and in doing so, become more acquainted with the part of the “true self” that the child had to hide.
How long will this take? I wish I could say. Often, resolution is rapid…but this work, especially in the case of significant childhood trauma, can be ongoing. However, clients frequently find that even discovering the origin of this self-loathing shame is freeing and hopeful. This kind of insight can release that shame from being tied so tightly to sense of self.
Spiritual intervention can be a useful tool as well. For people who are inclined to be spiritual; who have contact with their, as Frankl puts it, “Noetic” dimension, spirituality can help ease the burden of self-loathing.
Inherent in most spiritual practices is a sense of unity with something larger, which puts us in connection with a Goodness that we are part. And, if we are part of that, how innately bad can we really be?
Also, spiritual practices encourages mindfulness and contemplation. The practice of mindfulness strengthens our “observer”, so we can indeed learn to separate our self from the triggering situation, which is why it is an integral aspect of Fisher’s work.
Guilt, shame, and self-loathing – indeed they are painful. But the pain of these very human states, when they emerge, are a call to action – whether it be making amends, or the deep work of resolving maladaptive defenses. Thankfully, we have the tools to, if not resolve them, to ease the burden in which they influence our lives, and in doing the work in therapy, discover how much more of our “true selves” we really possess available to relate to others and feel comfortable in our own skin.