The Soul-Killing Nature of Shame

I hesitate to write this because it's such a huge and overwhelming topic.  Unfortunately, it needs to be talked about because shame is so pervasive and so destructive.  Maybe I'll just begin talking about it today and add to it over time.

Two non-personal memories of watching and hearing others being shamed still haunt me.  One time years ago, I was with a friend at an outdoor festival at Laguna Gloria.  A little boy had apparently done something that was upsetting to his parent.  The parent berated this child for several minutes, going on and on about how unacceptable his behavior was, and how he was such a bad person....  The child's face was so painful to watch.  I could see something slowly dying in his eyes.  The hostile and cruel nature of the parent's intense focus and the child's despair still haunt me today.

More recently, I was at a multi-family play date, and a young girl was acting out.  Her behavior was out of control and disruptive.  Again her parent, in front of everyone, started yelling at her. Her behavior was "unacceptable," and the parent was "disappointed" and "disgusted."  The child had a sad, glazed look in her eyes, was clearly very embarrassed, and put her head down on the table and cried.  Now don't get me wrong, her behavior did need to be reigned in, but there was probably a better way.

Shame is that super-caved in, worthless feeling we all sometimes have.  It's paralyzing.  It's different from guilt in that guilt is about remorse--feeling bad about hurting someone.  Shame is about harshly judging or verbally abusing yourself.  As far as I can tell, there's nothing positive that comes from shame.  It's soul-killing.  Imagine how those kids must have felt, and what those non-isolated, I'm sure, interventions had on their sense of self.  Every time we shame ourselves, we destroy a part of our self-worth and efficacy in the world.  It's hard to be a positive, productive, creative person if you feel bad about yourself.  

How do we dismantle shame?  The best advice I've heard is that shame, much like depression, is anger turned inward.  So we must find a way to either neutralize or externalize the anger.  In the above examples, both of those kids probably walked away from the interactions, having internalized the message that "I'm a bad person."  Kids don't have the psychological sophistication to challenge shaming messages.  But as adults we do.  

The first step is to try to remember where the shaming messages of "I'm not good enough,"  "I'm stupid," or "I'm worthless" come from.  Are there specific memories that you can identify?  How did you feel at the time?  How do you feel now thinking about it.  The problem with shame is that it's traumatizing, therefore sadness, hurt, anger as well as other feelings are cut off.  You go into survival mode.  Remembering allows you to have the feelings you didn't then, which will help you heal the old wounds and let go of the negative thoughts.

The second step involves externalizing the anger.  Yes, those kids may have behaved inappropriately.  But did they "deserve" to be verbally humiliated?  Do you?  Fight back.  Redirect the anger to where it belongs.  Be angry with the people or situations that are negatively affecting you, causing you to unfairly judge yourself.