To many of us shame might seem to be a very specific emotion that only results from certain embarrassing events which we are easily able to put behind us. However, feelings of shame can be much more elusive and have a significant impact on every aspect of our lives.
For some of us childhood can seem like an endless series of hurdles to overcome. At home, particularly if there are other children, we work hard to get the love, attention and approval of the adults around us. We try out different behaviours to find out what works well and what does not and use their responses to decide who we are and how we need to be.
At school we are encouraged to compete against each other. Both formally in exams and regular assessments, and informally in the playground hoping to be picked by class mates to play on their team. Our position in the class, our performance in sports, whether we are a sheep or a shepherd in the nativity play, combine to give us a sense of how we are valued by others and therefore how we should value ourselves.
We may be told we have disappointed others perhaps by failing to achieve what they expected, however unrealistic that might have been. We might also judge ourselves as harshly when we fail to make those around us happy, or are unable to keep our parents from arguing or splitting up.
Some children seem able to shrug off these feelings, particularly if there is enough positive feedback to counteract it. Others develop a sense of personal shame that may stay with them forever.
Shameful Acts or Omissions:
Shame is often connected to an expectation of what will happen. Whenever we use the word 'should', there is a potential source of shame.
When expectations fail to materialise we can feel solely responsible and can be encouraged by others to blame ourselves. As these experiences accumulate self-blame becomes shame as we start to believe that we are unable to achieve what others can. This could include educational opportunities missed through failed exams or chances not taken through a lack of courage or confidence.
Most of us have done things we regret. This might involve hurting others by our actions or through neglect. Being ashamed of what we have done, or left undone, might pass if we are able to recognise the reasons for what occurred. If we believe we are solely to blame because of our personal failings we may develop a sense of shame that becomes an integral part of who we think we are.
Shame is generally a very private emotion. The last thing we would want is to draw attention to shameful aspects of ourselves by telling others how we feel, so we develop a catalogue of protective behaviours to avoid others finding out.
Our inability to meet cultural and societal standards we are told to aspire to can create a lot of negative feelings. When we accept the blame for this, rather than challenging the reality of these sometimes impossible standards, our repeated failures can turn to shame. An obvious source of shame is the belief that we have the wrong body shape or skin tone and, most importantly, that this is in some way our fault.
Many people, particularly youngsters, feel shame following the bullying or abusive actions of others as they are persuaded of their guilt for what occurred. Feelings of shame can also result from unintentional actions. Teachers may fail to identify and respond to difficulties we are experiencing with learning. Rather than recognise this as a failure of the education system, many of us see it as a failure in ourselves.
Impact of Shame:
Specific negative experiences can feed into a more generalised sense of shame about the way we appear in the world. Over time these feelings can become a belief if they are repeated often enough. To be told that something we have done is unforgivable can create a lifelong view of our position in the world, based on the actions of a moment.
Holding a negative perception of ourselves which we believe others would share if they knew can cause us always to hold back so that we do not get noticed.
For many of us shame leads us to feel we do not deserve happiness, success or recognition. When we do achieve any of these, we put it down to chance and feel certain it will not last or that it is a mistake that will soon be discovered.
This sense of not deserving can mean we deny our ambitions and accept only what others might choose to give to us. It is better to live in the shadow of others than have a light shining on us. Many people fear being discovered for who they really are and regard any positive recognition as temporary at best.
Believing that we do not deserve any of the good things in life can quickly lead to a very private form of despair which for some people is too much to bear.
Unravelling our Shame:
Reducing the impact of shame involves understanding the source of our existing beliefs about ourselves and changing the pattern of our thinking so we no longer find reasons to confirm them.
We can begin to appreciate the impact of shame on our life as we unpick our negative feelings across a range of different areas to explore their roots. You may be surprised how much shame you are carrying and how much of it has been dumped on you by others. Some people are quick to express their disappointment with their lives and to shift the blame for this on to others rather than examine themselves.
Doing your best on the day is not enough for someone who believes they could always do better. Are these our expectations or have they been put on to us by others? Separating our ambitions from those of other people, particularly our parents, can release us from a treadmill that will never lead to happiness.
There can be a number of reasons why we fail to achieve what was expected. Bringing to light our actual contribution to an outcome and considering how much is down to the situation, the circumstances or the actions of others can help us separate out what we are really responsible for. Appreciating the reasonableness of any expectations and acknowledging what is our fault and what is not can help to create a different viewpoint.
Seeing every situation as having a unique set of circumstances can also bring about a shift in our perspective. Perhaps then we can recognise that making mistakes does not make us bad and we can feel regret and sorrow without it becoming shame. What we do is not always who we are.
A counsellor can be a helpful support as we change the pattern of our thinking and learn to apply a different mindset when considering our own actions and the actions of others.
© 2018 Michael Golding
About this blog ...
This is a collection of personal thoughts and observations on issues that many people are facing every day.