Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2008.
I have written about shame before, but I find I am still fascinated by it, so here I go again. Shame is an emotion, like fear or grief. Like them, it is painful–perhaps the most painful feeling there is, given that it is registered in the brain like strong physical pain.
Emotions are known by the facial expression and bodily movements each creates, which are universal and even visible in animals. Anyone familiar with dogs knows they feel shame. Shame can be seen in you when you want to hide, disappear, or even say you want to die, as if you are a thoroughly bad person. You hang your head or hunch down, sagging your shoulders. You can’t look anyone in the eye. Why? You believe you are rotten to the core. No one should want to be around you.
HSPs and a Social Emotion
Shame is a social emotion, like shyness, guilt, or pride. You cannot have it without others being around, or at least around in your imagination. Shame seems to serve to keep us in good standing within a group, punishing us brutally for the slightest imagined wrong doing. After childhood, usually no one has to make us ashamed. We do it to ourselves. That was important as we evolved, because we used to live in groups and entirely depended on them for our survival. We could not afford to be thrown out for bad behavior.
Guilt is milder in that you feel you have done something bad, not that you are bad. It may seem that you can fix it or hope to be forgiven. Even if not, guilt does not have that sense of finality. Which you feel depends on the situation–most of us feel shame, not guilt, if we vomit in public for example.
I am convinced that HSPs are more shame-prone than others. Partly this is true because we feel all emotions more intensely. Plus having the trait of high sensitivity means we inherited a strategy of being careful, observing before acting. In the case of shame, these emotions help us by keeping us motivated to avoid or hide anything that would turn others against us. Further, we are conscientious anyway, do not want to hurt others, and can see ahead to the long-term consequences of what we do. In short, we come wired to sense better what might evoke shame and inhibit whatever impulse we might have that would lead to it.
Finally, HSPs are more affected by bad parenting, including punishment by shaming, but also we can feel shame for being neglected, left alone too much, or just not being loved. It may not be logical, but it motivates us as children to work harder to get the love and care we need.
How We All Avoid Shame, at All Costs
Because shame is so painful, people rarely feel it, even HSPs. It’s like the joke about the man wearing the whistle. Asked why, he says it keeps away the elephants. If you say, “but there are no elephants around here,” he will tell you, “that’s because of my whistle.” So we rarely feel shame: We have learned to blow the whistle on ourselves long before we could do something that would make us stand out like an elephant.
There are also some classic ways to avoid shame, once we have acted in a way that could bring it on. Sometimes we blame others: “I didn’t do anything wrong–he was wrong.” Or people minimize their role: “I wasn’t really trying” or “that wasn’t really part of my responsibilities.” They claim not to care: “I just don’t give a damn what other people think.” Or they make themselves seem above shame: “That really does not apply to me–I’m beyond all that,” although that may require someone else feeling inferior: “I can’t believe you are so upset by this.”
HSPs can use all of these self-protections, but I think we resort more to avoiding the need for these tactics by not doing anything shameful in the first place. We adapt to what others want. We try to be perfect, make no errors, are always generous. We overachieve so that no one can say we haven’t tried or succeeded.
Alas, this carefulness often leads to very constricted lives. We hardly realize it because at least we are not feeling bad due to shame. We are also not being spontaneous, genuinely warm and loving, or much of anything else. We are not reaching out for what makes us happy, or even remembering what makes us happy. But at least we are not feeling ashamed, until we realize this and then feel ashamed of this too.
When Did It Start for You?
Almost everyone can think back to an early memory when they felt horrible shame. For some it was a mistake during toilet training, or being sent to their room or spanked for the first time, or going to school and being teased for something that no one at home saw as a problem, like crying. For some it was discovering they were different in a way that was not acceptable to the majority: having dark skin, being too tall or short, being poor, or whatever.
