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Dr. Lynne Namka
Licensed Psychologist


Anger can be a Cover Up
for Guilt, Shame and Vulnerability

Lynne Namka, Ed. D. © 2002

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Anger is a normal emotion that we all have. Humans have had anger since the caveman days, and it is necessary for our survival as a species. Anger, as an emotion, is neither good nor bad, it is just a feeling. Anger, as a response or a behavior, however, can cause all kinds of havoc both in the person who expresses it inappropriately and those to whom it is directed. Or it can be used as an energy to set things right.

Anger is extremely complex; that is why very few people have the skills to express it directly and safely. No one really understood how anger worked until recently. Very few people, in the past, knew helpful ways of expressing anger.

Our parents probably didn't know how to release anger appropriately. They most likely blew out angry feelings on others or stuffed them down inside and gave you the message, "Don't get angry." You learned your ways of "doing" anger from your parents and peers. Your parents learned their ways of "doing" anger from their parents and so on back it goes to past generations.

Feeling that accompany being threatened by someone else can trigger anger. A good use of anger is that it gets you to feel so strongly about an injustice that you will try to correct it. Justifiable anger is a way you stand up for yourself when someone threatens you. The threat can be to your physical body or your property. Mostly anger in adults comes up when your self-esteem or your values are threatened.

Healthy anger gives people momentum to produce necessary change. It can get you to leave a bad situation. Anger, appropriately used, can create social change. Healthy anger can be constructive in making a difference in a situation. (See my book, How to Let Go of Your Mad Baggage for this type of healthy anger.)

Unhealthy Anger

One form of unwholesome anger has to do with unrealistic expectations that are not met. And expectations can be sensible and practical or unreal and with not basis in reality. Expectations are, after all, only what you expect, not tried and true outcomes that will automatically happen just because you wish them to. This is where unhealthy anger comes in. People expect things that are not based in reality, and then get angry when their expectations are not met. Some people feel entitled to get something when there is no practical reason why they should get it. See my article on the Angries Out web page for "Children of Entitlement" and "The Right Man, Right Woman Theory" for this kind on entitlement anger.

Another from of unhealthy type is anger that comes up when you refuse to take responsibility for what you have done wrong. This is anger based on trying to avoid feeling guilt and shame. Shame is a fear-based internal state of feeling unprotected, vulnerable and defenseless. Shame holds the horrifying beliefs of being unworthy and unlovable. Shame conjures up intense painful feelings of mortification due to a fear of being seen as inadequate.

Shame feelings are a threat to the integrity of the self. Unbearable feelings of shame keep you caught in fear of being found out by others. When you are held prisoner by shame, the perceived deficits within yourself are so humiliating that you will go to extreme lengths to hide the flawed self. Like screaming in rage at another person to get them to back off!

Anger can be substituted when you feel guilty and cannot own up to what you have done. Anger can be substituted to avoid the more painful feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. Anger can be "used" to shut down the internal bad feelings of vulnerability and helplessness, as anger is a more comfortable emotion to feel. And it works! Anger can also be "used" to intimidate and force the other person to back off and stop their criticism.

Anger then becomes the prevalent emotion used to avoid feeling bad inside. The habit of shielding your self with the anger defense becomes a learned behavior of self-protection. Anger becomes entrenched as a protective device and you have trouble giving it up. Anger can work to protect you against threat temporarily. But it creates more shame because on some level you recognize that what you are doing is unacceptable. The guilt and shame of habitually angry people keeps growing because they circumvent the bad feelings instead of dealing with them honestly.

Feeling Threatened, Covering It Up with Anger and Projecting It on Someone Else

Anger, and the need to look good to protect the fragile self-esteem, is the basis of macho behavior, bullying and aggression. Denial, repression, projection, and blaming others are defense mechanisms, which help you try to avoid feeling guilt and shame. Blaming another person instead of looking at your own part of the problem is called projection‹you spot it, you got it!

