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The Hidden Shame That Threatens Our World

Healing shame as a key to world peace.

Key points

  • Unrecognized and unhealed shame often underlies a tendency toward rage, contempt, and violence when things don't go our way.
  • Political leaders who have become dissociated from their shame can become dangerous to others by covering up shame with anger and contempt.
  • Healing shame begins by acknowledging our human vulnerability and making room for feelings such as hurt, fear, and loss.
Pexels image by rachel-claire
Source: Pexels image by rachel-claire

Being a psychotherapist for over 40 years, I’ve come to see shame as a complex and destructive human emotion with far-reaching consequences. We all experience it, but few realize the hidden ways in which it operates. When shame lurks outside of our awareness, it can become the driving force behind the destructive rage, blame, and violence that is damaging our world.

Shame is the felt sense of being defective and inadequate. Brene Brown defines it as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

Shame has also been defined by Gerhsen Kaufman as a breaking of the interpersonal bridge. As human beings wired for connection, we dread isolation. Children fail to thrive when they don’t feel a safe and secure connection with caregivers. When healthy attachment is ruptured, a child feels unworthy of love and acceptance. This unbearable shame can lead to a mad scramble to prove our worth in distorted ways that often dehumanize others.

In a 2016 article, shame expert Bret Lyon, who leads Healing Shame trainings, describes how intolerable shame can be transferred to others:

“Driven by the need to keep the feelings of shame at bay and away from themselves, people can exult in their contempt and cynicism—finding a curious kind of gratification in it… In extreme cases, runaway contempt can cause people to lose sight of another's humanity. Even their right to exist. This has led to extreme behavior, in Germany and many other places.”

As Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin have stated in their Healing Shame workshop, “When we have covert shame, others pay the price.”

Acting Out Childhood Wounds

Being shamed or punished as a child for not living up to images of perfection or worldly accomplishments is a setup for a wounded person running amok. Of course, not everyone who was emotionally brutalized in childhood is condemned to manifest a shame-driven anger. But we do see it in violent criminals with troubled upbringings. And we can see it in some politicians whose bravado and anger hide a secret shame and a fear of being exposed as a failure.

When the drive toward personal “success” or being superior becomes dissociated from our humanity, we seek gratification in ways that will never really satisfy us. We become disconnected from our souls, as our innate longing for love and connection curdles into a desire for status, money, or power. These substitute ways to seek gratification often spiral out of control—taking us on a perilous journey away from our fellow humans—and away from our true selves. This desire for a narrow self-gratification overlooks the reality that we are inescapably interconnected.

We can observe this shame-driven dynamic in our fraught politics, where looking good replaces being good (truly caring about others). We can see it in political and business leaders competing to amass the greatest wealth and power, which often translates into a race to see who can be the most contemptuous and divisive.

Some political leaders—and followers who relish the thrill of belonging to a group that has special knowledge and that is superior to others—have so thoroughly dissociated from their vulnerability, their humanity, their hearts, and their souls, that they have no compunction to deny the rights of others, or, as we've seen in Ukraine and elsewhere, committing atrocities without any healthy shame to check their behavior.

Hell hath no fury like a wounded politician whose back is up against the wall. The shamelessness that we’ve seen throughout history with brutal authoritarian leaders grows in a petri dish of abuse, neglect, and trauma. Cruelty grows from being treated cruelly.

A New World Order Based on Our Interconnectedness

The long-term solution lies in supporting people to really know themselves, which includes attending to their emotional needs and sensibilities. This is a task for our educational system and good-enough parenting. We need to become smarter about how to grow psychologically healthy human beings. This means cultivating emotional intelligence at an early age—helping children deal with their feelings in a skillful way.

The good news is that we now know how to do this. Programs such as Dovetail Learning, The Toolbox Project, and Mindful Schools have developed sophisticated programs that help children develop self-worth, emotional awareness, resilience, and healthy interactions.

We can move toward a more peaceful, just world as we support people to live with dignity—providing health care, a livable wage, an affordable education, and opportunities to succeed, among other things. These values are sometimes cynically dismissed but they are simply human values. They are “radical” in the sense of getting to the “root” of the problem, which is where the word “radical” comes from. These are true family values and right-to-life values—providing a foundation for everyone to live with dignity.

Hope for the Future

Shame is a normal human emotion, not something to dread. If we can find our way to become strong enough to notice it, explore how it operates, learn from it, and use it as a catalyst toward a more humane path, our world will become safer. There are many books, tapes, and workshops where we can learn how to recognize and heal shame. Working with a psychotherapist who understands shame can also help.

We can learn and grow by working with old traumas and shame (which is a form of trauma). One research study suggests that nearly 50 percent of trauma survivors experience what has been called post-traumatic growth. This includes finding deeper meaning in life, a renewed appreciation for the gift and wonder of being alive, and spiritual transformation. My hope is that the current war trauma can be a catalyst that awakens enough of us to usher in a new world order based upon an intersection of spiritual values, psychological insights, and a hearty dose of common sense.

All the great spiritual traditions have taught us that the heart of spirituality is to love one another; spiritual fulfillment lies in participating in something larger than ourselves. As written in the New Testament, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers you do unto me."

Happiness does not visit those single-mindedly bent upon pursuing their own private pleasures and ignoring the needs around us. There is no greater pleasure than finding meaning and fulfillment in a life of service—balancing healthy self-care with being responsive to the needs of others and the natural environment that supports life.

As we loosen our attachment to our political ideologies, ethnic and national identities, and mental constructs that separate us, we can build a world where we can tolerate differences and even learn from them. Together, we can build a world where everyone is valued and can actualize their human and spiritual potential.

© John Amodeo.


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