October 7, 2002
Shame is a terrible feeling. It is hard to define because it is slightly different for each of us. My knowledge of this feeling comes from my own experience and that of my clients and mentors. Guilt is the feeling that you've done something wrong, but shame is more the feeling that you are wrong - flawed, defective, less, unworthy, bad - even evil.
There are many degrees of shame, and most are rooted in the idea that you should be different, or you should act differently. Should is a very dangerous concept that I touch on in my Thoughts "The Tyranny of Should," and "Should and the Healing Path." Should implies that things can be different than they are, which is nonsense.
When a parent tells a child "you should know that," it is a recipe for craziness. It makes as much sense as saying "you should have three feet." The truth is that the child doesn't know. That is reality. To say it should have been different is to enter a non-existent fantasy land. If a parent berates a child for being what they aren't, it is the parent who has the problem - with reality. To punish or demean a child for this is abuse.
Parents need to ask themselves - do I know everything? Can I do everything? Can I be everything? There is not an adult in this world who can do everything in the realm of knowledge, sports, or life skills. How many of us adults hate being belittled by professors, doctors, police, and bosses? It would be helpful to recognize that by shaming children we are being hypocrites, and to start treating our children the way we would like to be treated.
Many parents defend the criticism of children by saying "if we don't reprimand them, they will never become functioning adults in this society." These parents must not live in the same society as I do. Most adults in this society are not fully functional: they are propped up by antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, mood stabilizers, cigarettes, coffee, alcohol, marijuana, television, sweets, and a thousand other crutches. Raising children by "shoulds" definitely is not working. If children are brought up in a home where members are aware of their feelings and everyone's needs are being equally attended to, contemptuous reprimands are not necessary. Love, support, and encouragement will do far more to create a functional adult than shame.
Love is acceptance - of reality. Shaming is not love, it is hate - and a denial of reality. In acceptance, we can be what we are and grow naturally from there. In shame, we deny what we are (hate ourselves) and enter a hopeless struggle to be different. When we struggle to be different than what we are, we suppress the natural growth process (which emanates from what we really are) and we become an act - a house of cards not grounded in reality.
When you feel bad or shameful, ask yourself "according to whose judgment?". Even though it may have become your judgment, you will find that it started with the judgments of others. No need to worry about whether their judgments were right or not. If their judgments were different than what you actually were, then they were wrong. That's reality. If they said that you were stupid (implying that you should have been smarter), they were wrong - every time. You knew what you knew - that was reality. If your knowledge wasn't adequate for them, then this was an issue of theirs that could have been attended to in a more loving way.
When we become neurotic, we cause trouble for ourselves. We wish we were healthier. But being aware of the discomfort does not have to become self-shame. It can become acceptance. The compassionate focus of acceptance allows the conditions for natural growth and adjustment. Acceptance is not saying, "I accept that I am flawed forever." That's resignation, which is a non-acceptance of the reality of growth and change. Acceptance is a feeling recognition that at this moment, things are the way they are. That's it. Acceptance is saying, "I accept that I am hurting at this moment."
The problem with shame is that it becomes more than an idea. It becomes a huge overall feeling projection that colours our perceptions. We can know, intellectually, that our shame does not originate in us, but we can't shake the feeling that we are fundamentally bad. We feel it in every cell. We can't help but interpret everything as an indication of our worthlessness.
I have discovered that most shame comes from the child's undeveloped ability to differentiate. If a parent is upset with a child, this upset - the angry eyes, the loud voice, the sneer, the contemptuous look - creates an atmosphere of unhappiness and tension. These uncomfortable feelings enter the child along with their own biological fear reflexes and create a huge "bad" feeling. The child does not have the capability to differentiate that this feeling is the adult's issue - that it belongs to the adult. The child is simply immersed in a sea of bad feelings. She feels bad = she IS bad. The parent's feeling barrage creates a state of "being bad" that transcends concepts and words.
The most insidious shame is created by the same mechanism, but in the earliest stages of life, from conception to infancy. If the pregnant mother is chronically angry, depressed, or anxious, the foetus marinates in a hormonal soup of "badness." When people say, "I have always felt that I was bad, that the whole world is a dangerous place," they are often unconsciously talking about their womblife, birth, or early infancy. This is a feeling of shame that seems to transcend specific events of abuse or neglect. These are the feelings most easily labelled as "genetic," and the ones that, unfortunately, that are used by some to prove that people are truly "born bad."
Shame, like any feeling, carries its origins and resolution within it. Since it is rooted in situations where the child was not accepted, acceptance is the necessary atmosphere for healing. To resolve shame, we need to feel and express that awfulness in sounds, movements, and words while we are being supported by a loving, accepting witness. Our own pace must be respected - without any "shoulds." Although the process may not be quick, the body wants to heal through and beyond shame.