How Recognizing Shame Can Help Us Grow
Shame can be toxic, but avoiding shame can be worse.
Posted Sep 27, 2017
“It is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.”
― D.W. Winnicott
“It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
― D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality
Shame is one of the most difficult emotions human beings experience, and one of the most common. Shame is something we generally share, and we can empathize with one another's feelings of shome. Shame is one of the classic "self-conscious emotions" (Tangney & Fischer, 1995), along with guilt, embarrassment and pride. The way we deal with these emotional states is pivotal for shaping what paths our development may take―use them well, and we may grow and deepen. Use them poorly, and we may withdraw from ourselves, rather than blossoming. Shame can shut down creativity, and creative expression can help people move through shame.
As a psychoanalyst, I'm acutely aware that evoking feelings of shame can have negative effects on other people. Therapists are generally trained to avoid shaming clients, sometimes making it more challenging to address shameful experiences. "Shaming" others is typically injurious, often an attempt to punish the other and force them to change, and/or an expression of our own disowned feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy. When the shamed person succumbs to pressure and appears to meet the demands of the other, the shamed person submerges their true feelings, and learns to perform. The authentic experience of injury is hidden, and a false self emerges (Winnicott, 1960).
The person feeling shamed tends to spiral into cycles of worsening self-condemnation (Lutz et al., 2009), and withdraw from the very support they need. The person doing the shaming may alternately feel self-righteous and justified in being injurious, but may just as often feel pangs of guilt and their own shame. In retrospect what seemed unavoidable or appropriate often reveals itself to have been a bad choice, a mistake which could have been avoided. Rather than learning for the next time, the focus is on regret and lack of self-efficacy. On a collective level, shame emerges when we powerlessly endure moral transgressions, and may lead to destructive retaliation in favor of constructive responses.
Whether it is a pair, or a group, of people, the self-conscious emotions―perhaps especially shame because of its inherently internalized social quality―tend to split us into (at least) two disconnected parts. Part of this is due to the inherent feelings of threat which accompany shame, and part of this is because stronger feelings of shame makes us turn inward and pull away from others because we feel unfit for and undeserving of basic human companionship.
When shame slices us away from one another, there is a shamer and a shamed, a "doer and done to." There is a failure of "mutual recognition." This elemental fail not only shuts down any real chance of dialogue and accord, but also can lead to trauma, abuse, and other forms of relational injury, leaving no room for us to hold different perspectives together. There is no "thirdness"―a co-created ("intersubjective") space in which differing, sometimes incompatible perspectives co-exist without needing to wipe each other out (Benjamin, 2004). Shame undermines the process of working toward thirdness by isolating people from one another, and from themselves, preventing us from creating and nurturing an envelope within which we can safely reside together. (For romantic couples especially, see my work with co-authors on irrelationship for more detail on how this works, and methods to cultivate and practice mutual relatedness.)
It almost goes without saying that it is kind and prudent to avoid shaming others (and oneself) as a general rule, though that may be more easily said than done. However, total avoidance of awareness of shame, or quick flight from shame, can keep us from accessing valuable mental contents when we feel intolerably vulnerable and unworthy.
Shame is a feature of everyday life, and not always traumatic, but still influential. Avoiding shame can limit the decisions we are able to see, and suppressing awareness of shame may be more comfortable, and even necessary, for some period of time when denial is required for continuity. Sometimes we even know what we are doing with our feelings, with varying degrees of awareness and intention. Shame may be used deliberately and unwittingly by others to punish, control, neglect, and abuse. As much as mild shame can be a familiar part of social learning, I wonder if it is necessary. Shame as a teaching tool may be the path of least resistance what better options are unavailable, as is the case when there is a failure of recognition, a lack of playfulness and creativity, in the presence of aggression. Shaming may feel like the right way to go under such conditions.
Given that shame appears to be a double-edged sword, what are some of the potential benefits to approaching (or considering approaching) shame? Here are some reflections about what the potential gains from successfully working with shame might be, in three interconnected core areas:
1) In relation to oneself:
Embarrassment Essential Reads
More accurate self-perception
Greater ability to value vulnerabilities
Ability to stay steadier in the face of strong emotion
Reduced need for avoidance and denial
Clear sense of authenticity
Reduced need for unhealthy narcissism
2) With others:
More accurate perception of the other individual person
Greater ease reaching out to and connecting with others
Less tendency to gravitate toward unhealthy relationships driven by hidden shame
Increased comfort being present with others
Greater ability to communicate with others through mutual recognition
Greater compassionate empathy
3) On the group or collective level:
Better overall ability to function in pairs and groups
Less group fragmentation
Better ability to repair, resolve and move beyond past conflicts and injuries
Greater justice and reparation following transgressions
Better ability to recognize and address fearful, divisive subjects (e.g. prejudice, abuse, shared hazards) without devolving into conflict and aggression
Greater capacity for collective grieving and sense of community
More accurate grasp of group dynamics
It been my experience that if and when people are ready to compassionately (self-compassionately) engage with their own feelings of shame, it can be an important and sometimes positively transformative experience in which, among other events, anger yields to sadness and grieving. Shame can be powerful medicine because when shame is addressed, obstructions to growth may dissolve. Because shame can get out of control, thoughtfulness and care are required when approaching. Recognition of shame is not the same as shaming or being shamed, a distinction which is often missed.
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Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond doer and done-to: An intersubjective view of thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Volume LXXIII, Issue 1, January, pp. 5-46. Pages 5–46
Lutz BT, Stein N, Delaney E, Lebowitz L, Nash WP, Silva C, Maguen S. (2009).Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy. Clinical Psychology Review 29, 695-706.
Tangney, J. P., & Fischer, K. W. (Eds.). (1995). Self-conscious emotions: The psychology of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride. New York: Guilford Press.
Winnicott, D. W. (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In: The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1987, pp. 140-152.
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