In my line of work, I am privileged to catch glimpses of humanity’s vulnerability: “I don’t initiate sex because it would destroy me if she said no.” “I fear my own rage when my child makes me angry,” “I’m still thinking about my ex, three years later, and I feel so pathetic.” “I really don’t understand how to do this math assignment, and that makes me feel stupid and inadequate,” “I feel so lonely, and when I feel that way, I start to eat.”
But I also see a lot of shame: “Why the fuck is it MY responsibility to initiate sex? SHE’s the problem;” “I better retreat from my children and family since I am desperately worthless. What’s the point of getting out of bed?,” “Sure, I’ll have sex with you without knowing you, since it makes me forget about my ex for a moment,” “Algebra is stupid; Who really uses it in real life? Besides, the reason I have an F is because the teacher is ridiculous,” “It’s disgusting how much I’ve been eating… And, yes, I will now polish off these donuts as a way to manage that thought.”
Shame is the feeling of “I am not okay” or “I am not enough.” In a state of shame, a person’s ego is so fragile that she cannot tolerate her own feelings, fears, limitations, or mistakes. A shamed person defends-against, numbs-out, overcompensates-for, and denies her vulnerability. A shamed person says, “I cannot bare the idea of the real, flawed, and emotional me: I must get rid of it or pretend it doesn’t exist!” People who live in shame are plagued with depression, anxiety, rocky relationships, and an endless cycle of guilt and self-loathing.
Feeling “not okay” and “not enough” is as old as time, and it is the basis of many theories of psychological illness and relationship dysfunction. Feeling “not okay” was dubbed “fears of inadequacy” by Sigmund Freud, “inadequacy complex” by Alfred Adler, and “denying the shadow” by Carl Jung. Later, Harville Hendrix called it a “disowned self,” John Bradshaw called it “toxic shame,” and Brene Brown simply called it “shame.” (Bradshaw feels that there is such thing as “healthy shame,” and describes it as having a sense of your own limitations. Brene Brown agrees that acknowledging your limitations is healthy, but refers to it as “vulnerability” as opposed to shame. It’s all semantics, but I happen to describe it in my practice similarly to Brown.)
When we feel the icky feeling that we are not “okay,” the defense strategies that typically follow include a long list of behaviors. These behaviors threaten to destroy shame momentarily, but only end up fueling it:
“Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” Carl Jung
Denial: Everything is okay. I am okay. I don’t feel anything distressing.
Delusion: (Creating alternative narratives about ourselves that are not true) I am worse than everyone else or I am better than everyone else.
Control: If I can achieve control over myself, others, and my life, no one will find out the real me. If others think like me and behave like me, it means I am good enough.
Façade: I will pretend to be what I think I should be instead of just being me.
Deny/Defend: If I use anger and blame, I don’t have to carry this icky feeling.
Perfection pursuits: I am not human. I am better than human. And I can prove it too with all these perfect behaviors and appearances! (Sometimes the most over-achieving people are the most shame-filled people.)
Giving up/avoiding/retreating: I am not human. I am less than human. I will avoid further shame of failure by not even trying.
Striving to DO more: (Grades, clubs, profession, etc.) I am a ‘human doing” instead of a “human being;” At least then I know I’m something.
Addiction: (addiction= A pathological relationship to any mood altering experience that has life-changing consequences. This could be shopping, eating, sex, drugs, relationships, social media, alcohol, posting blog posts, etc.) In addiction I don’t feel the icky feeling. In certain addictions (buying nice things, sex, social media, relationship addiction), I feel a fleeting sense of worth.
Regression/helplessness: If others take care of me, I feel special. If I were not helpless, I would be accountable and risk failure.
Meanness/control/power: Adapting this strategy means YOU have to carry the shame, instead of me.
Placating/Accommodating others: If I do what they want, they will find me worthy. If this person got mad at me/thought less of me, it would destroy me. Claudia Black talks about this in children of alcoholics specifically.
