Do you find yourself feeling ashamed even when you’ve done nothing wrong?
Those of us with shame issues know all too well the rush of warm blood to the neck and face that makes us want to run and hide.
Deep shame has a way of sneaking into any situation in which we could possibly be perceived as less than.
What is shame?As has been taught in the Neuro-Linguistic Programming world for a long time, shame is best understood by comparing it to guilt.
Guilt occurs when you believe you have violated your own standards. When you act against what you believe is right, you are likely to feel the pang of guilt.
Few people can do what they believe within themselves to be wrong without feeling guilty. True guilt for violating your standards is important. It can serve as a valuable course corrector, unless it is distorted, but that is a topic for a different article.
Shame occurs when you believe you have violated someone else’sstandards. As a result of not measuring up to the other’s standards, you feel less than, unworthy, embarrassed or humiliated.
With chronic shame comes a constant fear of judgment, as if others were continually concluding that you are bad.
Where does chronic shame originate?
Shame begins in childhood when your sense of self is developing.
During childhood, you needed to compare who you were and what you did with what your caregivers were teaching you. It is the only way to develop competence and confidence.
If you didn’t have an external standard to compare yourself to, you’d have no idea when you got something right. In fact, your entire learning and socialization process would have been thwarted.
For example, when you are learning to tie your shoes, you are bound to make mistakes. When you do, your parent is there to correct you. Through the process of trial, error and correction, you eventually learn to tie shoes in the way it was demonstrated, or close to it.
The problem is, many parents, teachers and caregivers are emotionally immature. They do not correct with love. They don’t correct what you are doing while preserving the integrity of who you are as a person.
They correct with impatience and harsh judgment, not about shoe tying, but about the one learning to tie the shoes – you.
Can’t you get it right?
What’s your problem?
I don’t have time for this! Do I have to do everything myself?
What kind of idiot kid can’t tie his shoes?
Kids are natural learners, which means they do lots of trial and error. Along the way, when you are criticized and judged as a person for unavoidable mistakes, you develop a feeling that you, as a person, do not measure up to the standard in your home.
Bobbi just gave you a gift. You need to say thank you! That’s really inconsiderate and I don’t raise inconsiderate children!
You got a C on your report card. What are you, stupid? You never try hard enough! You’re such a loser and you always will be.
Look at you with your sloppy manners. Chew with your mouth closed! You belong in a barn!
And so on. When the necessary corrections for natural mistakes are laden with judgment, you begin to develop the idea that you are shameful as a person.
Worse, there are times when a baby is simply not wanted. An older sibling may not want the newcomer around. Parents may have not planned for or desired a baby. Parents with a boy may have wanted a girl or vice-versa.
In these cases, you were set up for shame from the day you were born. Your very existence was wrong according to someone close to you. When they raised you, you got the message. Some parents and older siblings make it all too clear.
I wish you were never born.
Why did you have to come along and ruin everything?
When you were born, your father left.
You ruined my life.
I sacrificed everything for you, and for what?
You had no way to protect yourself from these messages because your own individual value system had not formed. You were dependent upon their opinion to know whether you were good or bad.
What’s the missing piece for someone who experiences inexplicable shame?
Emotional boundaries are the “property lines” that separate your identity from others. When you are not clear on the property lines, you cannot separate the opinions and actions of others from your emotional opinion of yourself.
In short, you don’t know what belongs to you vs. what belongs to others (and therefore is not your concern).
If you were shamed as a child, someone trespassed emotionally or physically. Rather than help you develop a solid, individual sense of yourself, they forced their own beliefs into your psyche, before you had a chance to understand the real difference between you and them.
In other words, you began to see yourself in the way they saw you. You didn’t have a choice because you did not have emotional boundaries. You were not capable of saying, “These are your issues, your beliefs, and not mine. This has nothing to do with me.
Why does shame continue into adulthood?
Shame persists because we become psychologically attached to the messages we received early in life, for better or worse.
Even though you did not agree to adopt others’ beliefs about you, you did. Now, those beliefs manifest in spontaneous feelings of shame, low self-worth and self-doubt.
Emotional aspects of the psyche, both good and bad, seek expression. Therefore, when presented with any opportunity to interpret a situation as personally shameful and confirm what you learned about yourself, this aspect of your subconscious will rise to the surface, like it or not.
It’s as if a negative part of you – now subconscious – were seeking to find where it fits in this world and latches onto any opportunity it can to be perceived, yet again, in a negative light.
Important to-do list to heal chronic shame
Overcoming a deep sense of shame is a process that usually requires an informed outside perspective – a person who sees the inherent good in you and can guide you to reinterpret your world.
Even so, a lot can be done on your own. Here is a partial list of what needs to be done:
1. Develop boundaries. You need to learn, deep in your bones, that others’ opinions of you are merely their opinions. You can learn from them or you can discard them.
2. Stop projecting. You can stop projecting your own low view of yourself onto others, assuming from the get-go that they do not think highly of you. This is huge!
3. Own your attachment. Realize that the shame you feel is related to your past. It continues to manifest in the present because you are allowing it, even though this allowing is subconscious. Seeing attachments in action is the most difficult part because we tend to hide them from ourselves.
4. Focus on your competence. You have gifts. Keep developing them. Self-confidence is related to competence. When you focus on your talents, you allow them to grow, along with your self-esteem.
5. Confide in someone. If you continue to hide your shame, it will continue to haunt you. Only by exposing it can you clear it from your psyche. This is counter-intuitive for many of us, but it is the only sure way to heal.
** If you or someone you know is struggling with shame, contact Aspen Counseling Services to schedule an Initial Assessment.