Frederick Nietzsche said “Everyone needs a sense of shame but no one needs to feel ashamed” and he is referring to the fact that human beings need shame as it teaches us about accepting our limits, it gives us boundaries, a bit like an amber light that comes on when we make a mistake that could damage us and those around us. Charles Darwin pointed out that blushing is an innate part of our human nature. However the effect of toxic shame, not only on an individual but several generations of a family or a community or even a nation, can be catastrophic.
This is a 3-part blog article on what is the most misunderstood and not talked about human emotion. The following 2 parts (click here and here) will look at the healing and recovery process. The image shows the biblical Eve covering herself and lowering her head in shame in sculptor Rodin’s Eve after the Fall.
Toxic shame can overpower a person’s whole personality. They don’t simply feel that “I made a mistake” but rather “I AM a mistake.” It is an emotion that parents can pass onto their children, and can be passed down many generations. A person may sometimes carry a sense of shame without knowing why, and it might even relate to events which occurred before they were born. This makes it difficult to access as we cannot heal what we cannot feel. The very power of shame lies in its secretiveness, its darkness. It creates the feeling of a need to cover up.
What is the difference between guilt and shame and why do we feel them?
Shame is the feeling and belief that “I am bad or unlovable” whereas guilt is the feeling of “I broke a rule, I shouldn’t have done that.” Human beings are both social cooperative creatures but also aggressive. It would have been difficult or impossible for humans to live in close-knit families and clans over the course of our history without destroying each other and so Nature’s answer was the development of guilt, shame and other emotional inhibitions or restraints designed specifically to counteract aggressive self-assertion within the family and other close relationships.
We often use the two terms interchangeably but in counselling, it is important to know that the two can be quite different. Shame is internalised and deeply connected to our sense of who we are whereas guilt is often passing. Shame is never healthy or useful but guilt can be healthy and useful. Shame always leads to disconnection from others whereas guilt can lead to healing. Confessing our errors allows us to be vulnerable with others, so guilty feelings can prompt us to build a connection through communication or changed behaviour. Shame prevents us from feeling strong enough to confess our mistakes, making us defensive when others point them out.
What causes shame?
Shame is very often the result of childhood experiences. For a child, the sudden sense of being vulnerable (perhaps when ridiculed in a classroom by a school teacher) before they have developed any ego boundaries to protect themselves, triggers basic defence mechanisms – chiefly around covering up. This pattern, if repeated, can become automatic. It can lead to the creation of a false identity. If a child is abused by a much bigger and stronger adult, they are unable to express anger and so that anger starts to be replaced by shame.
What are the effects of shame?
Shame causes people to become passive, people pleasers, doormats or the polar opposite – angry, violent, rejecting authority. If we feel powerless ourselves, helping others can make us feel better, it’s a distraction from our own inadequacy. We no longer need external events to add to the shame – our own internal critic starts to torment us – “you handled that badly, they must think you’re a complete idiot.” A chronic low grade depression can result. If those ridiculing or abusing us are our parents, it causes a dilemma for a child: the child’s instinct is to idealise their parent – they rely on them for survival and so it is easier for them to label themselves bad.
It can create a kind of living hell when a person never finds their true self. It also makes it difficult for them to connect with other people and yet we have a basic need as humans to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, to belong. This urge is one of our strongest and so the effects of not being to get the need met causes us to suffer emotionally.
The list of potential effects is long and makes for depressing reading indeed:
• An overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation
• Perfectionism as in “I have to be perfect to avoid the taint of the shame.”
• Feelings self-hatred, self-disgust, low self- esteem and self –confidence
• A distortion of body image, feeling ugly which in turn can lead to eating disorders
• Numbing out or dissociation
• Reduced ability to relate to others especially in intimate relationships
• Reduced ability to be learn new things
• Reduced ability to care for yourself.
• Self-destructive behaviours such as abusing your body with food, alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
• Self harm or suicide
• Believing if others really knew you they would dislike or be disgusted by you (commonly known as the “imposter syndrome”)
• Depression – often constant low level
• Anxiety and panic attacks
• Obsessive compulsive disorder – for example being obsessed with germs and maintaining a hygienic environment
• People-pleasing and co-dependent behaviour
• Tending to be critical of others (trying to give shame away)
• Intense rage (frequent physical fights or road rage)
• Acting out against society (breaking rules or laws).
Can shame cause physical symptoms?
Yes. Shame has a direct effect on the body. It depletes the adrenal glands and uses up valuable nutrients that the body needs to sustain itself. This can lead to chronic fatigue and all kinds of physical symptoms including chronic pain.
Passing shame down generations
All of us have lived with the bitter feelings of shame at one time or another and all families have some dark secrets. Emotional, physical, and sexual child abuse can so overwhelm a victim with shame that it actually comes to define the person, keeping her from her full potential. Patterns of abuse can be repeated in cycles where former abuse victims may repeat the cycle of abuse by emotionally, physically, or sexually abusing their own children, or may abandon their children because they can’t take care of them.
Sexual abuse is particularly shameful however, because tragically the person who should feel the shame of it – the abuser – usually never owns it and the victim then carries it. Penny Parks says in her book “Rescuing The Inner Child”: “The aggressor projects the blame and guilt onto the child and the child accepts that projection as truth. It is like life imprisonment for a crime that someone else has committed.”
Society and shame
Entire nations can feel the burden of collective shame. In 2008 German chancellor, Angela Merkel delivered a speech in the Israeli Knesset where she said that her nation is “filled with shame” over the Nazi holocaust and that she bows before its victims. “The mass murder of six million Jews, carried out in the name of Germany, has brought indescribable suffering to the Jewish people, Europe and the entire world. The Shoah fills us Germans with shame. I bow before the victims. I bow before the survivors and before all those who helped them survive,” she said, using the Hebrew word for Holocaust.
Ireland has also its shameful past which we are gradually coming to terms with. A recent powerful documentary (Christina Noble: In a house that ceased to be) about the work and life of Dublin-born Christina Noble showed how her mission in life was a result of her own appalling childhood. Over the past 25 years she has saved an untold number of children, victims of neglect, poverty and abuse in countries such as Vietnam and Mongolia. After her mother died, she and her siblings were separated from their alcoholic father and from each other and placed in care by the courts. All four spent the rest of their childhoods suffering the worst that Institutions of State and church have perpetrated. Each of the siblings at one point believed (and indeed were told) the others were dead. In the documentary Christina said: “The horrors they went through, with no one to tell…I pray that this will give them a little chance to feel that there is some justice. That they have a voice. They came out and carried the shame of being locked up and hid everything.”
For more information about abuse, go to my Abuse Counselling Cork page.
For more support and advice
If you have been affected by any aspect of shame or guilt and would like to talk it over with someone who understands, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!