Are You Ashamed of How You Feel?

Negative emotions are not bad.

Posted Mar 12, 2019

Emotions are the essence of who a person is. Positive emotions motivate, inspire, and allow human beings to remain emotionally connected to each other, fostering love. Negative emotions are equally as important, but a lot less fun. Anger, hurt, loss, shame, disappointment, and other negative feeling states do not feel good, but they serve an important purpose. They help us grow.

Negative emotional states often cause significant pain which may cause a person to unconsciously employ defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are functional, provided they are relaxed enough to allow the deeper emotional capacities to enter a person’s conscious awareness. Introspection, accountability, insight, remorse, vulnerability, self-awareness, shame, empathy, and open-mindedness constitute several sophisticated emotional capacities. Each encompasses an element of pain. A person who truly embodies these capacities feels their intensity at an emotional level.

For example, if a person feels bad for hurting a friend’s feelings, they are allowing pain to enter their conscious awareness in the shape of remorse. The remorse, although unpleasant to say the least, motivates the person to own their mistake and repair the rupture. Alternatively, if this person is rigidly defended, they often deflect accountability and project blame onto their innocent friend, saving themselves from emotional hardship. If this cycle repeats itself in the majority of their relationships, it may cause a great deal of dysfunction.

Another example is introspection. Possessing this sophisticated capacity also qualifies a person as less rigidly defended because they are able to feel the emotional hardship of sincere and intense self-awareness. A staunchly defended individual is not able to consciously entertain the fact that they may be wrong, selfish, or flawed in the context of their relationship because it causes pain. They tend to utilize intellectualization, deflection, projection, denial, and many additional defense mechanisms in order to escape the emotional discomfort that deep introspection requires.

For example, a woman is recently turned down for a promotion. She is devastated and upon arriving home from work encounters her adolescent son who complains about his worn soccer gear and grumbles about going to soccer practice. Already hurt and angry, his comments push her over the edge, and she yells, “You are a spoiled brat!” Shocked and upset, the young man storms out.  A few minutes later she reflects on her behavior, realizing she was hurtful and insensitive, and deeply regrets her words.  When her son returns home from practice, she approaches him and sincerely apologizes. “I’m sorry I lashed out at you, honey. It was really unfair.”  Her son accepts her apology and asks if she is okay. She opens up about her disappointment regarding the promotion. He gives her a hug and finds a jug of ice cream and two spoons. The relationship is instantly repaired, due to the woman’s ability to be introspective, remorseful, and accountable.

A person who lacks introspection, but deflects and projects instead, continues to feel entitled to put her son down. She experiences no remorse, feels justified, and continues to criticize her son. He avoids her and isolates himself in his room. The rupture is not addressed or repaired, and the cycle repeats itself causing the relationship to grow distant.

Conscious shame is another unpleasant, but necessary emotional state. Understanding how a human being experiences shame is complicated, and, ironically, people often shame people who feel shame. Dips in self-esteem are frequently misperceived as weakness. Yet shame is a close cousin to remorse, introspection, and self-awareness, and thus an important and relevant feeling state.

A person may experience profound shame when they believe they have done something wrong. Similar to remorse, it occurs when a person is engaging in self-reflection.  If a person can tolerate shame long enough to accept a mistake, take responsibility for it, and exemplify remorse, the shame is productive and useful. Most people who have felt searing shame regarding a transgression rarely make the mistake again because it is etched into their conscious awareness. Without the ability to feel a healthy amount of shame there would be minimal accountability, insight, and growth.

For example, say a person has a conflict in the grocery store parking lot, loses his or her temper, and yells at the other person. If he or she feels intense shame regarding the interaction they likely avoid making the mistake again due to the emotional ramifications. Striving to understand and regulate their anger instead of acting on it becomes a goal. The shame leads to introspection which inspires growth.

On the other hand, if a person deflects any accountability regarding the conflict and projects 100 percent of the blame onto the other person, they conveniently escape the emotional discomfort of shame, but in doing so, rule out a chance for insight. In essence, not consciously feeling shame is detrimental because a person may be too rigidly defended to authentically look at themselves.

Feeling an overabundance of shame indicates a person is not rigidly defended, but it definitely has its own issues. Overwhelming shame may paralyze a person, detouring insight. Understanding the paralysis is the key. Often when a person is overwhelmed with shame they decompensate emotionally. Instead of temporarily experiencing emotional pain, they drown in it and believe they are a “bad” person. Although they are secure enough to handle shame without unconsciously deflecting and projecting it, which is positive, they are not yet able to rebound as quickly as others who feel shame. They seem to continually beat themselves up about the incident for days and weeks. At this point, it may be helpful for the person to unpack their shame with a psychotherapist. It is probable the individual experienced trauma as a child which amplifies the experience of shame. Once a person connects the childhood wound to the present circumstance, they may quickly gain a handle on the experience of shame.

In a nutshell, feeling intense shame often inspires insight and growth. If the shame feels crushing and debilitating, eliciting the correct help may lead to the most healing of revelations. Yet, rarely feeling deep shame may qualify a person as excessively defended and thus lacking in the more sophisticated emotional capacities such as self-awareness, introspection, remorse, conscious shame, open-mindedness, empathy, and accountability. Attempting to embrace and tolerate negative emotions long enough to gain insight is advantageous. Every emotion is sacred and each one says something important about who a person is.