Why do I feel shame?

A shame reaction is triggered by an event in which one experiences deep humiliation. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, a fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, two charlatans convince the emperor that the suit they have made for him is only visible to those worthy enough to see it. The emperor does not want to be seen as being unworthy and so he pretends to see, and goes out in public believing that he looks majestic but in reality is wearing no clothes. It is only when a child points and laughs that the emperor realizes he has been fooled. He feels humiliated, and the experience of wanting to grow small and disappear is called shame.

On a physiological level, shame triggers a flight or fight reaction, which was discussed in a previous podcast. This reaction is automatic, and is a response to threat. With shame the threat is internal, it is a threat to the self-esteem, and just like animals protect themselves in different ways when threatened, depending on their physical characteristics, so too do people respond in different ways. A lion, for example, has sharp claws, with which to defend himself. A tortoise, however, has a hard shell in which it must retreat as a defense. People, based on their personality traits and temperament will also respond in different ways. A fight response would be to lash out with verbal or physical aggression, whereas a flight response is to withdraw and avoid as a defense against danger. The following are several examples illustrating internal threats:

Example 1:

If making a mistake is felt to be indicative of a character flaw then making a mistake will be experienced as unacceptable. A person with low self-worth will therefore have difficulty making decisions, and prefer to defer to others as a defense against blame if the outcome is negative. This behavior however will render a person vulnerable to being manipulated and controlled, and will also foster a dependence on others to make decisions for them and to manage their lives. Since good decision-making doesn’t just happen, it is a skill that requires practice, a person who has not acquired this skill, will be unable to be truly autonomous, and when confronted with this realization they will experience shame.

Example 2:

If failure or criticism, even constructive, is unable to be tolerated, situations in which new skills must be mastered will be avoided. Not only will this result in a life that becomes dull and mundane, but the act of avoidance will reinforce a false belief that you are unable to succeed, and this internalized feeling of self-doubt will provoke a feeling of shame.

Example 3:

It is common when there is a feeling of inadequacy to constantly seek out reassurance from others, and to also make social comparisons in the attempt to feel adequate. The problem with engaging in this type of behavior is that those with low self-worth tend to choose a criterion, in which they are weak, and make a comparison with someone who happens to be strong on that particular attribute. This is quite unfortunate because people are not created equally, and no matter what, we can all find ourselves on the deficient end of the comparison, and so engaging in this exercise provides no meaningful information but will likely induce feelings of shame.

Example 4:

A person with low-self worth will suppress their individuality, they fear they will be rejected if they have feelings and opinions that are different, and so they conceal them. Unfortunately, after hiding one’s feelings from others for so long, they also become hidden from oneself. Since feelings are the essence of who we are, being disconnected from our feelings, will cause us to become strangers even to ourselves. This is an alienating experience, making it difficult to feel connected, and to form attachments, which causes feelings of shame.

Example 5:

A person with low self-esteem has an internal voice that constantly questions and doubts their competence and worthiness. Keeping compulsively busy is therefore a way to block out this self-deprecating voice. The problem however, with compulsively doing is that stress is likely to build, and if it cannot be managed it will interfere and eventually undermine one’s ability to function. Since achievements and accomplishments are used to validate self-worth, then the opposite experience, disappointment and failure, is seen as evidence of deficiency. This is a shameful state of mind.

Example 6:

A person with low self-esteem has a fear of experiencing rejection and therefore wants to make strong attachments quickly. There is an impulse to grab, and hold tightly onto the other in order to keep them from leaving. They believe that when they are inevitably seen in the unforgiving light of reality their flaws will be exposed and they will no longer be wanted. It is natural to want attachments, and it is painful when a relationship ends, but for a person who doubts their self-worth this is a shameful experience since the loss feels like proof of one’s unworthiness.

Example 8:

Since those with low self-worth often look to others for validation they render their self-esteem vulnerable to the attitudes and opinions of others. What this means, is that if others are disappointed then you will come to see yourself as a disappointment, and if they are pleased with you then you will see yourself as desirable. This, of course, is a fallacy because the opinion of others does not change who you are. By attaching your self-esteem to the attitude of another you give them power over your self-image.

A parent, for example, may have an expectation that their young child should be able to color perfectly within the lines, and then become disappointed and even angry if their expectation is unmet. They may see their child as lazy or careless or even defiant, when in fact their child may not yet have acquired the fine motor skills needed for this task. Even though this expectation is unrealistic and one that cannot be met, the child would sadly conclude, if it happened often enough, that he or she was a disappointment and a failure. This is an example of an expectation that is unrealistic, but there are also examples of expectations that are unreasonable, and therefore should not be met.

I remember when my daughter first learned to drive, she had a minor accident with a parked car, and she did what she was taught to do, she left a note with her contact information. Since I was the parent, she left my contact with the note claiming responsibility. If a parent, however, got angry and was disappointed with their child for doing the right thing, and this happened often enough, a child would likely conclude that they were incapable of doing the “right” thing, and that there must be something wrong with them.
Feeling a parent’s anger especially if it is excessive is a distressing emotional experience, one that a child often defends against by trying to be perfect so as never to induce their parent’s rage again.

