Updated: Aug 29, 2022
“Shame is a soul eating emotion.”― Carl Gustav Jung
"You should be ashamed of yourself!” How many times have heard that phrase? Being on the receiving end of such a pronouncement is never pleasant. Yet, little is written about shame because shame is an embarrassing topic. Shame has a devastating effect on emotional and mental health. Early life experiences, such as being physically or emotionally neglected or sexually abused, lead to shame and often to personality disorders. That is when shame loses its fleeting character and turns into a character trait. It becomes a state of being, an element of one’s identity.
Shame is considered to be a central emotion in many personality disorders. The narcissistic person lives without the ability to experience shame in stable states of mind. Narcissism occurs when one believes that he or she is somehow uniquely entitled to special treatment in the world. It can be based on an irrational belief of superiority, but it can also be founded on an irrational sense of inferiority.
As a result, individuals often become inflexible and intolerant, shifting their unconscious shame on others believing they are entitled to attack and bring justice. Unhealthy toxic shame is the core element of all compulsions including, co-dependency, lying, addiction, and the drive to overachieve or underachieve. This toxic shame results in the breakdown of our self-esteem, the devastation of the family system and the inability to move forward.
Shame is a tool of perpetrators, and sadly, their victims often become cruel themselves.
Shame and perfectionism.
One of the masks of toxic shame in psychology is perfectionism.
The perfectionist does not know boundaries, (s)he does not feel them. He or she doesn't know when to say "enough" and behaves in an authoritarian manner.
Such a person does not acknowledge that (s)he may be wrong, (s)he does not give him\herself the right to do so. This is very limiting - when you assume that you are absolutely right, you give up searching for new information.
People fear public ridicule the most. Meanwhile, in the era of rapid judgment and ensuing internet outrage shame is a tool we use so often.
Why do people sometimes find others’ suffering funny? We know it is harmful, so, why do we do it?
Have you ever laughed at someone who made a mistake or was visibly struggling? Humiliation, like embarrassment, often seems to be a casual act. A close friend of mine who is lovely, but very judgemental, has this terrible habit of negatively evaluating a person and inviting an audience to join in this evaluation. I always recognised her narcissistic traits and deep down I knew that her harsh judgments were not only about other people or material objects, but also about herself as well.
Even though she always acts as extremely confident, generous, and smart, she is actually painfully insecure on the inside. In fact, as far as I remember she was locked into a habit of criticising other people and their behaviour. She often used sarcasm and mockery in casual conversations, which is incredibly useful for putting limitations on people and doing a bit of screwy mind control tricks. I always wondered about our dynamics. She attracts and irritates me at the same time. Of course, both of these feelings appear to be significant information about me. Since I devoted myself to processing my feelings, rather than letting them build up until they drained me, no judgement is straightforward anymore. And to be honest, so often the last thing I want to do is to feel my feelings. Because feeling can hurt.
Shame and avoidance.
So, in a past, I learned to stifle my sensitivity and emotion in a well-meaning but mistaken effort to protect myself and those around me by using a familiar and comforting way of coping - namely, avoidance.
Avoidance, as one of the main defences against shame and trauma, serves the function of decreasing excessive emotional arousal activated by distressing events. It may help preserve self-esteem in the face of significant disruption.
Perhaps the upbringing in my home country, where there is a culture of judgement and people bond over their shared condemnations, equipped me with some very special protective mechanisms, so I do not have to react when a close friend spit the shame on me. But what does it say about both of us?
The language of shame.
So anyway, that friend of mine rang me recently to do a bit of catch-up after some months of dropping out of contact. I was delighted to hear from her. And as I was listening to her, suddenly, great big “Meta Model” alarm bells went off in my head. The neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a psychological approach that involves analyzing strategies used by successful people and applying them in our lives and it describes the fundamental dynamics between mind (neuro) and language (linguistic). Proponents of NLP believe everyone’s perception of the world is distorted, limited, and unique.NLP Meta Model is a model for dealing with distortions, generalisation and deletion in everyday language.
Human beings rely on language to share their experience. I realised that the structure of her language patterns was an example of what in NLP is called “a Lost Performative”, which can be a powerful hypnotic language. What it does is make a personal judgement seem to be a universal rule. It makes whatever judgement the person is making seem indisputable. Add that use of language to the amplified emotional state - like the sort of confused state you might be in if have been told off by an authority figure - and suddenly you have a potent brew.
So, think about it. How do you feel when someone criticises your choices? Does it make any difference to your emotional response whether you hear: “The trousers you bought are really ugly” or “Those trousers will look good on you, but they are not my style?”.
The first sentence hides prejudice and is a way for people to limit others as much as… themselves.
That’s right. The reality is that we judge others because deep down who we judge the most is ourselves. We lack confidence, have low self-esteem, and hide it by projecting all our insecurities onto others.
And in my professional and personal opinion, shame is at the root of both our behaving: the strong judgement of my friend and my choice of disconnecting myself from the experience by avoiding it.
Shame: The Silent Killer.
Shame is everything that keeps us stagnant, that keeps us sick, and that keeps us feeling broken. Most of us struggle to describe shame because it’s so unbearable that we generally don’t tolerate it. We push it down or cover it over with feelings that we can handle, and often these are all we know of shame.
In society generally, we’re told that to suppress our pain is ‘brave’ and to express it is ‘attention-seeking’. I grew up with this philosophy burned deep into me - in many dangerous ways.
And then I understood. This “formless thing” in the space between me and my judgemental friend which stopped us from connecting, was a part of both of us just covered by different masks.
How did we end up there?
It starts with our toxic culture. And yes, our parents played an important role by sending the harmful messages expressing disapproval and disappointment that focuses not on actions, but aspects of the self. Abuse, neglect, and emotionally (or physically) distant parenting… there is so much of it.
Shaming is wrong, it is a kind of attack on a person. This is not a straightforward message that something is being done incorrectly. In adulthood, we need the ability to reflect on our own actions and make corrections to them.
In order to heal, it is important to become curious about our actions and their origins. The practice of being curious helps you cultivate insight, a deeper understanding that leads to compassion and acceptance.