How Deeper Awareness Can Eliminate Shame

Shame is largely a mystery to those people who suffer from the painful affliction. It’s even a mystery to psychological experts who struggle to define it. However, we can get clarity and understanding about it when we go deep into our psyche.

Better yet, with deep awareness we can completely eliminate shame and its accompanying suffering.

Let’s first discuss the surface aspects of this negative emotion. Shame is more than just the awful feeling that one has done something wrong. With shame, a person often feels that he or she is a phony, fake, or imposter. Sometimes the person feels like a complete loser or utter failure as a human being.

We can be entirely innocent of wrong-doing, yet still feel shame. Examples include feeling shame in association with sexual functions or deficiencies, elimination processes, social ineptness, impressions of being looked down on by others, and allegedly being ugly or clumsy. Hence, we often feel shame for emotional, irrational reasons.

Shame is also frequently associated with one’s behaviors or actions. Drug addicts, alcoholics, and compulsive gamblers can feel great shame in the aftermath of their self-defeating behaviors. So can individuals who lack self-regulation with food, shopping, video games, pornography, or other compulsive activities. Shame can certainly be an appropriate emotion when someone does something truly disgusting or perverse.

Since shame is not based on particular circumstances or behaviors (we can feel it for a wide range of circumstances even when innocent of wrongdoing), it obviously must originate in our mysterious psyche where emotional, irrational dynamics are largely unconscious.

Before plunging into the psyche, we can make important distinctions that bring the experience of shame into better focus. The first distinction is between guilt and shame. Guilt is a painful sense of having committed wrongful behavior, while shame goes deep into one’s essence, involving doubt about one’s value and worth as a person. Guilt feels as if one deserves to be punished, but shame feels as if one is in the process of being punished.

A distinction can also be made between embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment usually involves public humiliation, while shame is mostly a very private form of suffering.

Looking more deeply, we discover that the problem of shame involves our inner critic. This agency in our psyche is a universal problem for humankind. Our inner critic produces a voice or feeling (often registered unconsciously) that mocks, harasses, and condemns us for our slightest misdemeanors and even for imagined transgressions. Yet by itself our inner critic doesn’t produce guilt or shame.

We feel guilt when we absorb the condemnation or give some credence to its allegations. When shame is involved, we have taken the process a step further. To a more intense or profound degree, we now “buy into” (or absorb the implications of) the condemning voice of our inner critic.

What is the process whereby the negative aggression from the inner critic pierces so deeply into our very being? Obviously, we are somehow failing to protect ourselves on an inner level.

Involved in our lack of self-protection is another agency in our psyche, inner passivity. Our self-doubt and defensiveness are aspects of inner passivity. This passivity is the primary ingredient of our unconscious or subordinate ego (to use terms from psychoanalysis). The unconscious ego is subordinate to the superego (inner critic). The primary unresolved conflict in the human psyche is between inner passivity and inner aggression (the unconscious ego versus the superego).

Because of inner passivity, we absorb the aggression from our inner critic instead of deflecting it. In absorbing the aggression, we are going to suffer in some way. If we feel only guilt, we are sensing that we deserve to be punished for the accusation or disparagement dished out by the superego. If we feel shame, however, we are in the process of accepting punishment for the disparagement directed at us from our inner critic.  In our emotional weakness and disconnect from self, we truly feel that punishment is warranted.

This process corresponds to the self-disgust we felt in childhood when we “bought into” admonishments such as “Shame on you!” or “For shame!” that were directed our way by an authority figure. Shame’s blush on the cheeks was like a slap in the face. Now the authority figure punishing us is our inner critic. Because of inner passivity, we still react like a child.

In essence, shame is produced through our surrender to the bullying of our inner critic. Because of inner passivity, we fail to stand up for ourself. It means we are a party to our own self-rejection, which may be the most shameful circumstance of all.

With this insight, we can begin to stand up to our inner critic and refuse to let it bully us. Much more is revealed about the inner critic and inner passivity in my book, The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself From Inner Passivity.