Shame; the feeling that you have done something wrong that goes against your core values. Shame is a normal and natural human emotion that is not harmful.
In this series, the CPTSD Foundation is offering a new group of articles where we explore together the different types of shame, and how they define who we are as individuals.
Shame can be either a destructive or constructive tool to build the self-esteem and self-images of children and adults, however to say that shame is either only good or bad is too simplistic. Indeed, all shame is not created equal.
In this, the first article in our new series, we shall explore together how shame shapes our lives, as well as the four types of shame: typical, basic, relational, and exclusionary.
How Shame Shapes Us
As we shall discover, shame is a powerful force that allows us to recognize when we have done something wrong or harmed others. Thus, shame helps us to empathize and form bonds with other people.
Healthy shame sends the message to our minds that “I did something wrong.”
However, when it is destructive, shame internalizes the message and translates to “I am bad.”
Destructive shame can ruin our lives because it is internalizing negative messages about who we are as people. Destructive shame owns a person’s identity, and while most are aware of its existence, others experience it below their conscious awareness.
In both internalized and hidden shame, things that trigger our destructive shame make us irrational, angry, and sometimes lash to out at others.
Below are some of the ways that destructive shame harms our self-esteem and self-image.
- Our own thoughts can bring on feelings of shame.
- The pain associated with shame is intense.
- The fear of experiencing shame can cause chronic anxiety.
- Destructive shame can spiral into feelings of hopelessness and despair.
- Destructive shame is often accompanied by negative voices, beliefs, and images of ourselves and others.
- Destructive shame leaves a person feeling deeply inadequate.
It’s clear that destructive shame can instill in us the belief that we are unlovable, ugly, and not worthy of good things, especially love. Destructive shame tells us that we are stupid, unattractive, a failure, a fraud, or even that we are selfish to take care of our own needs. These basic and untrue beliefs are followed by the internal messages that we hate ourselves, we don’t matter, we are defective, and worst of all that we should have never have been born.
The Reasons We Feel Ashamed
It is human nature to compare ourselves with other people. We want to fit into the crowd and be accepted. However, too often children and adults rely too heavily on the image of other people or groups to build their own self-image.
Destructive shame comes from a myriad of different factors, of which below I have given you only a partial list.
One may feel shame because:
- The color of their skin
- Their religion
- Their sexual orientation
- Their gender
- The size of their body
- They have a mental illness
- They have a physical disability
- They have an intellectual disability
- They have been victimized as adults or as children
Literally, toxic shame is caused by the ways we perceive being different from what we, and society, have set up as “normal.”
Destructive Shame Developed in Adulthood
We often think of destructive shame as beings something that only forms in childhood. However, adults are also vulnerable to forming destructive shame.
Destructive shame develops in adulthood from traumatic events and experiences. Adults may form destructive shame from having a dysfunctional or abusive relationship, a trauma such as rape, humiliation at work, or repeated rejection from people and organizations.
Betrayal also plays a large part in adults developing destructive shame.
An adult who internalizes the verbal and non-verbal messages they receive from unappreciative bosses or romantic partners, will often experience a sense of fear and a loss of connection with who they are as a person.
While shame is usually discussed regarding its negative nature, we seldom speak about how shame can be a positive and vital power for shaping our personalities for the better.
Typical shame shouts to us that we have hurt someone else, crossed a personal boundary, or violated someone else’s dignity. Shame helps us recognize when we have acted in a way that has broken the trust of someone in a relationship. Without shame, we wouldn’t be alert to how our actions negatively affect others and allow us to empathize with someone else’s plight.
Typical shame aids us by grabbing our attention, so we can pause and notice how our actions affect others. Then instead of carrying out what we had planned it allows us to correct our course of action.
One example of how typical shame helps mold our relationships and who we are as a person is as follows:
You have been married for three years and truly love your partner, and they reciprocate those feelings fully.
One day, you are in a horrendous mood when you get out of bed. You decide to get yourself a bowl of cereal for a quick breakfast, but when you open the refrigerator door, where there should be a jug full of milk, there’s an empty milk jug.
Decidedly, you stomp back to the bedroom and get your partner out of bed by shouting insults at them. They try to apologize, but you keep shouting insults and then stomp into the bathroom to get dressed. Once alone, shame overwhelms you. Although it was frustrating to find an empty milk jug in the fridge, you were equally responsible for making sure there was enough milk for this morning.
As you are dressing, shame reminds you of how you hurt your partner by calling them names and insulting them. You have not only attacked someone you love, but did so while they were still in bed and trying to figure out why you were so upset.
Due to shame, you find your partner and apologize. Allowing them to express how your actions hurt them, and allowing you to take responsibility for those actions.
Because of typical shame, your relationship with your partner is preserved, and by that evening when you both return home from work, the morning shenanigans are laughed about and forgotten.
Basic shame, also called toxic shame, arises when our own internal values are violated by either ourselves or someone else. This type of shame can include unrequited love in either an adult relationship or in childhood. Most humans will experience basic shame, usually when we love someone who rejects us, or when we give them a love that is not reciprocated.
Although basic shame is, well, basic, there are times it becomes highly damaging to the people it effects. Basic shame involves humiliation and isn’t only experienced in adulthood. Basic shame also affects very young children.
Infants are hardwired before birth with an ability to be very observant to the emotions and moods of their caregivers. Often infants will reflect in their behaviors the emotions what they are observing. Infants absorb verbal and non-verbal clues from their caregivers and other family members.
The negative messages that occur in dysfunctional homes, damage how an infant sees themselves. These small children internalize the negative impressions they have received from caregivers and family members and believe what the negative messages say about them.
Invasive experiences, such as child molestation or other types of trauma, increase the effects of basic shame. Such events leave children with a deeply damaged self-esteem and with a sense of self-hatred. Left unchecked, these children grow up full of dread and fear that they don’t measure up, are ugly, deformed, or unlovable.
Relational shame involves disappointed expectations in human relationships. This type of shame occurs when we are in a relationship that is dysfunctional and makes us feel worthless and powerless.
Relational shame also involves feeling exposed, as a relationship with a narcissist who uses guilt and shame to control the person they have trapped in a relationship.
To be clear, these relationships do not need to be romantic, but can also involve work and school relationships where the person is told they are a failure. Friendships that are abusive also involve relational shame.
The effects of shame from a relationship leave people feeling like they wish they could disappear, or worse, that they would die. Suicidality isn’t far away from someone who is involved in this type of bitter and sour relationship.
If left unresolved, people who are experiencing relational shame will stay in a harmful relationship. They find themselves in and experience where their self-esteem suffers chronic erosion.
Humans have an evolutionary need to belong. From birth, we behave in ways that will keep us connected to other people. As we mature, this need to fit in occurs in all the aspects of our lives including work, friendships, and our public image.
Humans place a high value on being liked and not feeling like an outsider. It is this need that makes us vulnerable to exclusionary shame.
Children spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to fit in with their peers. They will dress, act, play, and behave in the presence of their peers in ways that they think will make them more acceptable to the group.
However, when children find themselves faced with exclusionary behaviors from peers, the results are devastating.
If a child becomes an object of ridicule, such as in bullying, the resulting damage to their self-image and self-esteem is horrendous. Further damage occurs when these children are left out of parties or other functions because their peers are afraid to include them, worried they will become excluded themselves.
Unfortunately, the child suicide rates in the United States mirror the phenomenon of exclusionary shame, as 522 children under the age of 14 died by suicide in 2017. That figure means that a child chose to leave this world every five days during that year.
The child victims of exclusionary shame who survive to adulthood carry into their new relationships the scars, both emotional and relational, left by exclusionary shame.
Unfortunately, exclusionary shame doesn’t just affect children. Adults can fall victim of exclusionary shame as well, when we are passed over for a promotion or excluded from invitations to events.
Children are especially vulnerable to exclusionary shame. After being chronically exposed to it many kids will develop either to a mental health disorder, a severely damaged self-esteem and self-image, or even, as we have discovered, die trying to fit in.
The deaths of children and adults by suicide leave a lasting scar on humanity. By erasing their contributions and voices from the earth all of humanity suffers.
Some Closing Thoughts on Shame
Just reading about shame can conjure thoughts and memories that might have made you uncomfortable today. If so, please, reach out to someone you can trust and talk about how you are feeling.
If you have been victimized in childhood or as an adult, you understand the effects of shame on your current life. Therefore, it is vital for me to point out that, although shame has thus far negatively affected your life, it does not need to continue to do so.
In later articles, we will discover together ways to mitigate shame and its effects. For now, I urge you to make and keep a list of people who can help you navigate any negative feelings these articles may bring to the surface. Make sure to include people like a pastor, a therapist, a close friend, a supportive family member and, of course, the numbers for the warm line in your state.
You do not ever need to suffer alone.
I also want to leave you with the following thought from me to you.
No matter who you are…
You are not your mistakes,
You are not flawed,
You are not ugly or strange,
and you are not unlovable.
Who you are is a human being and just that fact makes you unique.
Indeed, there is only one of you in the entire universe and there will never be another you.
That means you are a valuable gem, and a vital part of humanity and the cosmos.
Please, remember that.