shame

An unnecessary detour

I have seen some real improvements in my outlook and mood because of a major realisation about faults and shame. I now know that shame has been preventing me from acknowledging and addressing faults for most of my life. I have begun actually admitting what I can improve on and then actually changing my actions, whereas before there was no change or even real acknowledgment; any hint of recognizing a fault initiated an immediate detour to The Pit of Shame.

First, let me define a few key terms:

Shame: The feeling/idea that you are bad, not just that you did something bad (that would be guilt).

Bad: A generalization of unhealthy, hurtful, negative, worthless, etc. Shame causing you to feel bad means feeling worthless. Doing some thing bad means hurting yourself or others.

Fault: A bad trait. Any behaviour that causes harm to someone (yourself and/or others). Every human has faults.

Ever since I discovered that shame was the root of most of my mental health problems, I started making so many more realizations and so much more progress than I ever had before. I had been treating symptoms of shame, not the shame itself.

I have uncovered little by little all of the ways shame (i.e. the feeling/idea you are bad and not just doing something bad) had seeped into my every thought and behaviour. Truthfully, most thoughts and observations were all looping back to reinforce the belief that I should feel shame because I was bad/worthless. Everything I thought or noticed about myself or the world around me was being used as evidence for the necessity of feeling shame. Seriously—these are all examples of thoughts that created a train of thought that lead to dwelling on the idea that I was worthless:

  • The sun is out today.
  • Should I brush my teeth now or after breakfast?
  • I meant to bring three things from the kitchen to the bedroom but only brought two.

A false dichotomy

This used to be a common train of thought for me: “Do I have this fault or don’t I? I desperately hope that I don’t, because if I did, that would mean I was insufferable.” I saw two possible options: (1) I had the fault and therefore I was definitely worthless. (2) I didn’t have the fault, so I was at least OK. Really, the truth was that I had the fault and I was still OK and not worthless. But I never reached that third option because the shame would shut down any contemplation. I didn’t want to find out that I was, in fact, worthless.

I never could have imagined the feeling of freedom that comes from noticing a fault and not going straight to deep shame. Shame was a detour I didn’t need to take.

The First Stop Cancels the Trip

My brain was like a country with many roads and highways and a hopelessly dark, depressing area called The Pit of Shame. Any trip I wanted to take (introspective train of thought) had to begin with a detour to The Pit of Shame. No matter how out of the way it was or how long or short the trip was going to be, The Pit of Shame was the first stop. But going here was so depressing that the trip I was going to take seemed pointless, so I just didn’t make it. I never would get to any far off destinations (realisations) because the Shame detour sent me back to the beginning.

The necessity of compassion

The major missing factors all of those years of dwelling on shame was compassion. Compassion helped me realise that I could have faults and still be a good person instead of them condemning me to worthlessness. I have hated my own humanity by having impossible standards of perfection. I had subconscious standards of infallibility, and any failure to achieve this infallibility brought on shame. It was a punishment and a warning to do better next time.

Faults are expected and normal and unavoidable. Compassion for your own humanity helps you to address the faults. It takes the pressure off and lowers the stakes. Worthlessness shouldn’t even be on the table as a possible conclusion/judgment of your character based on your shortcomings. It’s the difference between being on trial and having the maximum punishment be execution versus a small fine. Such an awful sentence being on the table increases your fear, worry, and despair whereas an outcome that wouldn’t even be all that bad lowers the stakes tremendously.

Related ideas for future posts:

Witch hunts and condemnation lead you to believe the presence of faults implies worthlessness.

What exactly are faults and why is it OK to admit you have them?

Empowerment vs. Shame

Part I: Shame

There is a principle, popularized by Abraham Maslow, that if all you have is a hammer, then every problem begins to look like a nail. I  identify with this. My figurative hammer is shame. I have the ingrained habit, perfected over the years, of addressing every problem in my life by shaming myself. I find some way that a problem is my fault, I think because it gives me the illusion of control over the situation. The truth is, lots of problems are out of my hands and are influenced by other people’s actions, which I cannot control. (There are of course problems that are my fault, but even those don’t require the high dose of shame that I prescribe myself.)

