Many of us are quietly plagued by a nagging sense being flawed or defective. We secretly believe we’re a failure, which stifles our energy, cramps our freedom, and prevents us from being ourselves.
Toxic shame is a painful emotion. So painful that may not even notice it. We steer our attention away from it, pretend it’s not there, or transfer it to others—showering shame upon them through our criticisms and judgments.
Shame is especially destructive when it operates secretly. Being mindful of the shame that lives inside us is the first step toward healing it and affirming ourselves more fully.
Here are some common ways that I’ve observed shame operating in many of my psychotherapy clients.
Defensiveness is a way to protect ourselves from unpleasant feelings. Shame is often an emotion that we don’t allow ourselves to experience because it can be so debilitating. If our partner is upset because we’re late for dinner, we might react by saying, “Well, you were late for the movie yesterday because you took so long to get ready!”
Being defensive is a way to avoid taking responsibility for our behavior. If we equate responsibility with blame, then we’ll steer clear of it. We’ll attack people before they can criticize us. We transfer our shame to others by being aggressive and indignant when someone has the audacity to suggest that we’re not perfect.
If we’re not crippled by shame, we might recognize our partner simply has feelings about our being late. It’s not that there’s something wrong with us. If there is something in us that feels shame for contributing to someone’s hurt or sadness, then we’ll get defensive rather than just hearing their feelings—and perhaps offering a heartfelt apology.
The unrealistic desire to be perfect is often a defense against shame. If we’re perfect, then no one can criticize us; no one can shame us.
It’s been said a perfectionist is someone who can’t stand making the same mistake once. We may be so shame-ridden, that we don’t allow ourselves to have human foibles. We keep up a front that looks good to the world. We may spend an inordinate amount of time attending to our dress and looks—or rehearsing what we want to say to avoid looking dumb.
It takes significant energy to attain the impossible feat of being perfect. The shame that drives the quest for perfection can exhaust us. Perfect people don’t exist in this world. Trying to be someone we’re not to avoid being shamed creates a disconnection from our authentic self.
Shame can prompt us to be overly apologetic and compliant. We assume others are correct, and we’re wrong. Hoping to defuse conflict, we’re quick to say “I’m sorry.” We withdraw from interpersonal encounters when shame has weakened our sense of self.
Conversely, a deep, unconscious shame may block us from saying, “I’m sorry, I was wrong, I made a mistake.” this hidden shame may powerfully rule us that we don’t want to expose ourselves to imagined ridicule. We equate human vulnerability with being weak and shameful.
Think of politicians who are so shame-ridden that they’d rather have a tooth pulled than admit to being wrong. They project an image of being flawless to cover up deep insecurity. They aggressively—and often mindlessly—push their agenda and rarely change their minds, which raises the question of whether they have one. As Lewis Perelman wisely said, “Dogma is the sacrifice of wisdom to consistency.”
Secure and confident people can freely admit when they’ve been mistaken. They have an inner strength and resilience that derives from knowing that they’re not a perfect person. When they notice shame, they’re not ashamed of their shame. They know it takes courage to admit flaws.
Sociopaths are shameless. Healthy people can accommodate healthy shame. As we grow, we realize there is nothing shameful about making a mistake or being wrong about something. There can be no inner freedom or growth without acknowledging our human shortcomings.
Our reasons for procrastinating may confound us. There are things we to want to accomplish, and we’re baffled by why we keep putting things off.
Hidden shame often drives procrastination. If we consider doing an art project, writing an article, or pursuing a new job and it doesn’t turn out well, shame might paralyze us. If we don't even try, then we don’t have to face possible failure and shame.
Of course, we might then stay depressed or live life in a smaller way, but the part of us that dreads experiencing shame is protected and safe—at least for now.
Uncovering shame gives us greater options. If we can allow it to be there, we can learn to bring gentleness and caring toward this feeling—or toward ourselves as we notice shame. We can realize it’s natural to feel shame sometimes. As the author Kimon Nicolaides noted, “The sooner you reach your first 5000 mistakes, the sooner you can correct them.”
Bringing shame into the light of day gives it an opportunity to heal. Keeping it hidden permits it to operate in secret, destructive ways. Becoming mindful of the shame that operates inside us—perhaps with the help of a therapist—can be a powerful way to bring this secretive emotion to light, diffuse its power, and help us move forward in our lives in a more free and empowered way.
John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT