As a self-conscious emotion, shame informs you of an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonor, or regret about which others may or may not be aware. Another person, circumstance, or situation can trigger shame in you, but so can a failure to meet your own ideals or standards whether or not they are perfectionist. Given that shame can lead you to feel as though your whole self is flawed, bad, or subject to exclusion, it makes you want to withdraw or hide yourself. So it is no wonder that shame lurks behind addictions that seek to mask its impact.
Shame is often confused with guilt–an emotion you might experience as a result of a wrongdoing about which you might feel remorseful and wish to make amends. Where you will likely have an urge to admit guilt, or talk with others about a situation that left you with guilty feelings, it is much less likely that you will broadcast your shame. In fact, you’ll most likely conceal what you feel because shame does not make a distinction between an action and the self. Therefore, with shame, “bad” behavior is not separate from a “bad” self as it is with guilt.
A situation, real or imagined, might trigger a shame response when you experience yourself to be inferior in a competitive endeavor; when others might become aware of information that you want to cover-up; or, if you anticipate being viewed as lacking or inadequate, such as in intellect, appearance, or sexual performance. For example, a woman who had gained a significant amount of weight had difficulty leaving her house because she wanted to avoid the shame that was triggered by being in public. She devalued herself, and her expectation was that others would denigrate her. Likewise, a man who anticipated being judged as inadequate would manipulate, in surreptitious ways, the self-esteem of his partner. When she became weak, self-conscious, and needed his approval, he was then more confident, as well as able to blame her for any failure on his part.
Blaming or denigrating others serves to disown what the shameful person feels. Shame may lead a person to make attributions about others that are disguised attempts to restore a positive self-view or hide negative self-perceptions. In order to escape shame’s self-diminishing effects, a person might instead denigrate others or express contempt toward them. Thus a person might attempt to bolster his own view of himself by finding flaws in others so that they become the one who is shameful.
In this same way, shame is especially difficult, if not toxic, for children because it is an emotion that is concealed, especially by victims of aggression or abuse. The anticipation of being shamed by peers creates anxiety in a child if he is the object of bullying. As I discussed in a previous blog (“Do Bullies Really Have Low-Self-esteem?”) shame can be experienced as such a negative, intense emotion of self-loathing that it can lead one to disown it, and, in the case of one who acts like a bully, give it away by evoking that emotion in others. Kids who bully and tease can easily figure out what makes other kids ashamed, and they are highly skilled at triggering the emotion of shame in peers. And this makes shame a contagious emotion. Children also are subject to the transmission of shame when they are related to someone who is behaving shamefully. When children are emotionally or physically abandoned, abused, or neglected they often take on the shame that belongs to the adult who left or hurt them by assuming that it’s because they themselves are the “bad” one. Some children behave in ways that make them culpable for the shame that belongs to their parents.
On the other hand, parents can experience intense shame because of the behavior of their children. Since an ideal, as a parent, is that children will represent one’s best efforts and merits, a child who fails to achieve the desired goals, or whose behavior is an embarrassment, reflects negatively and evokes a shame response. Some parents deny any culpability in the misbehavior of their children in an attempt to disown their shame. Other parents accept too much responsibility and shame for any wrongdoing of a child.
Shame is also contagious if you take on the lethal projections of shame from a partner–especially one who is abusive. Relocating one’s own shame in another person is not unusual, and it is a typical self-protective maneuver among narcissists. A narcissistic personality who hides his shame might provoke envy in others when he is plagued with self-doubt and envy himself, or project his own shame in the form of contempt. Narcissistic personalities often have the emotion of shame at their core. Needing to hide a devalued sense of self, they can appear self-inflating. Similarly, a self-deprecating manner can easily disguise a wish for approval and restoration of pride. Always fearing a negative evaluation by others, the narcissist will devalue others, or express hostile indignation about the success of those he envies, in order to deflect the shame from which he wishes to hide.
Any situation that devalues the self and triggers shame can also trigger anger or even rage. This includes situations that incite envy, stir up comparisons, evoke a fear of abandonment, or rouse fantasies about a rival’s relative happiness, among other things. The anger experienced by a person who is shamed is like an all-consuming poison and it occupies a great deal of conscious thought. But if a person who is consumed by shame manages to transfer shame to a loved one, then that person will experience its overwhelming toxic repercussions. Shame, when it is taken on by a partner or loved one, can physically and emotionally make a person ill.
Regardless of the trigger, when shame is experienced the deterioration of an esteemed sense of self can be devastating. In addition to the many emotions that can accompany shame, such as envy, anger, rage, and anxiety, we can also include the affects of sadness, depression, depletion, loneliness, and emptiness as a result. And this is where shame can become a dangerous emotion. When shame is experienced as overwhelming, it can negatively color how you view yourself and how you assess the prospect of recovering your self-esteem. Even so, people do recover from experiencing shame.
As with all emotions, shame requires perspective since it is placed in the context of one’s environment and current concerns. Negative interpersonal experiences that leave you feeling intense affects such as jealousy, envy, anger, or rage can alert you to the possibility of shame contagion. So you must guard against taking on shame that does not belong to you. One must always assess the inclination to hide when the emotion of shame is triggered. Hiding often accompanies behaviors that are themselves a trigger for further shame, such as addictions, compulsive behaviors, harsh self-criticism, or self-denigration. Don’t be afraid to accept responsibility for your own actions that have contributed to experiencing shame. Only then can you forgive yourself.