If there is one emotion that presents itself as the “got you” feeling, it is shame. We want to crawl in a hole, eat worms as our permanent diet and never face the world again unless we have a brown bag over our heads. Shame is that feeling of being flawed and defected, that something feels, to the point of true belief, that something is inherently wrong with whom we are. Down to the bone, at the very core of our being. We feel as if we are a worthless piece of shit that has no rights and needs. We are sub-par, sub-human – at least in our minds, at least compared to the rest of humankind.
Shame is the legacy of family generations. Like a hot potato, we pass it down from the most powerful to the least. In blatant terms, shit flows downhill. We cast off what we cannot tolerate in us and ask those with less protection to carry it, to be the one who suffers. Children pick up that unwanted feeling and internalize it. They come to believe that they are the warped, defected ones in lieu of protecting parents upon whom they depend. It’s a bad deal … and yet, the only one we got. Like a fast spreading cancer, shame begets shame and shame-filled parents raise shame-based kids. They cannot do otherwise. That is all they know about themselves and it is from this core, that they create the internal world of self-reproach in their offspring.
Shame differs from guilt. Guilt focuses on behavior – I should or should not have done something. I shouldn’t have eaten the box of cookies. I should have gone to see my Grandmother before she died. I should not have cheated on my income taxes. Guilt surrounds an action – it is about a behavior, a thought, a feeling – something I did or did not do. In that sense, it is situation specific. A moment.
Shame, on the other hand, is a feeling that surrounds the “I.” It is a deeper, longer-lasting feeling that is about who I am as a person, as opposed to an action I did or did not do. It is a feeling that describes my relationship with myself and dictates how I act in relationship with others and in my life. I go out into the world in a one-down position, as if others are more important and acceptable than lowly me. I am the imperfect item in the markdown pile … inferior to all the perceived bright and shiny ones. I am living in humiliation and mortification – far from the value I perceive others to possess.
You have probably experienced the feeling. At its extreme, it is called toxic shame. And boy, is it ugly! It makes you want to hide, turn off the lights, turn off your phone (not that it rings anyway) and go back to bed. Stick a fork in you for you are done. In that moment, you are amnesiac to any other feeling, much less a good one. You are shrouded in a dark cloud that has invaded your sense of self and any purpose or joy that you might have. You, as a person, are wrong and owe someone somewhere an apology for your even existence.
A similar feeling – one that is in the same ballpark as shame but certainly plays in the minor league by comparison- is the feeling of embarrassment. In a moment of embarrassment, we also feel exposed. Someone or something (such as making a mistake) is shedding light on us in a way that moves us to a state of greater self-consciousness. Such attention – whether it be positive or negative – makes us squirm with discomfort. We are being seen. And with that, comes all the possible outcomes of being seen – such as being criticized, being judged, being rejected, being made to feel different or special, above or separate from the crowd. Or even, perhaps most difficult for some of us, the opportunity to be loved. This spotlight is suddenly being cast upon us and the stage is set for something to happen. We could be admired or we could be judged – either one brings potential threat.
But moving down the continuum away from the normal feelings of embarrassment, we move into the more pathological or toxic shame state which is burdensome and self-limiting. As you can see in the continuum below, we can be in and even fluctuate between feeling states around the “I.”
Grandiosity Healthy Shame Embarrassment Toxic Shame Attack Shame-Based
Thus, shame can rear its ugly head in many forms. We can have a shame-attack whether it is triggered externally or internally. Something can happen in our life which causes our head to drop, our heart’s spirit to deflate and our sense of rightness with the world to be dislodged from center. Fortunately, this is most often a temporary state which we can get better at catching and correcting with practice.
But for many of us, shame is not just a feeling with fleeting half-life. Rather, we build a home, a permanent residence for this feeling of shame inside us to the point that we are shame-based in our sense of self and in our relationships. Every thought, feeling and interaction gets milled through the wheel of our shame. Like an old raggedy overcoat that wears heavy on our weakening and drooping shoulders, we walk around the world with a weight that seems unforgiving. This type of toxic shame becomes the baggage we carry around that interferes with our life’s work and love in a way that limits our potential and growth.
Another concept that needs to be mentioned at this point is the flip-side to shame and that is the feeling of grandiosity. It is that aura of entitlement that somehow I am beyond the norm, better than others, superior to any rules and limits that are only meant for other people – certainly not for me! I am the exception that can think, buy and act my way out of the parameters of all things human. If I fall in this category, humble pie is not a tasty treat I have choked down often in my life. I have so avoided it, that my need to be right and above others has dominated my life and interactions. Ironically, grandiosity compensates for what is the true underlying feeling of toxic shame. They have only learned how to defend against the intolerable shame feeling by pretending to be more than they are. It’s a protective move that allows him/her to function in the world by appearing shame-less. That I am not like you – a flawed human being with many imperfections and capable of many mistakes. I am above and beyond that with supra-human expectations of both self and others.
This brings us to the idea of healthy shame. Healthy shame is that feeling of acceptance – where we wisely admit that indeed, we are not god-like. We are imperfect, messed up humans. We make mistakes. We act impulsively. We sometimes, many times, say the wrong things. We cannot do everything perfectly. We cannot do everything solo – we actually need others. We are not always right. We can at times, in fact many times, be wrong. We are no better and no less than anyone else. Indeed, we are human beings.
Without a sense of healthy shame, we might as well commit to a life alone. On the toxic shame end, I am incapable of showing up as a fully engaged partner that can stand my ground. I too easily fold into myself which means I am not available to be a true participant in relationship.
On the flip side, those that are grandiose, do not have connection to their own vulnerability and thus, cannot form real relationship. It is their way or the highway. There is one truth, one way of doing things and theirs is the right way. There are human words that soften the space between two individuals struggling to make a connection – words such as “I am sorry,” or “I was wrong,” or “it was my fault.” Someone who does not have an interior space for a dose of healthy shame cannot say these words and mean them. Defending and protecting their self is the highest goal, even at the expense of relationship.
Shame is costly. It is rampant and painful. In a following article, we will discuss ways to move out of toxic shame and into a more kind and generous relationship with ourselves.
Until then … go easy, my friend. And remember, we are all in this together.