Shame is so painful to the psyche that most people will do anything to avoid it – even though it’s a natural emotion that everyone has. It’s a physiologic response of the autonomic nervous system. You might blush, have a rapid heartbeat, break into a sweat, freeze, hang your head, slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact, withdraw, even get dizzy or nauseous.
Why Shame is so Painful and unlike Guilt
Whereas guilt is a right or wrong judgment about your behavior, shame is a feeling about yourself. Guilt motivates you to want to correct or repair the error. In contrast, shame is an intense global feeling of inadequacy, inferiority, or self-loathing. You want to hide or disappear. In front of others, you feel exposed and humiliated, as if they can see your flaws. The worst part of it is a profound sense of separation – from yourself and from others. It’s disintegrating, meaning that you lose touch with all the other parts of yourself, and you also feel disconnected from everyone else. Shame induces a belief that isn’t always conscious, such as:
I’m a failure.
I’m not important.
I don’t deserve to be happy.
I’m a bad person.
I’m a phony.
Chronic Shame in Codependency and Addiction
Like all emotions, shame passes, but for addicts and codependents it hangs around, often beneath consciousness, and leads to other painful feelings and problematic behavior. You’re ashamed of who you are. You don’t believe that you matter or are worthy of love, respect, success, or happiness. When shame becomes all pervasive, it paralyzes spontaneity. A chronic sense of unworthiness and inferiority can result in depression, hopelessness, and despair, until you become numb, feeling disconnected from life and everyone else, like the walking dead.
It can lead to addiction and is the core feeling that leads to many other codependents’ symptoms. Here are a few of the other symptoms that are derived from shame:
For codependents, it can lead to control, caretaking, and dysfunctional, nonassertive communication. Shame creates many fears and anxieties that make relationships difficult, especially intimate ones. Many people sabotage themselves in work and relationships because of these fears. You aren’t assertive when shame causes you to be afraid to speak your mind, take a position, or express who they are. You blame others because you already feel so bad about yourself that you can’t take responsibility for any mistake or misunderstanding, meanwhile apologizing like crazy to avoid just that! Codependents are afraid to get close because they don’t believe they’re worthy of love, or that once known, they’ll disappoint the other person. The unconscious thought might be that I’ll leave before you leave me. Fear of success and failure may limit job performance and career options.
Because shame is so painful, it’s common for people to hide their shame from themselves by feeling sad, superior, or angry at a perceived insult instead. Other times, it comes out as boasting, envy, or judgment of others. The more aggressive and contemptuous are these feelings, the stronger the shame. An obvious example is a bully, who brings others down to raise himself, but this can happen all in your mind without actually bullying anyone. It needn’t be that extreme, you might talk down to those you teach or supervise, people of a different class or culture, or someone you judge. Another tell-tale symptom is frequent idealization of others, because you feel so low in comparison. The problem with these defenses is that if you aren’t aware of your shame, it doesn’t dissipate, but persists and mounts up.
Theories about Shame
There are three main theories about shame. The first is functional, derived from Darwinian Theory. Functionalists see shame as adaptive to relationships and culture. It helps you to be acceptable and fit in and behave morally in society. The cognitive model views shame as a self-evaluation in reaction to others’ perception of you and to your failing to meet certain rules and standards. This experience becomes internalized and attributed globally, so that you feel flawed or like a failure. This theory requires self-awareness that begins around 18 to 24 months old. The third is a psychoanalytic attachment theory based upon a baby’s attachment to its mother and significant caretakers. When there’s a disruption in that attachment, an infant may feel unwanted or unacceptable as early as 2 1/2 to 3 months. Research has also shown that a propensity for shame varies among children and their temperaments.
Healing requires a safe environment where you can begin to be vulnerable, express yourself, and receive acceptance and empathy. Then you’re able to internalize a new experience and begin to revise your beliefs about yourself. It may require revisiting shame inducing events or past messages and re-evaluating them in a new perspective. Usually it takes an empathic therapist or counselor to create that space so that you can incrementally tolerate self-loathing and the pain of shame enough to self-reflect upon it until it dissipates.
©Darlene Lancer, MFT 2012