O Shame, Where is Thy Secret Source?

We can penetrate more deeply into the roots of shame.

Self-knowledge helps us to penetrate more deeply into the roots of shame.

Shame is a powerful and self-damaging emotion, and many books in recent years have tackled the subject in search of its roots. Some experts say shame is “the quintessential negative emotion” because it influences so many different moods and behaviors.

While shame can saturate our emotional life, most sufferers don’t understand its roots deep in our psyche. (I wrote about shame in an earlier post, “How Deeper Awareness Can Eliminate Shame,” and this is a fresh attempt to help readers understand the affliction.)

Shame is the painful sense that there exists a dark secret or an exposed truth about some vile, disgusting, or pitiful aspect of oneself. The negative emotion sometimes lies dormant until triggered by a situation or event in a person’s life. Other times, shame is active within us on a daily basis. Whether we’re conscious of our shame or not, it can play an important role in obesity, addictions, depression, crime, violent behaviors, sexual offenses, social phobias, career failure, outbursts of anger, and other self-defeating behaviors.

Shame is often associated with external variables such as our appearance, clothes, social skills, and a sense of physical and mental ineptitude. It’s also associated with inner fears such as being exposed as a fake or phony, and experiencing or imagining ridicule over our handling of money.

We have a better chance of overcoming shame when we know where it comes from and how it’s produced. Shame itself is a byproduct of forces, drives, and conflicts in our psyche. It’s more likely to be a problem for us if we were harshly treated and severely punished in childhood. We’re more likely to have acquired a deep sense of being flawed, defective, unworthy, inferior, and bad. Chances are we’ll grow up with a compulsion to punish ourselves for allegedly being a misfit or a loser, and we can use shame as a means of administering that punishment. The blushing associated with shame (the reddening effect on the skin of being beaten) represents the anticipation or acceptance of punishment.

The shame-filled person “buys into” the allegations of others (or the allegations from his or her inner critic) that he or she is a vile, disgusting, or pitiful creature. The allegations or accusations are often completely irrational and false. They’re unfair and unkind, and have no bearing on reality. Nonetheless, shame-prone people accept and even embrace the accusations because the condemnation feels so familiar, right, and true. The condemnation they once absorbed in childhood (and now absorb from their inner critic) causes them to resonate inwardly with the “truth” of the accusations. They’re convinced emotionally that their very being is genuinely associated with dishonor, disgrace, and unworthiness. They feel deserving of condemnation and punishment.   

We can have problems with shame even when we had good, kind-hearted parents. Genetic factors can play a role in whether we’ll be emotionally strong or emotionally unstable. These factors can influence how sensitive we are to the normal rough-and-tumble of childhood. It’s also common for us as children to misinterpret events and situations, and to be determined in our self-centeredness to feel that we don’t get enough love, support, recognition, and encouragement. In this way, too, we end up with low self-esteem, which means that we’re essentially passive, that we don’t have a strong center that can protect us and represent our interests against the aggressiveness of others as well as against the mean, irrational inner critic that we all acquire. Shame is an emotional weakness that’s often associated with shyness and with how able we are to stand up for ourselves, on both an inner and outer level.

Shame is a common experience for the adult children of alcoholic parents, religious fundamentalists, narcissistic or depressed parents, and parents who embarrassed themselves and exhibited pronounced character weakness. The shame we felt for parents and the weakness we saw in them become our own shame and weakness.

Shame often originates, then, out of a profoundly passive position in our psyche. The individual is accepting punishment not for “crimes” committed but for his or her very existence. Shame says, “I’m sorry for who I am and I accept punishment for who I am.” This is an exceedingly passive self-assessment that borders on unconscious, non-sexual masochism. Such masochism is a core ingredient in inner passivity, which is the unconscious self-doubt that I write about in many of the posts at this website.

“Doubt,” wrote psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, “is the brother of shame.” Research professor Brené Brown has written, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” Put another way, inner passivity is the part of us that believes we are incapable of change.  

Parents and others have used shame as a means of control (“For shame!” or “Shame on you!”) in order to render a person compliant and passive. People who are bullied, and have been passive to the bully, typically feel shame in themselves. Child victims of sexual abuse are thrown into profound passivity by the experience, and much of their shame comes from the horror of their helplessness and paralysis against the power of the perpetrator. The expression, “It’s a crying shame,” also signifies a connection to passivity.

Literature contains examples of the connection between shame and inner passivity. Here’s an excerpt from Till We Have Faces: A Novel of Cupid and Psyche, by C.S. Lewis:

–I felt ashamed.

–But of what? Psyche, they hadn’t stripped you naked or anything?

–No, no, Maia. Ashamed of looking like a mortal—of being a mortal.

–But how could you help that?

–Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, the passive connotations of shame, in association with a lack of self-regulation, are illustrated in this passage:

–Why are you drinking? demanded the little prince.

–So that I may forget, replied the tippler.

–Forget what? inquired the little prince, who was already sorry for him.

–Forget that I am ashamed, the tippler confessed, hanging his head.

–Ashamed of what? insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.

–Ashamed of drinking.

The tippler is ashamed of his weakness with regard to self-regulation, and that weakness is directly related to inner passivity.

It’s important to know that shame emerges from inner passivity. As a symptom of a deeper issue, shame can be impervious to a direct approach. It can, however, be undermined from below when we burrow deep enough to expose its roots in inner passivity. We can begin to eliminate inner passivity as we see how, through it, we allow ourself to be harassed and bullied by our inner critic or superego. We become empowered as we begin to take responsibility for having let our inner critic get away with being a bully.

Inner passivity is also the weakness within us that makes us defensive in our dealings with other people. When we begin to recognize and put a stop to our inner and outer defensiveness, we are shifting our consciousness away from (or out of) inner passivity. The inner strength we begin to feel makes us very pleased—not at all ashamed—to be who we are.

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