of the most embarrassing experience of your life. Or a time when
you were drastically humiliated and ridiculed by someone. How
do you feel remembering these events? Could you call forth the
feelings or did you numb out quickly? Did you feel anguish looking
back or could you toss the event off with laughter? The amount
of emotional pain that you felt is related to stuck energy around
old feelings of shame. Talk about an unsolved mystery! How does
this emotion of shame get such a hold on you?
a fear-based internal state being, accompanied by beliefs of
being unworthy and basically unlovable. Shame is a primary emotion
that conjures up brief, intense painful feelings and a fundamental
sense of inadequacy. Shame experiences bring forth beliefs of
"I am a failure" and "I am bad" which are a threat to the integrity
of the self. This perceived deficit of being bad is so humiliating
and disgraceful that there is a need to protect and hide the
flawed self from others. Fears of being vulnerable, found out,
exposed and further humiliated are paramount. Feelings of shame
shut people down so that they can distance from the internal
painful state of hopelessness.
a result of early developmental loss either real or perceived.
It may begin in parent-infant conflict where there is possible
significant loss or threat of loss of the child's basic security.
The child longs for closeness with the mother and father. If
there is rejection or love withdrawal from the parent, the child
is left with intense, painful emotions. On some level, the beliefs
of "I am unlovable" develops and a core of shame starts to build.
Anna Freud described these experiences as happening before the
child develops language and therefore are not remembered. These
feelings of not being loved cause the child to rage and/or go
into silent withdrawal. Experiences that cause shame alter the
child's basic trust of others and are at the heart of dysfunctional
Shame and Guilt
feel guilty as well as ashamed. Guilt is an emotion that rises
after a transgression of one's own or cultural values. Guilt is
about actions; shame is about the self. The purpose of guilt is
to stop behavior that violates a self, family or societal standard.
Guilt keeps score on excesses or deficits of behavior deemed undesirable
and is expressed in regret and remorse. Guilt can be tied to perfectionism
and setting goals either too high or too low. Engaging in behavior
that causes one to feel guilty can lead to deep shame.
shame response is a heightened degree of arousal and self consciousness.
The person in emotional pain averts his eyes and his head goes
down. New information is blocked. There is intense discomfort
and muscular tension. The body collapses inward to protect the
self and there is a shrinking of body energy. The skin may become
flushed with embarrassment. There are feelings of inadequacy
and the fear of self exposure. The person wants to shrink, hide
or even die to get away from the painful feelings of mortification.
These feelings are so excruciating that the child wants to avoid
them at all costs.
Causes of Shame
causes of shame involve betrayal by others and a broken trust
through disapproval or humiliation. Parental withdrawal and rejection
shown by looks of contempt cause instantaneous shame reactions
in children. A child who believes that his parents favor a sibling
often believe that there is something basically wrong with him
or he would be the chosen child. Shame also occurs when the parents
have high standards of behavior and react with anger or embarrassment
when the child does not live up to expectations. Punishment for
failure and humiliation over the child's expression of vulnerability,
distress, crying or pain typically create shame. Criticism, cruel
teasing and ridicule further reinforce the child's beliefs of
unworthiness. Harsh parental discipline of a coercive nature create
fears of abandonment in the child. The trauma of physical abuse
imprints feelings of being devalued in the child. Empathetic shame
happens when the child internalizes humiliation and shame reactions
of other people. Sexual abuse typically causes the child to feel
dirty and bad and he often absorbs the shame of the adult who
committed the offense.
of shame are self induced around events of morally inappropriate
behavior and public exposure. It is not what happened to the
person but how it is interpreted by the self and others that
makes the difference. Excesses of worry about what others may
think of him add to the discomfort and the wish to hide. This
category of fear of self exposure includes:
Equals the Global Inner Belief of "I Am Bad."
feelings and actions.
aggressive behavior that is against public standards.
around bathroom functions, body odors and cleanliness.
of a task or doing poorly when performing before an audience.
and ridicule by peers.
social status or racial inequality--being looked down upon
different or one's parents being different from others--clothes,
body size, or physical differences.
something or saying something that might hurt another person's
to go somewhere. Negative feelings and thoughts are energy. If
the powerful feelings are not discharged, they are stored in the
body. They may be denied and forgotten, but they remain as a negative
force and the person goes through life with a nagging belief of
not measuring up. When there are many unresolved experiences of
shame in a child's life, the self evaluation becomes global. The
child has a core belief of "All of me is bad." The child with
a large amount of shame who makes a mistake does not make a specific
attribution regarding an event such as "I did this. It was wrong
and I can correct it" but goes automatically to feelings of unworthiness.
The child then substitutes another emotion or numbs himself to
avoid feeling the shame further stamping in the belief of being
inadequate and helpless.
theory is that shame causes a breakdown of the integrated self.
The bypassed, unacknowledged pain is not available to be looked
at due to the mechanism of denial. Dissociation and repression
of the bad feelings allow distance from the shame with a cover
up of "I am not this needy. This is not me. I cannot feel this
vulnerable." Tension is discharged partially through substitute
emotions but the core of shame grows even bigger as the individual
engages in unhealthy behavior.
the shaper of symptoms," said Donald Nathanson. The unacknowledged
thoughts and feelings become repressed and surface later through
substitute emotions and dysfunctional behavior. Other emotions
are substituted to hide the shame and maintain self esteem. Anger,
depression, exaggerated pride, anxiety and helplessness are substituted
to keep from feeling the total blackness of being bad. The buried
shame is expressed through defense mechanisms that shield negative
unconscious material from surfacing.
are modeled and learned in some families. The anger response
is more comfortable than feeling the shame for some individuals.