Unfortunately, once the need for perfection exists a feeling of inadequacy has already been internalized, and so no matter how accomplished, they will never feel good enough. When a goal they set is reached but the feeling of inadequacy hasn’t gone away, another higher goal is set, hoping that when that one is reached, the negative feeling will go away but it never does, and so the goalpost is moved yet again and again in the hope of finding relief and feeling adequate.

Example 9:

For some people power and control are a central theme in their relationships. They need to always be in control, and are sensitively attuned to power imbalances or perceived inequalities. For them, being in control, or being in the one-up position provides a feeling of security.
The English philosopher Bertram Russell claimed that power is fundamental to relationships in the same way that energy is central to physics. Power is therefore not destructive but only becomes problematic when it is used to assert dominance and superiority. Since we are a product of our past, experiences from the past continue to exert an impact on the present. A person who needs to control and dominate may therefore have felt shame associated with feeling helpless in their past.
Perhaps they were bullied in school or maybe they felt intimidated by a powerful and successful parent or felt small and defenseless in the presence of an aggressive and demeaning one.

As an adult there is therefore a need to defend against a feeling of vulnerability by always being in control.
Controlling behaviors aren’t always coercive but sometimes they are subtle and manipulative.

All the above examples, are examples of the kinds of behaviors that we unconsciously engage in in order to protect our self-esteem, but instead we hurt our self-esteem because the experience of shame, especially unconscious shame often results in self-defeating behaviors that cause problems in our lives. It is therefore necessary to recognize the motivations driving your behavior so you can evaluate whether or not your actions are appropriate.

Let’s return once again to shame. Earlier I spoke about the conditions needed for a feeling of self-worth to become internalized, and I explained that if these conditions were not sufficiently met then the self-esteem would be built upon the wobbly foundation of low-self worth. What this means is that stabilizing the self- esteem in the here and now is difficult because shame is so easily activated. And so, in order to protect ourselves from this distressing and humiliating feeling, we often act in ways, which ironically bring about that which we are trying to prevent. Since “self-worth” and “self-esteem” are concepts or constructs that are not easy to conceptualize, I find it helpful to use a farming metaphor to reframe these ideas, in which the soil represents “self-worth” and a tomato seedling represents the developing “self-esteem”. Just like a healthy crop is dependent on optimal soil conditions, a healthy self-esteem is dependent upon an internalized feeling of self-worth. And just like different kinds of soil need different amounts of nutrients to create the conditions needed for optimal growth, so to do people have different kinds of temperaments.

Creating the optimal environment for growth can also be applied to human development, since one child might need a lot of attention to feel loved, and another child may want less attention because they easily feel impinged upon and controlled. Since we all have a different past, it is important to have insight into how our own childhood experiences impact how we relate in the present. Your parent, for example, might have had an experience, of ‘not getting enough’ in their childhood, and so they may want to protect you from experiencing this feeling of neglect by giving ‘too much’. If your parent, on the other hand, had an experience of being over-controlled, they may want to protect you from the intrusiveness and feeling of suffocation by pulling back and becoming under-involved.

It is therefore possible that a parent-child dyad might not be a good fit. In both these circumstances the parent’s behavior is driven by their anxiety not to repeat what was done to them. They remember how they felt and imagine that their child will have the same negative experience, but their child is not an extension of them, and because of their projection the feelings and needs of their child are often overlooked. This creates an invalidating experience, and returning to our harvest metaphor, creates a less than optimal environment for the sapling to thrive.

Just like a plant needs a different kind of attention at each different stages of its growth so does a child need a different quality of care at the different stages of his development. A sapling, for example, requires that the temperature of the soil remain warm, and mulch be added at just the right moment to prevent fungus. If it is added too early the soil will cool, and if it is added too late fungus might already have taken hold. At a later stage, pruning becomes important but this too requires judgment, if too few leaves are removed sunlight cannot penetrate through and reach the growing fruit, and if too many leaves are removed the fruit will suffer because the surface area is insufficient for photosynthesis to produce the sugar needed for flavor. And this is simply a plant, not a complex human being.

I’m hoping you are able to recognize how difficult the task of raising a person is, and even though failing to provide what is needed at a particular stage of development may have a negative consequence, the failure is not always due to negligence or a lack of caring but rather due to the inherent limitations of being a human being, and the difficulty and magnitude of the task.

Unfortunately, for a young child who has limited cognitive abilities, and who is able to draw only simple cause-effect conclusions, these “mistakes” are often felt to be confirmation of their inherent shortcomings. A child, who is developmentally egocentric, is likely to falsely conclude that if they were “special” they would have received the kind of attention they longed for.

Feeling good enough at one’s core is an internal feeling of self-worth, and unfortunately if this feeling is absent then one’s self-esteem will be vulnerable to the disappointment and the disapproval of others. Since we all disappoint and experience criticism from time to time, when this happens to a person with low self-worth, shame will make an unwelcome appearance, and result in a complete loss of self-esteem. This is a shame reaction.