Sometimes the event would only evoke guilt in some people, but due to our sensitivity or how others reacted, we felt shame instead. For example, some kids react to being caught stealing with guilt, but sensitive children are more likely to feel deeply ashamed, especially if the parent reacts too strongly.
However it began, I think of the first moment of shame as an initiation into human society. Your capacity to feel the horrible pain of shame has been turned on, like burning yourself for the first time. The pain will make you try your hardest not to feel it again, just as you will try never to burn yourself again.
So Many Reasons to Feel Ashamed
Consider some of the reasons for shame that you may hardly think about anymore, because you are so good at avoiding them. Here’s a partial list:
- Looking different, including dressing wrong or strangely.
- Not conforming, being out of step.
- Being personally rejected as a friend or from a group for your personality or style.
- Being defeated or failing.
- Being “overly” enthusiastic and then being “shot down.”
- Misjudging a situation by being too informal.
- Being “overly” emotional (“don’t be a cry baby; you take things too “personally”).
- Being “too” suggestible (“It’s all in your head” or “why did you listen to him?”)
- Being “too” stressed (“Can’t you just relax?”).
- Looking foolish, awkward, or lacking confidence.
- Lying, stealing, or betraying another.
- Injuring another.
- Not controlling a bodily function or impulse, from failing to use the toilet to not picking your nose.
- Being addicted.
- Being sexually betrayed by a lover or spouse.
- Not trying hard enough, being lazy.
- Not being brave (whatever that meant to those around you).
Quite a list, isn’t it? I’m sure I forgot some, probably the ones that are most automatic or terrifying to me. Each culture can add its own: What’s unmanly, not womanly, ugly, or inexcusable. Compare your culture to that of others and you will see how relative “bad” can be.
What Do You Do About Shame?
Yikes. I don’t know. There is so much advice about how to live life that basically amounts to getting over your fear of shame. Empower yourself. Conquer your fears. Love yourself. Have higher self-esteem. Stop being self-conscious. Get over shyness. And when you can’t do it, guess what? You feel ashamed.
Yet the core problem of shame is not discussed that much. I think a good place to begin overcoming unnecessary shame is to think about it, hard. Uncover it in yourself, free of all of your ways of avoiding it. When did you first feel deep shame? The very first time you remember? Often that is what you still feel most fearful of doing. Think about when you felt it most strongly and who made you feel it. What was most shameful in your family, among your friends, and right now among the people you know?
What emotions seem most shameful to you–being sad or crying, being afraid or anxious, anger, enthusiasm, curiosity? Pride? Being depressed so that you “bring people down”? Or there may be others.
Then consider how you have set up your life to avoid doing these specific things. What parts of you have been turned off? Your animal self? Your funny self? The part of you that knows what makes you happy? The part of you that sets boundaries and says “I’ve had enough of this”?
Another thing to consider is whether you are free of shame when you are alone. If not, try being in nature and thinking about your animal self and its impulses. Think of other animals. When they do what you feel ashamed of, do you find their behavior shameful? Can you accept that you do have instincts, and even if you decide to suppress them, they are not bad?
Talk about the general feeling of shame with others. Often we each feel that only we are truly, truly bad. But if we all feel it, most of us must be wrong.
I could go on and on, but I think it is enough for now simply to make you more conscious of shame and how unreasonable it often is, or conditioned by a culture that wants certain things out of us. As we grow older and wiser, maybe we can give the culture, the groups we live in, and all of those imagined critics from the past most of what they expect from us, but without quite so much sacrifice of our souls.
The biggest cause of shame for me is being highly sensitive. I always feel silly and naive for having such strong emotions! 🙁
You are neither silly nor naive! You just feel more than most others and although it can cause great sorrow and hardship, it is also a way to experience great love and passion. Just be careful of who you surround yourself with. Negative people, narcissistic and leeching people will drag you down to level that is worse than hell. My wife was married to one such person, and helping her to see herself as she truly is, is an on going task. Being high sensitive is nothing to feel ashamed about.
