Shaming others is so cruel because it is such a toxic emotion. Why is it then that when we interact with others’ shame is an almost inevitable result? However, clearing the backdrop of shame that gets so easily triggered can help in moving towards clean and clear interactions with others.
What causes shame?
The primary neurobiological system is the Fight or Flight one that is biased towards interpreting mixed signals negatively – suspicious people survive. The secondary system of meeting our needs causes us to strategise and construct a false self or ego to defend our true self from being wounded in this dangerous world. Both of these are fear based systems and the most powerful motivators of human beings. This is why politicians, leaders, and anyone wanting to influence others so often manipulate them to fear rather than to promise happiness.
Thus our human brains are negatively biased. This means we unconsciously see life in terms of danger and all that could possibly go wrong. This is partly because we are hardwired for survival and partly due to our thinking being overwhelmingly resident in our egocentric left-brain.
A primary aspect of the ego is that it needs to be right. It is said that the whole world is divided into people who are right … this is a reflection of the ego’s vulnerability.
Right and wrong in a highly judgemental environment is an ideal breeding ground for shame. Young consciences become educated into internal critics that police every thought and deed … ‘accusing or else excusing.’ Not unsurprisingly many religions produce people who are burdened with shame despite being ‘saved’, following God’s laws or personally in touch with a loving Creator.
Sadly when people are ashamed of themselves they find it hard to distinguish between the true self and the mask they wear. This is because shame is about how other people see us, so that if you criticise my ego mask you criticise me and if you don’t like my mask you don’t like me.
How widespread is it?
It is thought that shame can be experienced by babies as young as eight months old. Without the ability to differentiate themselves from others a frown or a look of disappointment conveys the message ‘I am bad’ – your feelings are my state of being. Since there are no perfect parents everyone ends up getting infected.
Like anything that hurts we contract around it and hide it because exposure is dangerous and makes us vulnerable to more pain. The perfect cover is another layer of protective ego … and so the layers keep being added.
The more we wear the mask the more it defines us; the more familiar we are with it the more dependent we become on it; and the more our true self becomes the dangerous unknown. Our unreal opinion of ourselves is often then reflected in too low or too high an opinions of others.
Groups of people then produce a collective mindset called culture in which they distinguish themselves from others (Geert Hofstede).
Collectivist cultures which define people by their social connections (‘I am because we are’) are the dominant shame cultures. The fear of being ostracised is what enforces social norms. Individualistic (‘I think therefore I am’) cultures are not free from shame either, even though guilt and the fear of being punished is the tool for enforcing social conformity. In both, the ultimate punishment is equally fatal whether it is being executed for a crime or being murdered to restore honour. To some degree or another shame is found throughout the species.
How can I identify my shame?
I came across a simple exercise that should show you your shame. Take a piece of paper and write on it something that you feel ashamed of, that no-one else knows about you.
When you have finished, fold the paper in two and then again. Imagine yourself giving it to someone else to read and take note of the sensations in your body. If you feel a constriction in your body, dread, fear, or feel sick, sweaty and nervous these are all typical responses to shame.
How can I cure it?
The self that shame exiled into the shadows can only come out when the ego has stopped taking centre stage. This is often due to a crisis when what we suppressed and denied only got stronger and manifested itself in other uncomfortable ways.
Shame is the tap-root of many behaviours such as addiction to cover self-disgust, isolation to avoid others’ judgement, or aggression, anxiety and low self-esteem. When the mask becomes unbearable the wearer has to take it off by speaking out and owning where they are really at. This is like shifting the spotlight from the actor on centre stage to the real star standing in the wings. This often takes a painful crisis to initiate but joy is the result of coming back into our power. Like so many important things in life it is good to be witnessed and share with another.
Reconnecting with ourselves means learning self-acceptance, warts and all and without judgement. This may well involve challenging the judgements that authority figures have heaped upon us in the past and that have defined our shame. Self-acceptance can also release us from the insistence of needing to understand the reasons for everything.
A hard lesson to learn is to have compassion for ourselves and to love ourselves. We have to take our own side against all-comers as we learn to value ourselves without comparison. We are unique and our uniqueness is the ground of our acceptability. It is unearned and unassailable when we own it. Compassion is the healing emotion that is the antidote to toxic shame.
Positive inner witness
The inner critic will need to be replaced with a true witness and this can be helped by practising mindfulness. This is a process of building awareness of our inner states of emotional and physical wellbeing. Speaking out of this awareness imbues our words with the power of testimony that others have to accept.
All that I have suggested above sounds simple and the journey may be possible for some to make alone. Most of us will need to be witnessed and have some guidance as we have not been down this way before.