Why We Feel Shame & How To Help It

One of the great problems in the world is also one of the most invisible, because — by its nature — it asks to be hidden and saps our ability to spot its symptoms. But to generalize grossly, few things so undermine human well-being as the sickness of shame.

The guilty feel bad for something specific they have done; the shamed feel wretched simply for being. The affliction lacks borders. As shamed people, we don’t connect the myriad of ways in which our behavior and feelings are driven by a base conviction of our own abhorrence. We just take it as a given that we are disgusting.

We lack the capacity to imagine that our shame has as a history and therefore — perhaps — a future that could be curtailed. A first step in untangling ourselves is to get enough distance to spot and name the problem. We might make use of a little questionnaire.

Out of ten, rate how true the following statements feel:

  1. I don’t deserve to exist
  2. I am defective
  3. I am unworthy of being known and loved
  4. I am a mistake
  5. I deserve to be abandoned
  6. I should not be

Anything over an eight starts to indicate a problem — but if there were an option most of us in the shamed camp would want to award ourselves a hundred or more. This is the windswept barren land of shame where many of us have been living all our lives, often without enough mental wellbeing to know that this is where we have been regulated.

We should probe at where our shame collects. Take an outline of a human figure, what are we ashamed of? Our mind? Facial appearance? Physique? Genitals? We were not born ashamed. We should summon up the voices that give us our legacy and which we have then internalize and blended with our own.

“you’ll never amount to anything”

“you’re the family idiot”

“you disgust me.”

Others may wonder why people around us behave this way, the answer is clear enough to the shamed; because we deserved it. We wouldn’t be truly shamed people if all it took were a few simple questions to shake us from the conviction of our detestable identity. We were shamed because we were and are defective.

Our caregivers weren’t mean; if anything they were perceptive, even brilliant. They could spot things that later, kinder people cannot; they had the true measure of us. Shamed children don’t blame their guardians, we protect them for a weird but logical reason: so as not to feel entirely alone. We prefer to think well of our caregivers than to take on board how badly we’ve been let down with all the convulsive rage and sadness that would entail.

The consequences of shame are written across our lives: we don’t let other people get too close (they would only be appalled if they knew the true us), we’re not so good on physical intimacy, we get scared all the times (bad things happen to bad people), we don’t like parties (why would anyone be pleased to see us?), we have a lot of secrets (for most of what we are is unacceptable to other people), we go in for addictive behavior to escape our self-hatred and then feel even more ashamed of ourselves for the unholy things we’ve done.

What is the way out of shame? The same popular answer is to tell ourselves that we are beautiful and good, but that won’t easily convince us. There maybe a better, more oblique strategy to bypass the defenses of the shamed: we should stress not that we are wonderful, but that every human being that has ever walked the planet is radically broken when observed from close up.

We maybe a bit wrong, but so — blessedly — is everyone else. We can be stupid, uncouth, and awkward which is all relatively normal. Better to accept that, as a group, we are crazy, wicked, and odd. But we must stress that this is a reason for mercy and kindness rather than censure and condemnation. Let’s stop judging ourselves and others by unattainable standards — that’s where the problem started.

The primary sin of those who made us was not so much that they spotted our flaws, it’s that they forgot their own, and then had the Gaul to blame us for our own. We need to give up on trying to achieve perfectionism, instead, we need to make a generous home for our cracked reality in our own and in the collective imagination. We must recognize the imperfections that lay beneath the heavy facade that we all put up. It’s time we as a society give up trying to all live up to one idealized form of perfection and recognize the diversity and strength that comes with everyone striving after the universal beauty and goodness that reveals itself differently to everyone. That will be the start of our way out of the problem of shame.