Recently I’ve been thinking about the feeling of shame.
Shame: A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
A loss of respect or esteem; dishonor.
A painful emotion resulting from an awareness of inadequacy or guilt. (Source: Google/the web)
A few initial talking points –
1. Contrary to the third definitional phrase above, I think shame is a bit different from guilt. Guilt, to me, can mean feeling badly for deliberately not fulfilling an obligation. For instance, I feel guilty when I haven’t written to my middle school piano teacher in months. I thought about it a few times, but I deliberately did not write her back when I had those thoughts even though I “should” have. I also think guilt can also be something that you feel badly about that may have been out of your control. For example, if I was babysitting and fed a two-year old child three aspirin because she had a bad cold, which then caused her to need her stomach pumped, I would feel guilty for having caused her additional pain because I was the caregiver and “should” have known better. “Shoulds” are a part of shame too (“I should have acted better” is a thought/feeling associated with shame), but I think the “shoulds” of guilt and those of shame, differ slightly.
2. In keeping with the definitions above, shame (at least in my experience) definitely involves lots of pain. Note that “painful” was repeated twice.
3. Pulling words from above: I think distress, humiliation, esteem, inadequacy, and a consciousness of being foolish – are key to shame.
So why am I writing about shame?
Because it ties into something I’m trying hard to understand lately – victimology.
Victimology: The possession of an outlook, arising from real or imagined victimization, that seems to glorify and indulge the state of being a victim. (Source: Google/the web)
Side note: victimology can also be the study of criminals, but that’s not what I’m referring to here.
I am really great at being a victim.
I’m great at self-absorbing all the abusive, hurtful, even slightly less-than-positive feedback I can find. I can live within the realm of not good enough, and I can swim in it for days. Criticize me? You probably found a flaw I missed. Ignore me? I probably wasn’t worth your time. You can yell at me, right at me, and I’ll take it. (Didn’t say I wouldn’t cry or shut down, but I’ll take it.)
Here’s the thing – while on the outside I might be absorbing the negativity (and internalizing it), on the inside I’m fighting really hard. Because while I don’t always think the negative feedback is correct, there’s that little (not so tiny) voice causing self-doubt; making me wonder if what I’m taking in is actually true, and an internal war ensues between my emotions and my mind.
There’s lots of research and literature out there about self-esteem and self-image. I’m the first to admit: mine need work. Take academics for instance, in that realm I’m pretty confident of my abilities and my esteem matches my self image. But take relationships, I desperately want love and connection but I’m not sure that I’m worthy of it; and not just unsure, almost convinced at times, that I’m potentially unlovable because I’m defective (not smart enough, pretty enough, athletic enough, not caring enough, etc.).
Imagine the me I just described in the preceding paragraph – in some situations self-assured and confident, in others wildly fearful and self-defeating.
Now imagine my partner or friends dealing with this me who has these conflicting issues. Yeah. I mean, it sounds frustrating and exhausting to deal with. In some situations I’m stable and confident and in others I’m wildly insecure. In fact were I them, I’d ask myself “why can’t you feel as good about you across all situations?” “Why can’t you just turn off that ‘negative self-talk’ and believe that you’re worthy of love, and that you’re a good partner?”
Oh, how I wish it were so simple from my perspective, for this is where it comes in- shame.
I can’t turn off that negative self-talk because the feelings of personal inadequacy are so painful that they drown out the voice of reason trying to convince me that sometimes, even if I feel something inside (not smart enough, pretty enough, athletic enough, not caring enough, etc.), it might not actually be the reality.
So I revert to being a victim – I allow myself to remember all the times when I was treated poorly, or criticized, antagonized, etc., and I breathe it in and absorb it. I allow myself to feel self-pity, shame, insecure, inadequate – all of it – and then I withdraw entirely. I allow myself to be a prisoner of my emotional state, held hostage by feelings that feel overwhelming, enabling me to remove myself from the situation on a mental/emotional level and feed at the sores from my past.
A bit dismal, really. And it’s a vicious cycle of self-loathing.
There’s a problem though – I don’t want to live in this sphere of negative energy and debasing self-talk.
When I live in that sphere, I become a me that I’m even more ashamed of than the “imaginary inadequate me” in my head. For then I’m a me that: lashes out, blames others for my own short-comings, cries, throws tantrums (yes, I have perfected the ‘adult tantrum’), pouts, etc. And I succeed in furthering the thing that I want the LEAST: I create more distance and less emotional connection in my closest relationships.
So – how do I change this, how do I stop allowing myself to wallow in victim-land and start clearing the emotional cobwebs of shame and poor self-esteem?
Psychologists talk about the idea of conscious thought stopping – essentially, relying on that rational part of the brain and trusting it when it says ‘I think you’re overreacting’ or ‘I think you actually are lovable’.
There’s also the suggestion of increasing awareness for triggers of maladaptive behavior – finding out what cues cause your brain to short circuit back to those unhealthy thoughts and feelings, and then trying to once again rely on your more rational side, to help you reframe the situation mentally (“I’m just feeling inadequate because I’ve been cheated on before which makes me feel like I’m the kind of person people would cheat on (unworthy of fidelity)” ) since there isn’t evidence to support your feelings, just fear and past pain.
And of course, a big thing is actually changing behavior – making your partner/friends (in this case) aware of your triggers and insecurities, help them help you by offering actions they can take to minimize your tendency to react and revert to those unhealthy thoughts/feelings, and then the big one –
Taking responsibility for your own behavior and actively changing it.
*Sigh* I definitely have my work cut out for me…clearing away years of self-shame and victim-like thinking and feeling, is going to take time. But I owe it to myself and those I love, to try.
I’ll start at the beginning – “Hi, I’m recovering from a life-time of debasing self-talk, shame and poor self-esteem.”
And now, for the hard work…
For other thoughts on recovering from shame, check out: http://www.counselingcenter.illinois.edu/?page_id=1557