Families where coercive and humiliating methods of discipline
are used develop children who are shame prone. Behavior become
driven by defenses that function to keep from feeling bad. Reality
becomes distorted to further protect the self from poor self
esteem. The transfer of blame to someone else is an indicator
of internal shame.
who live with constant hostility and criticism learn to defend
against the bad feelings inside and externalize blame on others.
External assignment of blame is a defense against shame. People
who are super critical have a heavy shame core inside. The focus
is on finding fault outside yourself but the mistake is never
corrected. If the responsibility for blame can be fixed on someone
else, the person may feel pride in getting off scot-free. The
rigid thinking is I'll be pure if I can make him wrong. It is
not my problem. It is beyond my control. I just can't allow
myself to feel bad inside, so I'll blame him."
who has been raised with criticism and parental anger may develop
the shame/rage spiral. The shame/rage spiral consists of getting
angry and raging when upset, then being ashamed and going into
rage to avoid the shameful feelings, etc. The shame/rage spiral
keeps others away and helps the person avoid intimacy where
more pain and shame might be experienced.
Shame and the Fear of Being Found Out
individual's biggest fear is for others to find out how bad he
really feels inside. There is denial of vulnerability, avoidance
of negative feelings that are perceived as weak and an inability
to be real. Macho behavior in men has a deep shame core at its
base. Men who are frightened of feelings learn to wall others
away through withdrawing, numbing their feelings and intellectualizing.
Other shame-driven behaviors are acting out, depression, anxiety
and compulsive behavior. Some people are self deprecating and
use submissive behavior to avoid the shaming behaviors of others.
Others turn to addictive substances and activities to numb the
emotional pain inside. The dissociation disorders are based in
shame with distortion of reality and developing separate parts
of the personality to hide from the shame.
pride allows the person to build up feelings of superiority
again for the purpose of denying the global negative internal
beliefs of "I am bad." The narcissistic individual reduces his
own shame by feeling better than others; he elevates his status
by putting others down. Prejudice, bigotry, revenge and grudges
towards others are mechanisms that keep the self from knowing
and experiencing the shame. Individuals who engage in antisocial
behavior have a great capacity for shame and denial. Young people
who resort to violence and membership in gangs use feeling superior
to avoid feeling bad about themselves. Sadly, gang members describe
feeling respected by their peers for the first time in their
Acknowledging and Releasing the Belief of I Am Bad
of shame and dysfunctional behavior acts to prevent shame from
surfacing by separating the self from the negative feelings. Shame
removal can be accomplished by reconnecting with the original
feeling of shame and learning to accept one's self, warts and
all. The affect must be expressed and internal awareness gained.
The child must feel very secure with an adult for him to let his
guard down and become less defended and rigid. This can best be
done with a loving, caring individual who accepts the child as
he is so that the broken trust can be regained.
process the person becomes an observer of his own shame, accepts
it and takes mastery over it.
the shame to a conscious level by recognizing where it is
located in the body.
the feelings. Describe the hurt, sadness, revenge and embarrassment
to break into numbed feelings. Own the previously hidden feelings.
the feelings verbal labels.
the original experience that caused the shame.
the negative energy of the person who caused the humiliation
or rejection, etc. Explore this person's reasons for cruelty
as related to his own shame.
if any of the other person's shame was internalized. Help
the child to understand that it is not their shame but someone
else. Ask him to release it by visualizing throwing away the
other person's shame.
for the global belief (I am unworthy/bad/ unlovable.) that
defines the secret self.
specific attributions (I did something wrong based on my limited
understanding at the time.)
which negative emotions are substituted to keep from feeling
the poor coping behaviors used to keep the global belief away.
the public exposure of failure. Admitting one's faults reduces
anxiety. Confession of "one's discretions" in an atmosphere
of safety reduces shame.
laughter and pleasant emotions to reduce the tension. The
research shows that individuals have less hostility if an
irrelevant, pleasant experience happens at the same time when
recalling a traumatic event. Terrifying situations may be
defused more easily with humor. Laughter is an indicator of
good self esteem--that you feel good enough to laugh about
the unpleasant situation.
a metaphor of the shame giving it color, form, shape or an
visualization of the metaphor, ask the client to start to
move the shame energy around. Have the child imagine dissipating
and releasing the shame.
for a new global belief to replace the "I am bad."
the child how he will be different in the future with this
new belief. Ask him to imagine seeing himself acting differently
in a situation of threat.
out of the global "I am bad" belief takes time and much exploration.
This exercise may need to be repeated many times depending upon
the number of incidences in the person's life.
resilient. Don't give up on them. Help them learn to break the
cycle of shame prevalent in their lives. Decision making is
where it's at. Help children gain a sense of self competency
by learning new skills to make good decisions. This approach
when combined with learning to speak out for one's self and
say no when appropriate along with sharing feelings and stating
boundaries gives children tools to avoid further incidents that
might be shame provoking.
children learn positive self esteem and responsibility with
the help of our kits and books in our Talk,
Trust and Feel Catalog.
FOR TEACHERS & THERAPISTS
To Angries Out