Yet trying to avoid shame is often what motivates people to use to use potentially healthy tendencies in an unhealthy way. More on that in a moment, but first, what is shame?
What Is Shame?
There is some debate in the research literature about just what shame is and whether it’s ever adaptive. But I’m going to take a stand here for the sake of clarity and clinical utility.
I would argue that shame is an inaccurate, extreme and debilitating interpretation of our intrinsic limitations as humans.
It’s the disturbing emotion we experience when we feel defective or deficient. We may feel that we haven’t measured up to our standards, and that that makes us fundamentally bad.
We may experience shame when we imagine what others think about us, or when we simply examine ourselves.
We can experience it consciously, or unconsciously.
Distinguishing Shame from Guilt
To get a better sense of what shame is we can distinguish it from guilt.
• We experience guilt when we feel that we’ve done something in particular wrong. Guilt can get too heavy, but theoretically at least, it can be constructive when we look ahead to what we can do better in the future, rather than backward to what we’ve done in the past.
• In contrast, we feel shame when we feel that our character is flawed. Shame is about who we feel we are, rather than what we’ve done. And it is not adaptive.
At times it can be hard to sort out the difference. The crucial issue is what it leads to:
• Guilt, in appropriate doses, can leave us feeling that we can, and want to, do better.
• Shame can discourage us from trying because it implies that we’re fundamentally defective. This leads to depression. It can also lead us to try to make unrealistic changes to who we actually are and feel another level of shame because that’s impossible.
Turning Guilt into Shame
One reason that it can be hard to sort out guilt from shame is that guilt often turns into shame. We assume that mistakes signify flawed character and we’re back on the shame train. What might be appropriate guilt about something we’ve done wrong becomes shame about who we are. And if someone else suggests that we’ve made a mistake, we assume they’re saying that we’re a bad person.
Things We Feel Shame About
Some of the more specific things that may lead us to feel shame are:
- Not accomplishing enough
- Needing others
- Having sexual needs
- Being “selfish”
- Having “imperfect” bodies
- Having feelings
- Having limitations
- Being wrong
- Needing to be seen and appreciated
- Not being disciplined enough
- We might even have shame about having shame
Shame-Proneness and Shame-Aversion
Some people are more prone to shame than others, and some go to great lengths to avoid shame (shame-aversion). Researchers have found that someone can be shame-prone, but not have significant shame-aversion. When they have both, they are more likely to have a personality disorder, particularly obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). People with OCPD try to avoid feeling shame by controlling, overworking and trying to be perfect.
People who are shame-prone don’t necessarily have a personality disorder. It’s the shame-aversion that can lead to the disorder. What people do to avoid their shame makes their situation far worse.
Shame and the Unhealthy Compulsive
As I’ve proposed in my book and throughout this blog, the potentially healthy benefits of obsessive-compulsive traits (such as being meticulous, organized, hard-working, and ethical) can be hijacked and become unhealthy when we try to use our healthy potential to avoid feelings of insecurity or shame.
The power of obsessive-compulsive traits is sometimes harnessed to prove that we don’t deserve to feel shame after all. This can go on beneath the surface of consciousness. Sometimes we aren’t aware of the shame that we’re trying to avoid by controlling, overworking, and perfecting.
Roger Attempts to Deal with His Shame
Just as a brief example, imagine Roger, who was, by nature as a child, thorough, organized and hard-working. But his parents were too pre-occupied with their own careers to give him love or attention. He could only conclude that he wasn’t worthy of it, and set out to prove he was worthy by using his perfectionist skills, first as a student and later as a professor.
He worked a lot and slept very little. Since his parents’ lack of attention had nothing to do with him being deficient, it didn’t work personally to try to prove himself. Sure, he did advance in his career, but he never felt the personal love he longed for. A rock star in his field, he was lonely in his apartment. The more he tried to prove himself, the more he pushed people away, leading him to feel more defective and more shame.
Spiritual Aspirations and the Archetype of the Hero Run Amok
While high standards can lead to shame, these aspirations aren’t all bad. Psychiatrist Carl Jung noted that our drive to individuation is “compulsive.” What he meant by that is that there is a deep urge to become our true selves and realize our potential. This is about growth and personal evolution, not about becoming perfect. Rather the goal is to become whole, integrating all the different parts of ourselves in a complementary way.