This is so true!!! I have cried many many tears but LOVED even more. I’m finally in place to acknowledge & embrace being a HSP.
Being shame prone makes us all targets for control freak critics, who know exactly how to make us wince by pointing out the smallest of our faults. This can be doubly problematic if the critic is a boss or some other authority figure. On the occasions when we genuinely behave in a shameful way, being reminded of it can be mortifying. Guilt and shame are the two millstones hanging around our necks.
The HSP is the antithesis of the classic bully.
Thx for sharing!
Louise Watkins says
Shamed by my violent alcoholic background where filthy language and bashings wereheard by neighbours and school friends. Walking out the door the next day and having to face them was shameful and hell. Louise and Terry W.
Yes same here, I am GDP & high functioning autism & am on antipsychotics & antidepressants & sleeping pills to cope
Shamed for crying too much, taking everything too personally, not being an organized women, not being a “good girl.” 😭😭😭
Same here, but I did fit the “good girl” framing and was STILL shamed so us HSP can’t win when those around us are jerks.
I feel shame for every mistake I ever made, or everything I ever felt I did wrong, big or small. I only recently realised this. After working through my issues with guilt, self consciousness, ocd, that feeling still hovered. I finally realised i feel deep shame all the time and try to avoid it. My parents used shame to discipline or teach us. Now that i can remember it… when they would shame me or threatened to shame me for something… it was a horribble feeling. I felt horrible and wanted to dissappear or die… just to have the world see me like that. Or they’d paint these scenarios of how embarassed I’m gonna be, and within these scenarios, create comparisons to my peers being prideful, just and celebrated cos they did right. Shame felt horrible and spent a great deal sinse then avoiding shame. I didnt really learn of why doing a lot of things was actually wrong I just learned that they were shameful. I now understand my parents themslf felt great shame .. and was using it to scare us… if they felt great love and had great love they’d use love to teach us more.
This really resonates with me. Thank you for sharing your experiences with shame. I just figured out my many of my issues stem from childhood shaming as punishment too.
Brian Gibbs says
Hello everyone. I hope my words will offer some comfort to HSP’s. When I look back at my past,it had only become clear to me that I had always been an HSP. I like to use another word for HSP,which is an empath. Both of these descriptions can be a curse ,but if we can learn how to use them we can achieve extraordinary goals. Shame as has been described can be a truly self destructive feeling. Because of this perception of shame,we can be in a constant state of darkness.
Please do not think that there is not a way out of this cycle,because there is light and hope that you can grasp. From my own perspective, I have recently started in a group therapy setting. This group uses a relatively new therapy called Emotional Focused Therapy or EFT for short. This therapy is not one of those types of six week things,in my example it is over a six month period. In this type of setting,the group gives you a safe place to talk about your feelings. Again in this environment you are not forced into talking, you can sit and listen. I used the word “safe”, and it is because all the people involved in the group understands what you may be feeling.
My biggest challenge is whenever I do something wrong. Even if I didn’t intentionally screw up, I fault myself and shame myself for doing it, especially if it affects another person. One of the biggest issues I have is accidentally saying the wrong thing (usually because I’m emotionally charged) and then unintentionally hurting someone else. This happened to me the other day where I complained about an incident that happened to me and someone else had a far worse situation happen to her. She said she wasn’t trying to make me feel bad and she considered me a really wonderful person and wasn’t trying to hurt me. But it hurt all the same to hear her share because 1). her story really did affect me (I felt horrible for her), and 2). I felt like my problem should not affect me when it still does. Like I had no right to complain, even though my own spirit had been crushed. So I’ve spent the past couple of days feeling not just shame but extreme shame, even though I tried to rectify things by taking my comments down where I’d posted them online and talking it out privately with the friend (who said I shouldn’t have needed to remove my comments publicly as she supposedly liked them… but I couldn’t see how if her own circumstances were worse than mine). So now I feel this intense sense of shame for complaining about a minor issue compared to her more serious issues. And on top of that, I feel so badly for her — and angry at myself for having my own problems when I should get myself together and try to help my friend instead (I shame myself, too, telling myself how selfish I am, and then I’m paralyzed to try to help people because I’m afraid my help isn’t worth it). If any of this all makes sense… 🙁
When it comes to feeling intensities, shame is a huge one for my little HSP self. Thank you for letting me post here and just share a little. It makes me feel a bit better.
