Every single one of us from the president of the United States to a bum on the street has felt the pull of shame at some point in our lives, unless you’re a psychopath, or supernaturally confident. It is, in my opinion, the absolute worst, most damaging emotion a person can feel. It can cause you to hide unhealthy habits from the people you love, and keep you from getting help. It can also make you feel worthless and ugly, even when you’re at your best. The worst thing about it, is that it hides, lurking just under the surface until you are at your most vulnerable, and then it rears it’s ugly head and drags you under to drown you in self pity and doubt.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D. wrote in her article Why We Feel Shame, and How to Conquer It, “The feeling of shame comes from the belief that, “I am basically flawed, inadequate, wrong, bad, undeserving or not good enough.”” For me this happens every day. Every time I look in the mirror I think, “I am fat, and ugly, and totally worthless.” If I am hungry in the middle of the night, which happens often when I don’t sleep, I think, “I am weak willed, and this is why I will never loose weight.” Even my good traits can seem like flaws to my over critical and shame tinted eyes, for example I like math and I’m right handed. In my mind that means that my left brain is strong and big, and my right brain is shriveled and weak. Since I am an artist, photographer and writer, I think that I can’t possibly be any good at any of those things because creativity lives on the right side. I know this is flawed logic, because I am often told by many people that I am exceptionally creative, but I just can’t shake that feeling of inadequacy.
Shame is seductive. I know that seems like a counter intuitive thing to say, but it’s true. It is all about control. We use shame to assert control over how other people react to us. If someone is busy when I want to talk to them, then I think I must not be interesting. If I am ugly, then it makes sense that people wouldn’t want to look at me. I use shame to deal with almost every negative emotion I feel, and I am so addicted to it that I sometimes use it to avoid feeling good things, too. For example, if my husband tells me I look beautiful, I think, “He’s only saying that because I’m so hideous he feels sorry for me.” There’s that control again. I am taking what he said and twisting it around to say that I am in control of what he thinks, and how he feels about me by being so disgusting he couldn’t possibly feel any other way.
Some articles I’ve read (here, and here) say that shame started out as a defensive strategy to protect ourselves from being abandoned by society. Way back when we first started living in groups it was vital to be accepted or you might find yourself out in the cold with no food or access to water. Many evolutionary psychologists and researchers suggest that same is still a helpful emotion in today’s society. They say that it can help us live within our limitations, keep us with in societal norms, and prevent us from committing crimes.
I disagree profusely with that, and I’ll tell you why: Shame is a runaway horse pulling a wagon full of fertilizer. It can foster change, but it is more likely to breed secrecy. Furthermore, a person who is ashamed may act contrary to their own values in an effort to avoid the feeling of shame. For example, someone who is poor, and ashamed, may steal things in order to promote the illusion of having means. Another person may turn to drugs because they feel worthless, and then rather than seeking help they hide this behavior from their family and friends because they are ashamed that they were not strong enough to resist. When I was a child and had wet the bed, shame had me bunching up my wet bedding, and hiding it in my closet rather than face the shame of telling my parents what I had done. Then I would lie to them about it, saying that those had been there since the last time it happened. Later, when I started smoking at the socially, and legally acceptable age, I did the same thing. I hid it from my family. When I smelled like smoke, I told them I had been standing near some friends while they smoked. When I was caught in the act I would say, “I’m trying to quit,” even if I wasn’t. All because of shame, and rather than protecting my bond with society it drove in a wedge.
So how do we fix it? How do we stop spreading around the shame, and start moving past it? For that I go back to Margaret Paul, “When you let go of your need to control others, and instead move into compassion for yourself and others, you will let go of your false beliefs about yourself that cause the feeling of shame.” Compassion for yourself and others. Wow. That is powerful. Have compassion. Let yourself be okay with falling short sometimes. Remind yourself that we are all only human, and that few if any mistakes are irreversible. Like in alchoholics anonymous, accept the things you can’t change, and find the will to fix the ones you can. Love yourself, and don’t be ashamed to do it! Let go of your control, and open yourself up to feeling your feelings. Above all, know that you are special and unique, and the whole world is bigger, and more diverse, and therefore more beautiful for having you in it.