Judgments, criticisms and labels all function to isolate us from others. Our attempts to project our own painful elements onto other people interrupt the growth process of both the sender and the receiver. Judgment, being an either/or process, divides and separates us from others, God or our sense of wholeness.

Projections are a defensive mechanism where we ignore what we do not like about ourselves and become upset about that same trait in another. They are the disowned aspect of our personality. Blaming others protect us through distractions and help keep a lid on the terror that knowledge of our dark side might provoke.

Projections protect us by keeping a lid on the terror that knowledge of our negative qualities might provoke. You project your own guilt and anger on to others when you judge and label the other person's actions instead of just observing or witnessing them. Carl Jung believed that the projection defense functions like a mirror between the ego and the unconsciousness personality. The negative characteristic that has been disowned which has been tying up psychic energy in the ego will be reflected in the person's daily experience.

What you resist, persists. Projections are warning signals that something is unresolved in your self. Carl Jung said that if you do not know and own the darker aspects of your self, you will project your own negative repressed elements on other people.

The intensity of your anger and projection is a function of one or more of:

  • 1.The size of the negative part inside yourself,
  • 2. The amount of the denial that you have about this trait in yourself,
  • 3. The need of your soul to work out this projection, judgment and criticism.

Harsh Criticism, Rejection, Humiliation and Bullying Create Shame-Based Defenses

Unkind, critical parental behavior produces shame-prone children who then criticize themselves and others. Often perfectionism is passed from generation to generation and not measuring up to the unrealistic standards of others. Parental withdrawal, rejection or favoritism of a sibling causes shame and deep fears of abandonment.

Shame is based on rejection. Parental high expectations of behavior, criticism and disapproval for failure create shame. Parental humiliation and punishment for failure or for distress or crying creates the need to hide vulnerability. When a parent rejects their offspring, the child learns to reject the wonderful aspects of himself. Shame feelings are created when there is a betrayal by other people and a broken trust through expressing harsh disapproval. The scolded and rejected child believes that he must be really bad or his parents would love him.

Bullying by peers or adults creates a sense of helplessness in the child and he feels ashamed. The frightened and rejected child believes that he must be flawed or his classmates would accept and like him.

The trauma of physical and sexual abuse imprints major feelings of being devalued and unworthy in the victim. The energy of shame of others is contagious and can be passed from one individual to another. Children who are sexually abused usually absorb some of the shame of the person who abused them.

Violation of societies' values around sexual and aggressive behavior can create guilt and shame. Engaging in behaviors that society frowns upon creates more shame. You add guilt and shame to yourself when you act in inappropriate behavior, which results in public humiliation. Worrying what others think, fears of public failure and social disapproval lead to added fears of rejection and shame. Engaging in excessive use of alcohol, substances and addictive behavior may be an indicator of shame. Engaging in excessive use of alcohol, substances and addictive behavior creates more guilt and shame and amplifies a vicious cycle.

Guilt says "I Did Something Bad."

Guilt is a feeling that you did something wrong. Guilt comes to you from your conscience, which tells you that you are not living up to your values. Guilt says, "I did something bad. I was wrong. I must pay." Guilt is about actions that have hurt yourself or others. It is situation specific and related to your misbehavior. Your guilt then sets about to punish you. The guilt serves as personal punishment for the undesirable behavior. Guilty feelings can be helpful in the sense that they help us to put on the brakes on behaviors we would regret later.

Sometimes you will hang on to guilt long after the situation has passed. Hang-on guilt remains because you do not know how to release it. Guilt for acts committed in childhood can cause a reservoir of negative emotions to be stored in the body resulting in curbing of healthy assertive behavior. This kind of guilt is sometimes at the bottom of co-dependency.

There is another type of unhealthy guilt where we feel that we are the cause of something not because of wrongdoing but because of underlying feelings of worthlessness. This pseudo-guilt inadvertently is passed down in families when a parent acted like a martyr (Why did I get such a child? You will be the death of me.) or used discipline techniques of shaming and blaming the child (You are stupid. Dummy!) The child, being vulnerable, absorbs the negative energy of the abuser and internalizes the negative labels as being true. (I am dumb because my father called me dumb when I knocked the glass of milk over.)