Make everything that is uncertain, certain: Subscribe to rigid beliefs and world-views to alleviate fear, offer a sense of comfort and validation for our own world views. Brene Brown points out, “Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up. That’s it.”
Not comfortable asserting needs and perspectives: First of all, my needs don’t matter. Second of all, if I assert myself, someone will make me know that I am “not enough” when they ignore me.
Rage: I won’t let myself assert my needs constructively, but low-and-behold, my anger spills out eventually.
Maintaining a victim-stance: If I focus on being the victim, this puts my life in the hands of my victimizer. This means I don’t have to face my own fears of inadequacy or take accountability for my own life.
Over-eating: Food consumption temporarily numbs icky feelings. Also, John Bradshaw pointed out that many individuals who have been sexually shamed or abused (or shamed by a member of the opposite sex) put up a physical barrier around their genitals (eew I hate the word genitals. My shame?) by over-eating.
Shyness: (When it’s not because of temperament, but because you are stifling yourself or avoiding rejection.)
A sense of detachment in relationships: If I keep my significant other/friend at arms-length, I stave-off rejection and accountability for being a good partner (a task which I could fail if I tried.)
Repeatedly choosing poor relationships: If I were to be in a relationship with someone I respected, they may see the real me and deem me “not enough.” If I can get this wretched person to change for me, then I will be redeemed and know that I am enough.
Seeking a sense of superiority: Comes across as narcissistic or overly concerned with image/status. These patients ask me what graduate school I went to and have a designer bag for each day of the week.
Rigidity/controling in thoughts/beliefs: If others don’t think like me, I know for certain that I am “not okay.”
Social anxiety/general uneasiness and anxiety: Shame based people are always looking over their shoulders, awaiting others finding out who they really are, finding out that they are flawed and defective.
Where does “shame” come from? Shame gets passed down in generations. Not because of genes, but because the coping strategies for dealing with shame (hiding, denying, controlling, superiority, addiction, detaching) lead to the next generation becoming shame-based.
Things that cause shame:
- Family secrets. Usually around sex, violence, and/or addiction. If the behaviors themselves weren’t bad enough, giving kids the impression that they cannot feel upset by these behaviors (and need to act like everything is okay) gives them the impression that their needs, perspectives, and feelings, are not okay.
- Parents who are shame based. As John Bradshaw points out, you can’t teach someone how to love themselves if you don’t know how to do it yourself; You can’t learn to honor your own perspectives and needs if they aren’t honored. If making mistakes, being okay with the gamut of human emotion, and showing vulnerability is not modeled, kids can’t learn to do it themselves.
- Any kind of neglect or abandonment : This doesn’t just mean a parent physically leaving the home. This can be emotional neglect, exploitation of a child to appease a parent’s needs (Johnny, tell mommy how much you love mommy! And wait- Let me put this picture of you facebook to make me feel good about myself OR My child is my best friend; he really knows how to support me and we are just alike.), or a parent/significant figure actually leaving. Abandonments are the biggest ingredient in the recipe for shame. Even things that aren’t really abandonments, but just feel like abandonments (like a spouse working many hours or playing golf on the weekend or not returning a phone call right away) can trigger feelings of being “not okay” and “not enough.”
- Sexual abuse: The most egregiously shaming of acts. Coping includes either shutting down sexuality (and a lot of other emotions as well- Become numb) or acting-out/regaining their “power” by going from one seductive relationship to the next. (BTW, sexual abuse doesn’t have to be touching: inappropriate sexual comments, offering inappropriate sexual information, or anything that makes the kid feel violated or turns-on the adult, including nudity, is also considered sexually abusive.)
- Physical abuse: Few actions say you are worthless like physical mistreatment.
- Emotional abuse: Repeatedly not allowing a child to feel and think the way they do is a form of emotional abuse (“Johnny, you don’t really hate your brother. Don’t say that.”); Exploiting a child by using him to meet parental needs for love and adequacy is emotional abuse (“Johnny, tell mommy how much you love her;” “Johnny you just understand and support me in a way that no one else does;” “Johnny, you are my friend and my son.”); Guilting/manipulating a child to meet the parent’s needs is emotional abuse. And of course, belittling and name-calling are emotional abuse.