I am an HSP and have long tried to describe some of my inner struggles with Shame. I just wanted to say a thank you so much for sharing your struggle with shame. With that said, you have described precisely what I feel, I have struggled to articulate those feelings inside. Your description of what happens with you in regards to this, made me feel less broken and less alone in this shame struggle. Thank you Thank you Thank you, it was nice to know I am not alone in this.
As a non HSP loving and parenting those who are, I so appreciate the honesty of these comments. This HSP ability is a gift I observe in my home. And it causes me pain to know that my own, some times matter-of-fact, way of engaging the world causes even unintentional harm to those I love. We work hard to manage through these differences to maintain relationships. I think more awareness early on for young people and couples regarding development – helping us know ourselves and recognize each other – in these ways would go far to support and serve societal health overall. Thank you all for sharing.
Much of my shame comes from the fact that in a family with 8 children, I am the ‘different’ one. . One sister actually told her husband that I was the wierd one. I’m in my 60’s and still struggle with this.
I’ve always hidden my mistakes. Growing up mistakes were treated as idiocy and the person was mercilessly teased. Throughout my life I’ve had a red emotional heat explode in my body at the thought of my mistakes being found out. I only recently discovered that this emotion was shame. I’m at a loss as to how to cope with it. But I’m looking for solutions/assistance/support.
Pain of shame made me socially anxious, I feel strongly shame for every aspect of myself, for everything that I do or say, when Im around people.
I dropped out of university, avoid going out or parties and everywhere that there are people. I cant earn money and I feel shame for that all the time.
Anybody knows how can I help myself?
I don’t know how to help you but I can say that I am in the exact same situation. Are you a HSP?
Start where you are. Brainstorm/journal and reflect on what you love or may find comfort doing. Try to find a job that gives you some telework flexibility so you may have opportunities to control your social environment during the workday. Forgive yourself. You are enough. The world will become a safer place for you! Make small goals about socializing (e.g. reconnecting with an old, trusted friend or family member and scheduling times to talk with them). You will make it. You will be able to provide for yourself. I believe in you!
I have just discovered I’m HSP at the age of 40.Im sure my 4yo daughter is too. It was enlightening and explained why I feel so intensely, that I’m not weird. I always feel guilt and shame and don’t know how to manage it. It’s from an abusive childhood, indifferent parents and my own guilt and shame about the past, how I’ve treated others or how I perceive I treated others. One thing I do try to keep in mind when I pick up emotion from someone else is that it isn’t necessarily because I’ve done something wrong and they are mad at me , they have their own stuff too. I’m so intensely aware of doing something wrong it makes me anxious. Discovering I have HSP I think will help me process and manage these things better. I’m so afraid to telling people how I feel in case I end up feeling embarrassed or looking like an idiot. I cannot stand conflict and want to run away and hide
Shame has been the theme of my life starting in childhood as that was the tactic used to punish me. I was constantly in trouble with my mother and ignored by my father. I quit anything that will necessitate me being vulnerable because then I’ll have to reveal myself and I’ll be outed as the bad person my mind tells me I am. Poor me. Poor us. It’s moments like this when being a HSP is painful. I’ve started doing EFT (Emotional Release Technique) Tapping to help heal my deeply wounded inner child. I am a precious creation as all of you are too.
I have lived a life of severe depression, anxiety, drug abuse, and risky sexual activity which I believe is due to an adolescence characterized by repeated shaming by my Christian family.