Shame is a paralytic, not a motivator. No major change in my life has ever come from shame: I have only ever changed my habits or behaviour if I had some positive goal motivating me. Shame makes you run away from something, not work toward something, and that is why it fails.

I see shaming in action every day. People are starting to call attention to it more (so much so that even the very word “shaming” has become a bit of a cliché buzzword), and I am actually very grateful for the increased awareness of the futility and unhealthiness of shaming. People shame to try and inspire change (which doesn’t work) or just to worsen the mood and self-esteem of others, which is absolutely useless and pretty cruel. Many people, though, don’t shame others but instead choose to shame themselves.

So why do some of us excel at shaming ourselves if it is, at best, futile or, at worst, cruel? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I can think of some reasons:

  • We copy other people’s actions
    • Strong is the urge to mimic others! We see people shame and experience people shaming us, and we learn that that is supposed to help, so we do it too.
  • We are introspective to a fault
    • We are in our heads so much that it is difficult to extricate ourselves. We are so used to examining our own motives, faults, habits, etc. that it is hard to see that we are not always the cause of every difficulty.
  • We don’t want to be arrogant
    • Instead of building up a false sense of confidence, we go to the other extreme and foster a false sense of incompetence.
  • Blaming someone feels satisfying
    • It (over)simplifies situations and makes them feel more manageable and easier to address.

Part II: Empowerment

What exactly does empowerment mean? To me, it means being able to recognise your strengths as well as the power and control that you do have—an accurate recognition of what exactly is in your control is crucial. Becoming empowered can often negate the feeling from shame that most things are in your control, actually. How does this make sense? Empowerment causes a shift in consciousness: instead of actively trying to make things your own fault, you more accurately perceive what is or isn’t your fault, and your focus often shifts from certain features of a situation to others. Being introspective to a fault leads you to believe that you are responsible for more things than you actually are, and empowerment lets you cast aside useless, inaccurate notions of responsibility and focus on the probably completely different things that actually are in your control.

Now, let me be clear: this is not a post about dismissing the very real problems people have that are in fact out of their control. Some people complain too much and fault others for what they are responsible for themselves. This post is not directed at those people; this post is directed at people who shame and place blame on themselves when things are not their fault.

I am not suggesting that more things are in your control than you think: on the contrary! My idea is more that you often can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your reaction to them. And pointing out that there are problems in your circumstances caused by other people is a valid, constructive reaction a lot of times. I’m thinking, for example, of pointing out that people are prejudiced and treating you in an unfair way that is illogical and not backed by evidence. Thinking that being bullied or discriminated against is your own fault because you deserve it is not accurate—blaming yourself would be misplacing the blame. (It is actually a pet peeve of mine that some people will not recognise actual problems faced by other people just because they don’t personally experience those problems. My message is not to “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take responsibility.”) Think about it this way: if you do not address a problem’s source, you will not solve it. And if you misidentify the source and say that something is your fault when it is not, then you are not addressing the real source and not solving the problem.

What do I mean when I say that your focus will shift from some features of a situation to another? One example is that your focus will shift from the cause of a situation to your reaction to it. Instead of assigning yourself blame, you will instead see all of the various other ways you can react to the situation. Instead of automatically saying, “This is my fault,” you will say, “This isn’t my fault, but what can I still do to make this better, or at least feel better about it?”

I said at the beginning of this section that empowerment wasn’t just recognising what power and control you have but also recognising your strengths. This is a great way to combat self shaming. Strength is at odds with shame: Shame weakens your resolve and your self-esteem while seeing your own strength builds those up. Being able to know your strengths is a skill and is distinct from being arrogant. I think a key feature that distinguishes arrogance from simply knowing your strengths is feeling like you are better or worth more than other people. Recognising strengths does not have to come attached to comparison to others, and that is what separates it from haughtiness.

In conclusion

Empowerment negates shame and is more productive and healthy. We shame ourselves for a number of reasons, including to feel more in control of unmanageable situations. Being able to recognise what is and isn’t in our control gives us power.

Discussion questions

  1. Why do you think some of us shame ourselves so heavily?
  2. What do you think are the origins of shame?
  3. What does empowerment mean to you?
  4. When have you felt most empowered?