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.