Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Dynamics of Shame
Uzma Mazhar

Shame is the feeling of being unworthy, inadequate, or defective, expressed in the belief that: "There's something wrong with me." It is a feeling of remorse about oneÂ’s worth as a person. The self, more than one's behavior, becomes the target of attack.
Guilt is a feeling of regret about what one has done or not done that hurt someone. Guilt is the uncomfortable or painful feeling that results from doing something that violates or breaks a personal standard or value, or from hurting another person, or even from breaking an agreement or a law. Guilt thus concerns one's behavior, feeling bad about what one has done, or about what one didn't do that one was supposed to have done.
Like most feelings, guilt can be a useful emotion. Guilt tells one that one's conscience is functioning. People who never experience guilt or remorse after transgressions are classically said to have an anti-social personality disorder. Guilt that is useful and constructive is considered to be 'healthy guilt'.
As John Bradshaw says, "When I feel guilt, I feel that I have made a mistake, and when I feel shame, I feel that I am a mistake."
Shame or low self-esteem plays a major role in stifling the 'inner self' or 'true self'. Shame is both a feeling or emotion, and an experience that happens to the total self.
We all experience shame. Shame is universal to being human. If we do not work through it and then let go of it, shame tends to accumulate and burden us, until we even become its victim.
In addition to feeling defective or inadequate, shame makes us believe that others can see through us, through our facade, into our defectiveness. Shame feels hopeless: that no matter what we do, we cannot correct it. We feel isolated and lonely with our shame.
Shame is often disguised as if it were some other feeling or action and then projected onto other people. Some of these feelings and actions that may mask shame are:
Compulsive Behavior
Growing up in a troubled or dysfunctional family is associated with shame and low self-esteem in all members of that family. The manifestations of shame may vary among family members as everyone adapts to shame in their own way. The major similarity is that nearly everyone will be co-dependent and operates primarily from their false self. We can thus describe the troubled or dysfunctional family as being shame-based.
Our shame seems to come from what we do with the negative messages, negative affirmations, beliefs and rules that we hear as we grow up. We hear these from our parents, parent figures and other people in authority.
Over and over, we hear messages like "Shame on You!" "You're so bad!" "You're not good enough." We hear them so often, and from people on whom we are so dependent and to whom we are so vulnerable, that we believe them. And so we incorporate or internalize them into our very being.
If we are mortified at momentarily forgetting a friend's name, we are experiencing shame
If we compulsively clean house before guests arrive, we are warding off shame
If we are too shy to speak in front of a group, we are suffering from shame.
If we cover our faces or say, "I'm sorry" when we cry, we are hiding our shame.
If we think we're too fat, too thin, too big, or too small, we are contending with shame.
If we envy another's success or fear our own, we are grappling with shame.
If we fail to go after what we want because we don't want to look "unfeminine," we are stopped by shame.
If we consistently put the needs of others ahead of our own, we are ruled by shame.
Shame, is the only emotion that attacks the self by making one believe that one is inherently defective and unlovable. This crippling emotion destroys self-confidence and prevents one from achieving or enjoying success. When shame pervades oneÂ’s day-to-day existence, one is torn between oneÂ’s need to empower and the need to preserve oneÂ’s relationships.
Many are afraid that others will see them as bad, weak, childish, stupid, or unloving, and that they will end up being scorned. Rejection, real or imagined, confirms their inherent sense of being unlovable. These intense feelings of inadequacy have their roots in their past and in their culture. Shame is above all a relationship wound and families provide the first experiences of unworthiness. From infancy on, we depend on the vital connection of love and trust with those most important to us. When the tie is broken by harsh words, neglect, or abuse, we blame ourselves. When these breaks occur repeatedly, we come to believe there is something wrong with us rather than with our parents.
Many women learn that as females they are too dependent and too emotional, too flighty to be capable of serious thinking. Qualities such as intuition, emotionality, and the ability to relate to others (which society generally labels "feminine") are less highly valued than qualities such as independence, assertiveness, and rationality (generally labeled "masculine"). WomenÂ’s strengths are discounted: their ability to see both sides of a situation is deemed wishy-washy, their intuition is dismissed, and their desire for connection is considered being "too dependent" or "needy."
Both men and women are discouraged to develop the traits of the opposite gender... as if learning to be assertive would harm a woman, or learning to be in touch with their emotions would damage a man. Stereotypes continue.
Men growing up in abusive homes experience shame in the same way as women. Their self-image is damaged in the same way. Their identity and self-worth shaken.
Men are ashamed when they lack power and status or, when they are too much like women. Women lack power and status and feel ashamed because they are women. Yet if they try to be like men, they are ashamed of being "unfeminine." Either way, they lose. Because womenÂ’s role has been to be passive and to defer to men, women struggle with shame for being competitive and for being successful.
Shame is a learned emotional reaction to an actual or perceived attack on the worth of an individual.
Dealing with shame involves:
Recognizing the aspects of the self that were shamed.
Figuring out rationally and logically if there is any validity to those comments or beliefs.
Recognizing the effect of that experience.
Feeling the anger, sadness, hurt and pain.
Letting go of the past feelings and beliefs.
Overcoming the paralyzing effects of shame that keeps one limited starts with developing an awareness of how and what one believes about one's self, then questioning and exploring that belief with logical, realistic and rational thinking.
© Uzma Mazhar 1999
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