Introduction

Once upon a time, in a not-so-far-away land, there lived a small child.  As is always the case with young children, they are innocent and without any filters or defenses.  This small child was as impressionable, lovable, eager for love, safety, healthy attachment, guidance, and boundaries.  Ready to take on the world, a wide-open heart, soft, developing brain, and a small body ready to tackle new challenges, Small Child followed around mum and dad, absorbing it all.

At this stage in life, Small One thought and felt the messages of parents. Nothing else is probable at this very early stage of the game.  Sadly, the parents were harsh, mean, abusive, neglectful, and sometimes sweet and kind.  Their message was consistent: Small Child will only get approval according to their whim, which was unstable, unpredictable, and frightening.  Our young friend had only one message to internalize, leaving a permanent handprint: “something is wrong with you, you are not accepted, you are put on trial without notice, and often, found guilty.”

No child can escape the imprint of primary attachment figures, and Small One was no different. Small One held on to this message since nothing else was coming, and survival was the highest order of priority.  Shame had sunk its pointy, poisonous claws into this tender, young, innocent heart, and the die was cast.  But Small One didn’t stay young and small forever, and eventually became a teenager who acted out the suffering, carrying it all into adulthood.  You can imagine the consequences that followed.

One day, Small One realized that although in an adult body, the old messages weren’t just messages. They felt like an internal damn, that shoved any hope for non-judgmental self-acceptance right back to the depths of the quicksand pit.  It had never occurred to our friend, that the rejecting messages of shame, was Chief of Police in the inner kingdom.  It had tremendous power, and non-judgmental acceptance was not going to come easy.

A list of all losses was drawn up, as a direct result of a chronic lack of self-acceptance.  So being brave, intrigued, and tired of the control that shame had on Small One’s life, a search of shame, and self-acceptance began.  What follows is the information that was gathered. Education and relevant information, coupled with the application of relevant tools, encouraged Small One to heal and grow from chronic shame to greater self-acceptance. Let’s go find out what was learned on the topic, and how can it be applied to your life! Ready?

What is Shame?

Shame is a painful, universal emotional response to a failure, shortcoming, or other wrongdoing of what society demands or what a person demands of him or herself. Scientists have learned that very young infants experience shame (as a personal feeling of unworthiness and shame) when they experience rejection—even if it is unintentional.

Children who are admonished for doing something over which they have limited or no control, are also capable of feeling shame. On a more serious, long-lasting scale, physical and sexual abuse and other traumatic experiences, particularly those that happen directly to the child, without adequate intervention, may lead to the development of shame as well (Ungvarsky, 2019). Considering the origin of the shame-wound is critical as well.  If one is the child of abusive and/or addicted parents, their shame could have been an emotional and psychological ‘transplant’.  Assessing if the shame is a consequence of actions, inactions, or someone else’s conflicts, can allow for internal conflict resolution.

Based on the extensive research and data available, psychologists consider that shame cultivates the need for approval from others.  Shame can result when a person senses, or experiences, that someone disapproves of them or something about them.  Shame also can result when a person actually did something shameful, like doing harm or damage to a person, their property, or to animals.  A person can also experience shame as an adult when something happens that they have little or no control over (Ungvarsky, 2019).

TIP #1:  The next time you feel the urgent need for someone’s approval, stop, breathe, and do nothing. Pay attention to everything that is going through.  Try to ride out the wave for approval seeking, and then appreciate yourself for meeting the challenge head-on!

The Role of Cognition in Shame

The distress caused by shame can be inspired by both positive and negative cognition and motivation. The thinking that supports socially acceptable behaviors, like dressing appropriately, keeping one’s work area neat and clean, and not littering, are examples of positive cognition utilized to avoid shame. The motivation is a positive and necessary one, and any well-functioning society will have citizens motivated by a healthy degree of shame.  The unhealthy side of shame is if the thinking that results from other’s disapproval, becomes a crushing and sweeping feeling of a lack of self-worth.

This toxic shame may have its roots in chronic exposure to conditions that cause shame. Conditions, events, or circumstances that cause a question about one’s value can cause shame. There are numerous conditions that can trigger shame, triggered by failures or disappointments, and it does not necessarily have to be rooted in childhood trauma. The way that shame feels depends on the person experiencing it, and on the cognition that is involved.

TIP #2.  When you encounter a situation that you normally judge, criticize, or reject yourself for, do the exact opposite! Write yourself a note of appreciation, and drop it in a marble jar, for success measurement.  Let those notes pile up, as you teach your small, inner child, the joys of celebrating growth and challenges met with dignity!

What does Shame look like?

Other manifestations of shame can be shyness and self-consciousness, especially when a person is fearful of doing something that might cause embarrassment. Some psychologists consider bullying as an externalization of one’s unresolved feelings of shame and inadequacy. When a person has the feeling that nothing, they do is correct, or meets the needs and expectations of others, they are experiencing an inferiority complex.  Most psychologists will attest to an inferiority complex as the most severe display of shame.  Withdrawal in many ways to avoid any disapproval is a typical coping mechanism with this form of shame. (Ungvarsky, 2019).

TIP #3:  Challenge yourself for the next 24 hours, to instantly replace any negative self-condemnation, with one realistic, positive thing you enjoy about being you! That will be your focus, your new best friend, who speaks only the truth to you. Remember: self-judgment is not the same thing as honest self-appraisal and examination.  It is just the opposite, as it fuels the obsessive-compulsive need to torment oneself needlessly, and without merit.

