Shame || Mary Coday Edwards

Blog 9

Shame: What’s it all about?

By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards.

shame

Shame. Common to the human experience, we’ve all experienced it, at times so excruciatingly painful that we seek desperately a hole to fall into, the proverbial wish for the ground to open up beneath our feet in order that we can hide our shame, or what we are ashamed of.

Shame resilience depends on being able to move through shame experiences with self-compassion (after all, how many perfect people do you know?), authenticity, and courage. Getting there, however, requires mindful discernment between shame and its cousinly emotions: embarrassment, humiliation, and guilt, so some definitions are in order.

Embarrassment is a response to something that threatens the image of ourselves (our persona – see last month’s blog), that we’d like others to believe about us. Sources of embarrassment fluctuate based on situations and who we’re with.

For example, nothing like realizing after you’ve been speaking to someone for 10 minutes that you’ve had a nose hair blowing in the breeze; if our persona’s projection is for perfect hygiene, we’ve obviously fallen below the bar, it’s beneath our projected image. If we can use compassionate self-talk, reminding ourselves that we’re certainly not the first ones to have longish nose hairs peeking out, we can move beyond the experience with humor.

If your mother’s 65 and shows up at your engagement party in a mini-skirt and go-go boots, it may cause embarrassment to you if you think it falls short of a family image of class and sophistication.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt

And then there’s humiliation, what we feel as the recipient of a shaming attack by someone else. It consists of an incident that demonstrates a relationship of unequal powers, of experiences of power and powerlessness, where one is in an inferior position and unjustly diminished. Brene Brown uses this example of the difference between shame and humiliation: A teacher is handing back papers and one paper doesn’t have the student’s name on it, and publicly the teacher announces that the student is stupid. With healthy self-talk, the student will be humiliated and embarrassed, but will tell herself, “That is the meanest, most nasty teacher ever. I don’t deserve that.” If the child’s self-talk is, “Ugh. He’s right. I’m so stupid, why do I keep forgetting to put my name on my paper. I’m so stupid.” That’s shame.

“Shame is a soul-eating emotion.” Carl Jung

Segueing onto unraveling shame and guilt, the easiest way to remember is the following: Guilt says “I did something bad”; shame harangues us with “I AM bad.”

Guilt focuses on our behavior. Guilt feelings have to do with ethical or moral principles that we believe are necessary to be a “good” person that we have violated: I did something I shouldn’t have, or I didn’t do something that I should have. Generally speaking, guilt can be a positive, healthy response, when it’s used in a manner to correct something that was indeed wrong.

However, often these principles have come down to us through various authorities: our parents, religious leaders, or our teachers. Perhaps they’ve become laws to our consciences, an authority within our psyches and as we age, need to be re-examined to see if these principles translated into values are still serving us.

If rocking the boat was not allowed in any form for a child, then challenging bullies or an abusive status quo can bring about feelings of guilt when an individual on a personal growth trajectory knows leaving said abusive situation is the next step that’s required. These guilt feelings can quickly slide into shame, if the inner authority continues its tirade against boat rocking of any sort, AND throws in the “truth” that those who do so are bad people. In this case, one is led to believe that they deserve their shame.

Shame washes over us even if nothing external occurs, whereas its cousins pop in for a visit over external circumstances.

Adults who as children were abused, neglected, continually criticized, abandoned, or mistreated internalize the message that they do not fit in, that they are inadequate or unworthy.

Shame then arises when our self-image is doubted or under attack. Me writing this blog is a classic example.

If I believe I am a font of wisdom, and the way that is proven is by how many “likes” and/or “comments” that I receive on Facebook by admiring fans, when that falls short of my expectations, shame eats at my soul. In other words, when I need everyone’s approval to bolster a sagging self-esteem, if my self-worth is tied into needing others to say positive things about me, then “You are a Failure! You are a Failure!” screams at me when, in this case, I fall short of the 1.5 million positive comments I need.

Until we can shift our abusive self-talk to that of compassion toward ourselves, we will continue to believe shame’s message that we are unworthy.

So – pay attention to the emotions running through your body. Ask yourself when these painful encounters occur: Is this shame? Embarrassment? Humiliation? Guilt? Sit with them, breathe into them, and practice self-compassion, non-judgmentally. Embrace your experiences with gratitude; these are your teachers!


Sources include:

Works by Donald Nathanson, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self; and his on-line materials.

Jacoby, Mario. Shame and the origins of self-esteem: A Jungian approach. 1994. Routledge; London.


About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her People House “tribe” and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.

Here is a list of other blogs Mary has written for People House:

 

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth