High on the list of common emotional wounds is shame. The person with unhealthy shame believes on some level (consciously, semi consciously, unconsciously) that they are deficient, defective, and unworthy. There are many ways this believe system can develop in an individual. It can be learned from parents who hold shame beliefs, it can be learned from any teachers or spiritual leader that hold shame beliefs. Anyone who has experienced abuse in any form will have an unhealthy level of shame. Shame is also often associate with trauma and PTSD.
Shame or Guilt?
It’s important to understand the difference between shame and guilt. Shame takes place when a person evaluates themselves in a negative manner or attributes undesirable characteristics to themselves. For example seeing one’s self as weak, contemptible or unworthy would result in shame.
Guilt on the other hand happens when one views their action in a negative manner. An example of this would be feeling regret or distress for not keeping a promise to someone. Guilt can transform into shame if one judges themselves to “be” a bad person because they did not keep a promise.
The distinction between guilt and shame is important. Guilt motivates us to correct a perceived wrong behavior and often results in an increase sense of self worth. Shame on the other hand often leads to abuse or punishment of one’s self.
So Where does Shame come from?
Shame can be learned from shame based organisations such as churches or religious groups and it can be experienced and learned from community and culture. People with unhealthy shame will usually have a low self esteem. They believe on some level that they are unlovable or undeserving of love and they are often highly self critical.
Shame based people are very performance conscious and need to get things right in order to feel loved (more on this in my Performance Orientation post). Lack of healthy boundaries is another characteristic of the shame based personality. Saying “no” or “I like this but I don’t like that” is often difficult for someone with shame especially when faced with a person they perceive as more powerful.
People with shame have difficulty knowing what they are feeling as they have received a message (usually from an authority figure such as a parent or teacher) that the expression of negative emotions is unacceptable. This lack of self awareness can go very deep and shame based people may find it very difficult to talk about problems or even be aware of them. Sometime people even have difficulty knowing who they are and they experience a sense of non-being.
Appearance is everything! (be careful how much you believe this)
People in shame base system focus on how things appear. Another way of saying this is “if you look good you are good.” It doesn’t matter how you feel just make sure you keep the rules of the group. This leads to a persistent emotional and often physical exhaustion. Maintaining a facade that is not really you (i.e. I always look good.., get it right…, know what to say…, know what to do…, etc…) is exhausting. Nobody really always has it right. If your know someone who seems to believe that they do always have it right then they are misleading you to cover up a sense of inadequacy that comes from being shame based. Or they believe their own lie and their shame based performance has progressed to a delusional level. This delusion is a major ingredient of several personality disorders.
Shame base people either have addictions or a tendency toward them. Commonly known addictions include alcohol, drugs, and compulsive sexual behavior. Less commonly known addictions can include work, religion and even being a nice person. I know people who are compelled to be very “nice” “good” people in order to escape that sense of inadequacy. This is a very subtle form of self-righteousness.
People with shame have often been punished for simply failing to perform according to the “rules” of the relationship or community. Punishment can either take the form of overt abuse or more subtle emotionally coercive interactions. For this reason shame base people find it hard to trust.
Getting the “rules” right leads to a high need for control. When someone needs to always have the correct response, they need people to act the ways that can be anticipated or controlled. When situations don’t happen as anticipated it is so much more difficult for a person to maintain a perfect performance. This intense need for control can lead to obsessive and compulsive dysfunctions and it is always very damaging to relationships.
Throw away people
Shame based families and systems are good at throwing the weaker members away. People in shame based systems usually find it easy to find a way to say “you’re the problem.” They find it nearly impossible to look at their own profound brokenness and admit they have absolutely no power to make themselves right. When someone else has been labelled as the problem they can walk away self righteously justified. They can feel good that they have once again exposed evil and preserved rightness.
The gospel story of the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8:1-11) is a classic example of this.
Jesus reminds us of two simple truths in this story.
- “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
No human has the position to judge and condemn another human (even oneself).
- “Then neither do I condemn you…”
I love you (the discarded woman) enough to save you and give you my power.
If you feel discarded and labelled as the problem, know this… you are being lied to. You may share in the problem… we all do… But you are not the problem in your system or relationship. We are all imperfect and we all contribute to the problem. Say “no” to this label. If you lack the strength to say “no” choose to life and find someone to help you say “no.”
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Until next time…