Frederick Nietzsche said “Everyone needs a sense of shame but no one needs to feel ashamed” meaning that human beings need shame as it teaches us about accepting our limits. It’s a bit like an amber light that comes on when we make a mistake that could damage us and those around us. So it’s like all our emotions, necessary for our survival as a species. It was necessary for the good of the tribe, to stop incest to prevent inbreeding for example. It tells us deeply that something is amiss. And that’s why it feels so awful.
Trauma and the Freeze Response
There is a close connection with feelings of shame after experiencing trauma and the innate survival response of “freeze”. During an attack by a predator in the animal world, freezing, or “playing dead” has many advantages. The attacker just walks away, loses interest, their instincts being to avoid dead meat. It can be the same for humans – if we stop fighting, stop engaging, the attacker may just give up and go away. In the freeze state, in both humans and animals, time slows down and our body sometimes doesn’t even feel pain, the fear of death is suppressed. It is therefore a PROTECTION MECHANISM. With trauma, we can often feel a strong sense of shame for something that was not our fault, simply because we didn’t fight back or run away, or because we couldn’t prevent the trauma from happening.
Back to childhood
It takes very little to trigger our innate shame response and 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 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.
Shame can cause powerlessness
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 – “did you see the way she looked at you – she thinks you’re a total idiot” – or a million other messages with the underlying theme ““you’re not good enough AND everyone knows that.”
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.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
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See also: Trauma and Shame