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Negative Self-perception and Shame

The mechanics of self-shaming

We hear a great deal about self-esteem. But what is self-esteem, really? Self-esteem is our opinion of ourselves, based on others' perceptions. So, how is it that we all, or at least many of us, have such a distorted and negative self perception? Good question.

In every social interaction that we have -- even before we are able to fully engage in those social interactions, because of our level of development -- we are given instructions. Sometimes those instructions are positive, sometimes negative and sometimes benign.

If you are the last one chosen for kickball during recess, your peers are giving you an instruction that they don't feel you to be athletic. If your artwork is always chosen to hang in the hallway near the principal's office, your teacher is giving you the instruction that you're artistic. If your mother is constantly harping on you to clean up your room, she is giving you the instruction that you're sloppy. If your school guidance counselor "dumbs down" the list of colleges and universities to which you selected to apply, s/he is giving you the instruction that you're not so bright.

These are clumsy examples. But they point to a very important idea. Until we come to an authentic and unclouded idea of who we are, we are only a reflection of the opinions of other people; we are a reflection of what others believe about us, as opposed to what we believe about ourselves. People hand us instructions, hold opinions and pass judgment, and we buy in.

The psycho-social mechanism for this is described in detail by cultivation theory. Why it is exactly that we buy in to the negative side of things with more alacrity than the positive is a difficult question to answer; nonetheless, it's what happens. And it is through this negative buy in, and consequent development of a negative self-perception, that we develop a sense of shame about who we are and our place in the world.

Shame can manifest itself in any number of ways from anorexia to frantic overachievement. It is not so much an emotion or a condition or even something that you can put your finger on, it is more a sensibility.

The anorexic, for example, feels so badly about herself that she quite literally wants to disappear. The narcissist, on the other hand, has an unbridled need to be noticed and validated. The recidivist addict latches onto a repeated cycle of self-destruction in order to punish himself. The serial adulterer seeks out consistent confirmation that s/he doesn't deserve his/her mate or doesn't deserve to be loved. We could throw out examples like these, both positive and negative, all day.

Shame is insidious, and, as we said, it is a sensibility more than a situation. Since it is a sensibility, it is something that can be addressed as a consequence of underlying issues -- in particular, issues of self-perception and esteem.

But if our self-perception and sense of esteem is driven by a reflection of others' opinions, then what are we to do? The idea of what to do is actually quite simple; putting it into action may be somewhat more difficult - surprise!

What we, in fact, need to do is take a conscious look at who we are, gathering evidence that either confirms or denies the personal belief system that we have put together for ourselves. Here's my favorite personal example - and one I believe I've shared here before.

When I was in 5th grade, I had a teacher, who embarrassed me in front of the whole class, telling me that I would never be good at math, because I had failed a long division quiz. I spent the next 11 years of my education fearful, struggling with math and being tutored outside of school - I had bought in. To this day, I make simple math errors when adding a column of numbers, doing carpentry work or filling out a deposit slip.

Here's where it gets interesting - I hold a Master's degree in Quantitative Analysis and, not only have I taught Statistics to graduate students at two different Ivy League universities, designed a dynamic Factor Analysis and Regression program that underlies an installation at the Smithsonian, and coached dozens of doctoral students through their oral exams -- I can do matrix algebra in my head. But I still screw up the tip!

At this point, I find the whole thing kind of amusing, because I know what I'm doing to myself unconsciously. A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to begin gathering evidence to contradict my belief system, and, viola; I can now zip through balancing my checkbook (yeah, like that happens) just as quickly as I can do an Analysis of Variance by hand.

Here's our point - check your premise. Is your shame driven by a negative self-perception that is driven by a reflection of others, or a concrete and tangible truth that you can put your finger on? If it's the former, get to work revising that premise. If it's latter - well, that's a topic for another post.

I often say that guilt is a wasted emotion because it is an attachment to judgment. In order to divest ourselves of guilt, we need to figure out who it is that is judging us.

Shame is a wasted sensibility because shame is an attachment to negative self-perception that has been fostered by the perceptions and opinions of others. To divest ourselves of shame we need to start living a life that is not a reflection of others, but a reflection of our authentic self.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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