This drive to individuation can go awry when the ego seizes on the idea of heroic growth in order to compensate for the insecurity that comes with shame. The combination of aspirations and insecurity lead to the unrealistic hope that we can rise above human limitations. Instead of feeling stronger, the attempt to transcend can make us feel shame for not succeeding. We hope to fly like a hero, but instead crash when we realize we can’t.
Is There a Role for Shame?
But isn’t it possible that some people should feel shame, not just for what they’ve done, but who they’ve become? We sometimes use the word shameless for these people who seem to feel that they can do whatever they want regardless of how it affects others. These people are usually considered narcissistic or sociopathic.
But when we think about it more carefully, we realize that their character flaws are usually caused by a deep and unconscious sense of shame, and that piling on more shame makes it worse. For instance, think of someone who avoids, at all costs, the feeling of losing because that would bring them shame. Shame is the cause, not the solution.
This is not to excuse bad behavior, but to emphasize that understanding the role that bad behavior has played in attempting to avoid shame is the way to start to change it.
To take another example, some would argue that overweight people should be shamed for their supposedly poor discipline. But at least one study concluded that that would be counterproductive:
“Our results indicate that rather than encouraging people to lose weight, weight discrimination [shame] promotes weight gain and the onset of obesity.”
Overeating may serve as an attempt to avoid feelings of shame.
So even if you think that you, or anyone else, should be ashamed, think again.
How To Deal With Shame
Shame runs deep and does not dissolve with a simple life hack. But with attention it can diminish and become less powerful.
Develop a Shame Radar
Learn to recognize shame and your reaction to it in your day-to-day life. Where do you feel it in your body? What specifically are you ashamed of? What triggers it? Listen for self-talk such as “You suck. You’re stupid. You’re ugly. You’re a loser.”
Personify the Shaming Voice
In order to distance yourself from shame and diminish its power, personify it as a voice that has tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to protect you from mistakes. Give it a name and call it out when it gives your trouble.
Take Guilt Seriously Without Turning it into Shame
If you have made mistakes, make reparations where possible and try your best not to repeat the same mistake in the future. But don’t conclude you’re a bad person because of mistakes.
Notice the Connections Between Shame, Depression and Aversion
Notice your reaction to shame. Do you give up? Or try harder? What do you do if you do try harder? How do you end up feeling after giving up or trying harder?
Break the Cycle of Shame and Aversion
However you typically handle shame, try to do the opposite. Allow yourself to feel it rather than run from it or believe it. Sit with it without succumbing to it. So you’re not perfect. That’s OK. (For fears of becoming a sluggard see my previous post about how self-compassion can diminish depression.)
Put Something Else in Its Place
For some people the phrases “I’m basically good” or “I’m good enough” are good replacements for the negative self-talk that usually goes with shame. Others may recognize the feeling of shame and reframe it as a reminder that they are, like everyone else, human and fallible. Their reaction is no longer, “Oh no,” but, “OK, I can live with that.” And because you’re experiencing shame, you can certainly use some self-compassion.
Question the standards that you’ve set for yourself. Do they take into account the fact that you are human, and, by definition, subject to being imperfect? Achieving higher aspirations is desirable, but should not be necessary for self-compassion.
Friends and Community
Spend time with friends or community where you are accepted as you are. Isolation breeds shame because you begin to think that you are the only one that isn’t perfect. And, if you’re isolating because no-on else is perfect enough to hang out with, you set yourself up to feel more shame because your standards are too high. Good community dissolves shame.
(There is a very good OCPD support group that meets virtually on some Thursdays. It’s a peer-facilitated group that explores different topics each meeting. Attendees are welcome to participate at their level of comfort (which can include video off, just using the chat feature). It’s primarily for individuals with OCPD but also open to spouses and partners looking to learn more about their OCPD loved ones.)
* * *
It is understandable that people sometimes develop a life strategy of avoiding shame through perfectionistic behavior. But it is a painful, ineffective, and unnecessary way to live.
As always, this post cannot serve as a substitute for professional help. Having an objective voice sitting across from you is a good way to start disempowering shame.
To subscribe to this post and receive an email each time I post (once or twice a month), type your email address into the subscribe window at the bottom of the page. Be sure to respond to the confirmation email that will be sent to you.