I am sure all of you have seen at least one person, who is paralyzed and weakened by their own sense of worthlessness. It could be child of authoritarian or perfectionist parents or a classmate who is target of bulling company. Why do they put up with this abuse? Why don’t they express their pain? Why do they act like they deserve such treatment? The simplest answer is that, at some point in their lives they have been shamed. My interest in shame began when I start working with people having addictions or drug abuse issues.
Dictionary defines shame as “A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace” but in psychological point of view it’s much complex than this. Gershen Kaufman writes about psychology of shame: “The affect of shame is important because no other affect is more disturbing to the self, none more central for the sense of identity. In the context of normal development, shame is the source of low self-esteem, diminished self-image, poor self-concept and deficient body image. Shame itself produces self-doubt and disrupts both security and confidence. It can become an obstacle to the experience of belonging and to sharing intimacy. It is the experiential ground from which conscience and identity inevitably evolve. In the context of pathological development, shame is central to the emergence of alienation, loneliness, inferiority, and perfectionism. It plays a central role in many psychological disorders as well, including depression, paranoia, addiction, and borderline conditions.”
Shame and guilt are always confused with one another. There are two types of guilt; one is “Healthy guilt while the other one is “false guilt”. Healthy guilt is spiritual conviction. It is a barometer that let us know we have done something wrong. Such guilt in result initiates a process that leads repentance, emotional growth, change and recovery. Whereas “false guilt” is “toxic shame”, which does not open a person to the possibility of change. Instead, it makes a person feels there is no hope for healing and recovery and results into alienation from oneself and others, questioning one’s identity, emotionally dead.
Toxic shame is the core of the wounded child. Toxic shame does not say “you have done something wrong”, instead it says “YOU ARE WRONG”. I suspect all of us have suffered abuse in our lives by people important to us – a teacher who humiliated you, a parent who wasn’t sufficiently there to convey you enough good feeling and delight for you to develop a good sense of yourself. Or who violated your privacy, or treated you with contempt, or was physically or sexually abusive. Because shame wounds a person so deeply, healing and recovery are difficult and will take time. No matter how badly wounded you are, recovery is possible and in result you will see yourself as valuable and free person.
The following steps will relief you in your recovery from shame.
- Acknowledge that you are experiencing shame. You are wounded, not defeated.
- Learn how to love yourself. You can choose to love yourself no matter what the past has been and no matter how you feel about yourself. Unconditionally accept yourself. Realize that you don’t have to earn anyone’s, approval by being perfect.
- Forgive those who shamed you. This is one of the most important steps in the healing process. Your ability to forgive others free you from unhealthy emotion that binds you in the vicious cycle of shame.
- Learn to cope with mistakes. Mistakes are opportunities for learning experiences and emotional growth. For those suffering from shame, mistakes can be catastrophic. Don’t be over critical towards your mistakes.
- Form the habit of allowing your mistakes to be stepping stones for growth. Let your mistakes be your teachers rather than your undoing.
- Give yourself time and attention. You need to take time for proper rest, relaxation, nutrition and exercise, get in touch with your feelings and to nourish your soul and spirit.
- Detach from dangerous relationships, and learn to stand on your own two feet. A healthy goal in relationships is a balance of independence and interdependence.
- Learn to be assertive, to say “no” and ask for what you want. This is a powerful way to heal. Reset you boundaries. Balancing self-expression with healthy boundaries aids a person on the path to recovery.
Alan L. Chisholm