Unlike guilt, where one feels one has DONE something bad, shame is the feeling that one IS bad. Because shame is internalized and attached to our very way of being-in-the-world rather than being circumstantial we, as humans, have developed elaborate and deeply entrenched strategies aimed at minimizing its pain.
Rather than taking the time to explore the causes of shame, such as childhood neglect and abuse, I will instead explore the ways in which we cope with shame and how these defenses often lead to further shame and an inability to lead a full, productive life.
Examples of common mechanisms employed to cope with shame are avoidance, domination, addiction and self-aggrandisement. To illustrate the ways in which these defenses engender further shame, I will use avoidance as an example. Let us imagine, for a moment, a person who has forgotten their partner’s birthday and this partner is unhappy. The partner’s unhappiness, perhaps even anger, triggers this person’s already internalized sense of shame, always there, beneath the surface. Instead of experiencing the common feeling of guilt, this person ends up feeling “less than.” They feel as if their partner views them as a failure. They become narrowly focused on their sense of worth and, as a result, they completely lose focus on their partner’s feelings; feelings they would recognized if they were simply experiencing guilt. Because they feel shame and because shame is a direct reflection of WHO WE ARE, the only way to overcome this feeling is for that person to try and eradicate their partner’s view of them. And so, instead of apologizing to that person, instead of talking it over or trying to remedy the situation, they instead choose avoidance as a coping strategy. They either pretend the situation never happened or invalidate their partner’s hurt feelings.
Whatever the justification, avoidance generally results in further hurt feelings and negative reactions on the part of injured party. Insult has been added to injury and the injured partner is likely more hurt and resentful, resulting in an increased sense of of shame in the negligent partner who may then further emotionally disengage in an attempt to disavow their sense of shame and to avoid the anxiety associated with emotional dialogue.
This cycle is not just relegated to domestic life but is played out socially as well as in the workplace. It is also not difficult to apply the shame cycle to the other common forms of defense against shame; addiction, self-aggrandisement, and domination. They are all well-worn paths toward an increased sense of shame for reasons similar to those illustrated above.
Because it is so painful to consciously carry shame, most of us will do almost anything not to have to acknowledge it. As a result, it is very difficult to identify underlying shame and to differentiate it from the compensating behaviors and from the responsibility for it we have externally placed on other people and circumstances. That being said, it is extremely important to understand the WHY of our behaviors and the feelings behind them in order to have autonomy over our actions and relationships. Too often the shame cycle prevents us from experiencing the richness and depth that life has to offer because we are too focused on avoiding painful feelings we don’t understand to fully engage with those around us. Facing shame is probably the most difficult but important thing we wrestle with in our lifetimes.