The Psychology of Shame: How It Destroys

When was the last time you felt shame? Maybe you were embarrassed in front of your boss, or you felt guilty because you didn’t get done what you promised. Perhaps you can think back to being a child and being told, “Shame on you!” Or another classic version, “You SHOULD be ashamed of yourself!” Whatever it was, you’ll remember it wasn’t a good feeling.

Shame can be a way to teach lessons that we think someone needs to learn. Naturally during childhood, it is commonplace for the adults in our lives, such as our parents and teachers, to teach us lessons about right and wrong. Times were different a generation or two ago. Children were to be seen not heard. These adults likely meant well, but may have used shame to try to teach good values, not realizing they were instilling the genesis of inadequacy. We now know, from years of research, that shame is not an effective way to implement a change in children’s behavior.  You are bad, you are stupid, why can’t you be like your brother. These types of messages hurt and are ineffectual.

If we can see that shame is not effective in modifying children’s behavior, we must be mindful that the same holds true for adults. You see in life many things bother us- people most of all. Our natural response to this is to blame the other person and try to fix it. And by “fix it” this usually means change THEM (not try to change ourselves because YEAH, RIGHT).  We  attempt to alter the person into something we consider “right” or at least something that will not bother us. Thus you can see how we all, consciously or unconsciously, try to influence how others in our world behave.

Having “influence” is commonplace in politics and the professional world. Perhaps you have even read Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Trying to exert influence is a very real factor not just in our professional relationships but our social relationships.  We all remember as teens having the one friend our parents referred to as a “bad influence.” Nowadays, as the case may be, you recognize yourself trying to “influence” your husband to eat better. Or maybe when you try to “influence” your kids to get their homework done. Or being the friend who tries to “influence” your other friends to go to the gym (and skip happy hour). Maybe you’re the son who tries to “influence” your mother to get an in home aide to look after her. In both direct and indirect ways, we all are trying to be influential in our own right.

The reality is we all want some level of control over our lives and to be influential in the lives on those we surround ourselves with. Whether we try to use our influence for good or bad is up to us.  There are many ways we try to exert influence. Shame can be a tactic people use to influence the behavior of others. It is also the base of most destructive behavior.

The experience of shame is universal. It is a powerful state of being. We all have experienced “shaming” behavior in our day-to-day lives.  The boss who says they are disappointed in our proposal. The friend who said they would never wear that. The waitress who says they can’t believe you can eat all that (this one actually happened to me–I CAN eat all that and I did!) The thing about shame is it is not really an effective way to influence behavior. Shame can only work if the person truly cares what we think of them.  Thus shame may work with our spouse but it will not work with our coworker who can NOT care less what we think of him.

We all to a lesser degree have been on the receiving end of shaming behavior Many times it is innocuous in the way it is meant or delivered.  The waitress, the friend, or your boss may have meant nothing malicious by it. Yet shaming is also a technique used by abusive people to distract from their own bad behavior.  Perhaps you experienced toxic shame before– someone belittling your achievements, ideas, efforts.  Trying to make you feel less than just as you are. As a clinician, I see shame as being a common abuse tactic experienced by clients, many who have survived abusive relationships. All types of relationships can be abusive not just romantic relationships. In hearing the stories of those who have struggled with this form of abuse, it has shown me how abusers often rely on shame, as a tactic to keep victims down. Shame can be an attempt to silence people who are not strong enough to stand in the strength of their voice.

Brene Brown, who has done extensive research on shame, has called it a silent epidemic.

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The truth is shame has the potential to be one of the most painful emotions we can experience. Shame is not that something you did was bad. Shame is you ARE something bad. Inferior. Inherently flawed. Less than.

When someone tries to make you feel like you should be ashamed of yourself, they are expressing contempt.  Shame is a way to diminish another.  It is a way of showing the shamee that to destroy you is a non-issue.  Thus when someone is trying to tell you shame on you what they are REALLY saying is shame on me. Because when someone tries to shame you, they are trying to transfer their hurt and pain onto you. Shamers are projecting their OWN shame, their own painful emotions. Attacking another is a way to disown the uncomfortable feelings they are experiencing. Abusers do this often to people they perceive as weaker. Unless you have a developed, strong sense of self it will be a struggle to not OWN the STUFF being thrown at you, when someone is offsetting their pain.

(Keep in mind,  we often shame ourselves–different post with more on that to follow).

There are many ways we try to shame OTHERS–teasing, eye rolling, name calling, sarcasm, yelling, expressing disapproval. Some people even resort to public shaming-to humiliate their victim to others—online posts, group texts, Instagram pictures—the Scarlet Letter-ing of our time. This type of behavior is extremely common during the adolescent years but still prevails amongst adults who have not developed passed an adolescent on an emotional level. Such behavior gives the shamer a feeling of superiority and communicates to the shamee a sense of unworthiness.

Anyone who is trying to shame you is not open to communicating with you in any real or meaningful way. The shame game is a way to manipulate and punish.

The only way to win in these situations is to not play.

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As a therapist, I have witnessed the powerful way that shame can fuel rage in children and adults alike. Whether this anger is directed outward at others or inward at oneself, this anger can act as a distraction from experiencing shame and the feelings that come along with it. Often when triggered by shame, we feel other self-conscious emotions such as discomfort, inadequacy, guilt, embarrassment.

Many of us can shake off the feeling and keep it moving. But others find it incredibly difficult, and it affects how they turn out.

Shame may work in the short-term but it comes with more detriments than benefits. It will hurt the relationship between the shamer and the shamee in the process. Being shamed causes us to lose respect for whoever OR whatever it is shaming us. Shame is at the root cause of many relationship problems. 

People who try to shame you are trying to get what they want at your expense.  Shame is a way to try to control others, by trying to trigger their need for connection, with the threat of disconnection. Such behavior is designed to get you to act according to someone else’s rules. Shame is a way of shutting the other person down.

The sad thing is there will always be people who try to shame you.

No matter what you do right or wrong, you don’t deserve to be humiliated or made to feel ashamed. If someone wants to make you feel this way,  recognize you are not dealing with a healthy person.

It is natural for decent people to find certain behavior unimaginable. You can’t imagine anyone can act in such a manner or say such a thing. Shame can be good in this sense–it is the “I couldn’t live with myself if I acted like that, did that, thought that” feeling.  Healthy shame is necessary.

Underneath shame there is a desire to be heard, validated, understood, and loved. On a continuum shame is at one end and feeling supported at the other.

Shame is not a productive emotion. If we are empathetic people we usually do not want our words to cause harm. Words are powerful. They can build up our relationships with others. Or tear them down. I have a sign in my office that says:

“Think before you speak: Is it….true? Is it….helpful? Is it….necessary? Is it….kind?”

Here’s to the practice of being mindful of our words BEFORE speaking them.


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