Shame says "I Am Bad."

Shame is about the flawed self. Shame says, "I am bad." Feeling ashamed is always about the global self-esteem and how you totally feel about yourself. The shame core builds up with many events of guilt. Fears of being different and looked down upon by others are common causes of guilt and shame. Guilt and shame build up across time and lead to the global belief of "I am unworthy. I am unlovable."

One of the most insidious fears is that other people will find out how bad we really are and reject us. We focus too keenly on being judged by others and live in fear of what will other people think. The core beliefs of the person caught in guilt and shame is "I am bad. I must hide my badness to avoid further humiliation and rejection for others. I must reject and control my bad behavior. I cannot trust myself to refrain from this behavior. I must hide it even from myself. God rejects and punishes badness." Much personal energy is used up in dealing with the fear that we will be found out that we are a sham. The shame that surrounds fear about being different from our peers and being rejected or teased for it can affect personal growth and normal risk taking by tying up psychic energy.

Repressed shame and guilt cause a lack of trust of others and a deep breach or separation from your real self. At some point in an individual's life, the old defenses to protect yourself against guilt and shame no longer work. Shame can come up big time. The person's life crashes around him. Hitting bottom with an addiction, depression or anxiety may prompt you to seek help to deal with the uncomfortable feelings inside.

Shame can define and shape who you are in negative ways that you cannot even comprehend. Feelings of guilt and shame cause you to hide behind defenses of denial and resulting anger when you feel threatened. Other defenses against feeling shame include macho behavior, intellectualization and shutting down feelings. Controlling, blaming, criticizing or feeling superior to others are common defenses in people who are typically angry.

Patterns of dysfunctional behavior in a person's life usually indicate a strong internal shame core. Lack of intimacy and connection to others indicates a lack of trust. Shame shuts you down. An excess of shame can lead to a fear of taking risks and an unfulfilled life. Repressed shame leads to substituting more acceptable emotions such as anger, depression and anxiety to reduce the internal tension. Some people turn to addictions as a way to temporarily keep the feelings of guilt and shame down. This works only for a short time, and adds more guilt and shame to the person.

Guilt and shame about a behavior one considers inappropriate, either past or present, can lead to repression and denial as a means to try to control the bad behavior. We may think the behavior and belief are no longer present until an upsetting event pops it out again. These two negative emotions carry a certain vibration or energy that become stored producing a blockage in the person's energy flow. Guilt and shame result in deep fears of rejection and separation from others. Yet the basis of these strong emotions is a rejection in a part of the self and separation from God.

And if you do not have feel guilt and shame when you hurt other people, that is a different problem altogether. If you cannot identify with the ideas in this article and are looking for ways to deal with your anger, start reading in the field of narcissism.

The Paradox of Guilt and Shame

Typically the human response to guilt and shame is to increase the energy around these behaviors by resisting them and judging our self to be bad. Giving energy to shame makes it persist. The result is that the negative feelings do not dissipate but remain stored away in the body until we find a way to forgive our self.

We all have bits of behavior that are dark. That doesn't mean that we are evil or bad, but that we merely are human. One purpose of the negative emotions is to help us look at some aspect of ourselves that is incongruent with our deepest values and understanding of what it means to be human. Symptoms such as guilt, shame and resulting anger are merely the indicator lights of your body that something needs an adjustment. Negative symptoms show you where your life is out of balance. They give you a place to start doing some detective work on yourself.

Taking responsibility for your misbehavior and saying, "I am sorry" to the person you have hurt is the process of making amends and release guilt. Or you can write a letter of apology. Making an apology is a necessary step in releasing guilt for past and current misbehavior. (See I'm Sorry I Hurt Someone on the Angries Out web page.)

The pain that underlies the guilt and shame comes from belief that the event was harmful to the person. The person has the belief of "I am not safe. I can be hurt because I am bad. My physical body, my self esteem, my property or my values can be damaged." While it is true that your body, reputation and property can be hurt, the core essence of you cannot be destroyed. The negative feelings of being harmed and that you survived the traumatic experience. Beliefs about not being safe and beliefs about yourself as being unworthy can be changed, no matter what has happened to you.

Shame and guilt cause a deep breach or separation from the real self. The paradox of the emotions of guilt and shame is that these two base emotions keep the person from knowing that he is love and yet the solution to release them is to know that "I am love." Forgiveness and the firm resolution to stop harmful behavior is the answer to releasing guilt and shame.

Shame Shapes Negative Symptoms But It is also the Way Home

One purpose of the negative emotion is to help us look at those aspects of our self that are incongruent with our deepest values and understand of what it means to be human from a soul level. The anxiety around the painful past can be touched into and moved through.

The shame reduction work must be experiential; it cannot be released on an intellectual level. Laughter about one's former predicament can shift shame energies. The original feelings where shame first came up can be brought forward and examined to allow a shift. Shame can be released thorough confession and processing the original painful experiences. The repressed, uncomfortable feeling can be accessed and worked through to release the shame energies. You can get underneath the anger that hides the guilt and shame to find feelings of hurt, sadness, vulnerability and a fear of being rejected and abandoned. When these feelings are exorcised, there will be less shame.

Understand that the person who verbally, physically or sexually abused you had poor self esteem issues of their own that they were trying to throw on you. Critical parents felt bad about themselves and in their frustration in not knowing how to release shame, passed it on and projected it onto the child. You can learn to identify their shame in you and know that you do not have to hang on to it. Most good therapists know techniques to do this release work.

You can learn to detach and become an observer of your own internal states of guilt and shame. You can learn to become a detective on your own emotions and behavior to catch and break into feelings of guilt and shame. You can learn not to shut down the painful feelings or distract them with anger, but to stay present and learn from them.

Understanding how shame works helps release it. The cleaning out of the global belief of "I am bad" takes time and exploration. Mild shame might be processed and released on your own using these ideas. If you try to let it go on your own, but cannot, you will need professional help. Deep guilt and shame are best done with a therapist who understands the process of shame release and can stay present with unconditional love.

You can work through core negative beliefs such "I am a bad person. I am not safe. I will be rejected because I am unworthy. I will be abandoned." if you are willing to stop doing destructive behavior. The paradox of the base emotions of guilt and shame keep you from knowing that you are love and yet the solution to releasing these emotions is to get to the place of knowing "I am love." Feelings of vulnerability and shame can be the Soul's way of saying, "Look at this. These feelings are not who you are." Meditation and prayer help release shame, as shame is a tool of the Soul to get you to wake up.

When shame release work is combined in therapy with learning to speak up and say no, to state boundaries and to share feelings, self-esteem zooms upward. The opposite of guilt and shame is to accept yourself with all your human flaws and decide to not do any behaviors that create more disturbing emotions.

We are more than our physical body and we are more than our thoughts of shame. When you understand that what happened was merely a painful situation, which you made judgments about the unworthiness about your self, you can let the self-condemnation messages and bad feelings go. When you perceive that what happened was an opportunity for growth, then perhaps you can reframe the situation. No easy task, but there it is.

The truth is that you are a beautiful person who was shamed as a child, and your mind and body incorporated that shame. You need not let feelings of unworthiness shape your life in negative ways. You are more than your physical body. You are much, much more than your painful emotions. You are essence longing to return to your true self. Shame asks you to get to the lies underneath that you are unworthy and unlovable. Use your guilt as an opportunity to stop doing things not in accordance with your conscience. Then, having cleaned up your life, address the lies of being unworthy that shame has foisted upon you.

You can put yourself in a space of love and light and hold the bad feelings up for examination. Your Higher Power and the integrity can help give you a different understanding of the early painful experiences that caused shame. Turning the shame over to something greater than oneself, such as God, can help negate those global beliefs of unworthiness.


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Lynne Namka