Researchers Dodson & Beck (2017) found that shame was a mediator between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and negative anticipations to social networks.  Because shame is so painful, people may use alcohol or other substances to assuage the pain. In an endless loop, without a mitigating intervention, these behaviors can place them at risk of victimization.  Such victimization can include a repeat of a similar family of original relationship patterns and dynamics, risky behaviors, poor self-care that leads to harm, and other painful repetition compulsions.

Shames’ Hiding Corner

Another major adaptation of unresolved shame is that shame-based people tend to keep secrets.  Maintaining a secret vault, sealed off by shame, comes at a price to one’s well-being.  Secrecy has been found to be interrelated with depression, anxiety, and lower physical health.  The disguise of secrecy causes distraction, loneliness, disconnect, and places a barrier to true intimacy with others.  (Slepian, Kirby, & Kalokerinos, 2019).

It is pertinent to the discussion of shame and emotions, to specify that shame is a self-conscious emotion.  As a self-conscious emotion, shame has more important consequences for secrecy, dissimilar to more basic emotions, like anger and fear for example.  This is because basic emotions like anger, fear, or joy, can denote to external targets.  Emotions that are of the self-conscious variety, center on the self, therefore, secrets often entail negative self-relevant information.  Consequently, negative self-conscious emotions—stimulated through contemplation on how an event is relevant to self-representations —are most likely to fuel ongoing shame (Slepian, Kirby, & Kalokerinos, 2019). In mapping out shame and relevant guilt, it is helpful to note that these emotions reside in the private self.  The private self contains one’s secrets, in contrast to embarrassment, for example, which refers to the public self.  Shame-related emotions are frequently associated with moral reasoning, and secrets usually contain moral violations (Tracy et al., 2007).

FINAL TIP #4:  Draw out a map of where your shame hides out. Be as detailed as you can.  Write a love-letter to your Shame and drop it off in its’ hiding place.  Congratulations!  You have taken a huge step towards extending empathy, forgiveness, and love to a part of yourself that needs your open embrace. Well-done!

Conclusion

Please know that shame is an emotion that can be controlled.  A healthy approach to controlling emotions would include sufficient self-awareness of emotional triggers and practicing appropriate coping skills.  Without a decision to be self-aware, have good impulse control, and regular self-assessment, emotions will run the show.  Shame can be triggered when feeling stressed, angry, in-love, or by other emotions that involve our self-worth.  Overall, people want to feel valued, with self-worth, and worthy of love and belonging.   There are situations that we do not have control over our environment, but we can be good stewards of our thoughts.  This gets better with time and diligent practice.

It is advisable to live in, and continually co-create an environment that is supportive, healthy, and “other-centered”.  Shame and guilt thrive in environments that are self-centered, critical, intolerant, or abusive.  Building a reservoir of positive life actions, to increase self-esteem as a buffer for shame, involves a supportive environment, beginning with one’s thoughts. Practicing patience is critical to the process of healing shame, reducing the intensity of triggers, and choosing healthy responses when triggered.

References

Dodson, T. S., & Beck, J. G. (2017). Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and attitudes about social support: Does shame matter? Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 47, 106–113.

Ungvarsky, J. (2019). Shame (social emotion). Salem Press Encyclopedia.

Slepian, M. L., Kirby, J. N., & Kalokerinos, E. K. (2019). Shame, guilt, and secrets on the mind. Emotion.

Slepian, M. L., & Greenaway, K. H. (2018). The benefits and burdens of keeping others’ secrets. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 78, 220–232.

Slepian, M. L., Halevy, N., & Galinsky, A. D. (2018). The solitude of secrecy: Thinking about secrets evokes motivational conflict and feelings of fatigue. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(7).

Slepian, M. L., Masicampo, E. J., & Galinsky, A. D. (2016). The hidden effects of recalling secrets: Assimilation, contrast, and the burdens of secrecy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145, 27–48.

Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2007). The self in self-conscious emotions: A Cognitive appraisal approach. In J. L.Tracy, R. W.Robins, & J. P.Tangney (Eds.), The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research (pp. 3–20). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Rivka A. Edery, Psy.D. (Candidate), M.S.W., L.C.S.W. is a career social worker who has ministered to scores of clients in crisis and deep emotional pain: drug addicts, mentally ill, adolescents at risk, victims of poverty, children of deployed military, and veterans in treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rivka is much more than a clinician, mental health writer, and researcher. She brings her enlightened soul forward to share the truths from her own healing journey that began in childhood. She graduated from Thomas Edison State University with a Bachelor’s in Social Science, and earned her Master of Social Work degree, with a research track, from Fordham University, in New York City. She is currently enrolled in a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) program with California Southern University, School of Behavioral Sciences, Field of Study: Clinical, Counseling, and Applied Psychology. Rivka became a psychotherapist and published her landmark book ‘Trauma and Transformation: A 12 Step Guide’ in 2013. She clinically systematized the tools of the spiritual Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her book brilliantly brings into focus the spiritual dimension, as an essential dynamic in healing, from early childhood trauma and addiction. The exposition of this synthesis, between the spiritual tools and the clinical tools, has expanded the access to the revered Twelve Step program beyond the addiction community, to P.T.S.D. patients with all types of symptoms.

For a full list of publications and information, please visit:  https://www.rivkaedery.com/

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