- Condemning/judging/disallowing normal feelings: In some families (commonly in families with certain strict applications of religion), anger, sexuality, jealousy, dislike, and other human experiences are “not allowed.” They are invalidated and quickly stifled. In some families, even grief after death of a loved-one is condemned, as the message is, “Why would you be upset? Your loved one is in a better place.” Individuals who are taught that they should never FEEL anything other than “happy,” usually either learn to stifle feelings until they explode OR become passive-aggressive.
- Parents stoic, “perfect,” and not vulnerable: This models for children that “real” and “mistakes” are not okay. If mom and dad are always stoically controlled, and always “right,” and never humble, then when the child makes a mistake or feels something other than happy, he feels like something is wrong with him. The most powerful antidote to shame is a parent saying, “me too” about a child’s humanity.
- Societal/cultural expectations for perfection, never-ending beauty, and constant happiness (or any other expectation which is inconsistent with human nature.)
“[When our children are born,] our job is not to say, ‘look at her; she’s perfect; My job is just to keep her perfect and make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade.’ That’s not our job. Our job is to say, ‘You know what? you’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.’ That’s our job. Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and I think we’ll end the problems I think that we see today.” -Brene Brown
If any of this sounds familiar to you, read on. There is a solution:
Vulnerability: The opposite of shame.
Tolerating the vulnerabilities known to all of humanity is the opposite for shame. Being vulnerable is being present, authentic, and honest, even when it’s icky. This means dropping the defenses listed above in favor of actually feeling and actually being.
Carl Jung knew that in order to be content and fulfilled in life, we have to come to do the painful work of acknowledging all aspects of ourselves, even the parts we want to disown. He said that we all have a part of ourselves, called the “shadow” that we like to stifle and defend against. Our shadow may contain anger, sexuality, regret, insecurities, and basic emotional needs. Jung knew that whole-heartedly acknowledging that ALL of these aspects of ourselves exist as opposed to adapting a defense mechanism, was the only route to emotional wellness. This authenticity is generally understood to be vulnerability.John Bradshaw described the process of vulnerability as “allowing yourself to be seen, deeply seen,” and emphasized that it requires HUMILITY. Brene Brown says that people who are able to be vulnerable are BRAVE. I personally think vulnerability requires both devastating humility AND enormous bravery.
Vulnerability breeds self-acceptance, the ability to strive for better (because you aren’t bogged-down with shame or shame’s defenses) as well as true connection with other people. With vulnerability, you FEEL and BE instead of resort to the defense mechanisms that squelch empathy. In vulnerability, there is empathy, first for yourself, and then, as a natural extension of self-empathy, empathy for others (or “compassion” for yourself and then others, according to Brene Brown.)
Vulnerability allowed me to look my son in the eye and say, “I’m sorry I embarrassed you when I told your teacher you thought she was pretty,” and honestly access my own need to be liked by that teacher. It allowed me to think about the way I yelled at my kids this morning, and resolve to get my butt out of bed earlier to avoid the rushing. It allowed me to tell my patient this afternoon that I understand his frustration with my running late– I can and will honor that feeling in him without making excuses or getting defensive. It allowed me to realize my husband wants the same thing I want, mid-argument, and suddenly soften my stance. It allows me to withstand four publisher’s rejections of my book, and bravely consider my honest intentions behind becoming an author (fame? notoriety? Am I trying to prove something?). It allows me to risk judgment by noticing my stress and declining to help with the bake sale and fundraiser. It allows me to write these posts, typos and self-disclosures and all.
When was the last time you were vulnerable instead of denying and numbing the icky stuff? Could you call on your bravery and humility to try some honesty and authenticity? Your may notice an uneasiness lifted from your shoulders: The burden of shame.
As usual, hope this gives you something to think about and apply to your own life. Said the psychologist who frequently discloses her own shortcomings ever since she heard Brene Brown say that the best way to eradicate shame is saying “me too”….
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