The Power of Shame
Ever have that feeling that something is a little bit off in the way you’re taking on life?
On the outside, you look like you have it all together and everything is going well in your life. Other people may even see you as successful, giving and caring, but inside you feel awful because you can’t get things “right”?
THE REASON MAY BE SHAME.
Underneath the image you project, you know that what the world sees is a false front crafted to hide the self-doubt, fear, anger and resentment you often feel. You work hard, yet never seem to live up to your own expectations.
Are you disappointed in your friends, family or romantic relationship? Perhaps you found that, at first, they were so giving, caring, and available and it made you feel like you were a good person. They made you feel happy, satisfied and special. Then, you began to notice that they would do things without inviting you or were less attentive when you were out together. You did not feel so special anymore.
You found that good feelings were replaced with anger. You pulled back, and the more you withdrew and hid, the angrier and more lonely you became. Underneath it all was a feeling that you needed to hide your desire to be liked.
You felt exposed, vulnerable, and even frightened. You believed there was something wrong with you because you wanted closeness and friendship. You felt it was hard for people to care for you.
This is Shame.
THE IDEAL SELF
We all have an internal ideal self that represents how we define who we “should” be. It is that “perfect” self who can live up to the expectations we have of ourselves. Often, we are not conscious this ideal self-exists, or that we have these expectations. However, when we do not live up to them, we experience shame.
Shame is a painful experience of humiliation, disgrace, remorse, or apathy. It is experienced as low-self esteem, disappointment in oneself, defeat, and hopelessness. It leads to withdrawal of the true self and hiding your feelings and experiences. Shame is counter-productive to personal growth and healing because it leads you away from the very things you need: recognition and acceptance of who you are.
There are two types of shame: internal and external. External shame is a feeling of having disappointed yourself and others because you did not live up to your ideals and/or the expectations of others. You did not achieve what you expected of yourself.
Internal shame is related to a belief that there is a fundamental defect within yourself. It is a sense of inner worthlessness and emptiness. The Harsh Inner Critic uses and reinforces this feeling.
THE BAD SEED
I worked with a woman who watched the movie The Bad Seed when she was a child.
She recalls it as a movie about a little girl who was evil. She misremembers the plot, and in her version, the story ends with the little girl killing her mother and father.
My client believed she was like this little girl, “a bad seed.” For years, she felt she was defective, unworthy, and suffered from massive shame. She spent years working to be good. She hid the truth of who she was because she was convinced that if people knew the truth about her, they would reject her.
She was alone, isolated and lonely all the time. She was not at home inside of herself and did not know her true self because the Harsh Inner Critic reinforced her need to hide and work harder. The internal self-shaming was brutal.
To compound the internal shame, she wanted to have friends and be connected to others. When she attempted to develop relationships all would go well in the beginning. She gave a lot to her friends and was well liked.
Things began to go wrong when she would feel slighted. Her friends might not be available when she needed them or they would have other activities and friends aside from her. She would feel abandoned and angry.
At that point, she would begin to withdraw and hide her feelings. She felt humiliated, angry and ashamed because she wanted and needed others. She would chide herself, saying that she knew better than to trust anyone. She asked herself how she could she be so stupid to believe she deserved to have love?
This client went through a cycle that began with believing that the friendships and a romantic relationship would make her feel whole. Inevitably, these people would slight her and she would end up feeling angry, rejected and abandoned. The rage would hide the humiliation, vulnerability and pain.
It is normal for humans to want love and acceptance. To be human is to want and need. It is also human to be disappointed and hurt when others let you down.
In therapy, we will create a safe place where you can begin to open up about all the desires, needs and pain you have inside, so that you feel heard, accepted and validated. This is the way out of shame.