“Many people struggle with feelings of shame. Often because of having been shamed as a child, or having gone through experiences which caused the child to feel a deep sense of shame, such as an alcoholic parent, a dysfunctional home-life, abuse of any nature including sexual, and similar painful experiences, many people carry the burden of a deep sense of shame regarding themselves and who we are.
Many adults, such as their parents or teachers, may also have shamed children as a means to control them by telling them that they are a bad child. These experiences may deepen an individual’s sense of shame.
Shame is a universal experience and part of our human condition.
It goes to the core of our being where we may feel we are unworthy or not good enough. We may constantly feel and think we are bad, worthless, unlovable and not worthy of anything good happening to us. And when good does happen such as getting a dream job, dream partner or whatever we had longed for, we rarely feel pride or enjoyment. Instead our inner critic (internalised voice of a parent, teacher, etc) will harshly criticise us, telling us that we don’t deserve it or will attempt to sabotage our achievement in some way.
In order to satisfy or quieten the critics, we may compensate by people-pleasing, sacrificing ourselves and our needs for others constantly. We may also take too much onto our plates or keep moving the achievement bar higher and higher, because whatever we do, it is just never good enough.
We judge ourselves harshly and self-criticism becomes our daily bread. From having been abused, neglected or unprotected, children may grow up into adults who hate themselves, feeling mostly disgust and dismay toward themselves.
Marsha Linehan, an expert in the field of borderline personality disorder, says that shame is a universal emotion which has value and a function. It has an evolutionary value which serves to protect us from being kicked out of our clan or community. During prehistoric times, we knew that if we get kicked out it could end disastrously with death, including being eaten by a sabre-tooth lion. So the biological response was to hide the “bad” or “unacceptable” parts of us, not condoned by our group, and that might be seen by others as shameful. We hid these parts to ensure we do not get thrown out of our clan.
Shame serves as a self-protective function which ensures we do not let out the objectionable aspects of ourselves. Although the world is not populated by sabre-tooth lions anymore, this biological response to threat, be it real or imagined, continues to serve to protect us from exclusion or rejection.
We may have been criticised by others for having failed or made mistakes or we may be our own worst critics and rather avoid putting ourselves out there into the world for fear that we will be shamed. Yes, there will be critics but according to Brene Brown, a well-known researcher in the field of shame and vulnerability, others’ feedback need not define our experiences and how she deals with it is to not listen to them.
However, our worst critic is often ourselves. She names two “shame gremlins”. One is the tape in our minds that says, “you are not good enough to do this” and the other tape that’s on repeat often says “who do you think you are full of yourself hey” or “ you are too big for your boots!”
One of the antidotes to shame is to join in the human family with the knowledge that the sense of feeling different/weird/inadequate/broken or messed up is a universal feeling. This sense of feeling connected is important, knowing that you are not alone with this painful feeling. We all struggle with this feeling but rarely share these parts of us. We may “armour up” with all kinds of masks of perfection in an attempt to hide a deep sense of shame.
Brene Brown corroborates that shame is a universal feeling and that it in fact speaks to our vulnerability as human beings. She emphasises how vulnerability has mostly been regarded as a weakness to get rid of, and which we associate with failure, fear, anxiety, being not good enough or flawed.
Yet vulnerability is also the birthplace of feeling connected to others, openness, love, joy, kindness and compassion. If we deny our vulnerability, we also deny these vital and life-enhancing emotions. Our vulnerability allows for feelings of connectedness and compassion towards ourselves and others. It also allows for more openness and freedom of self, allows others to be themselves in our presence and also helps us feel less lonely and afraid of making mistakes. When we judge ourselves less and accept ourselves more, as we are, we can relax and enjoy our experiences more fully. This self-acceptance opens our hearts and minds to others, becoming more tolerant and accepting of who we are.
Another way out of shame is a corrective emotional experience of being accepted and loved by another. A partner or a friend could provide this kind of experience. The main aspect is to be able to feel that you can show the person the parts of you that you feel ashamed of. When we receive validation and a supportive, caring response and not a harsh, punitive or judgemental response, this hugely breaks the shame that limits our lives and experiences.
This creates a new perspective of seeing the difficulty. I hope you have somebody in your life whom you are able to share yourself with, and I invite you to reframe your experience of feeling inadequate and not good enough.
You are adequate and good enough, just as you are. The awareness of this holds the key to greater inner freedom, wholehearted relationships, and a more profound connection and acceptance of life with all its ups and downs.
Finally, Oprah Winfrey has said that she lived all her life with the “shame gremlins” but particularly the one that would say “who do you think you are Full of yourself hey?” Her response was to work at being full of herself. She wants to be so full of herself that it overflows and she can share it with others.
She encourages us to own our fullness and to be proud of it, without ego, vanity or arrogance but with a deep sense of gratitude for this precious, short life.
Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist in private practice. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist. You can write to her at email@example.com
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