Shame is a pain in the self – a pain that results from our attention,
often abruptly, intensely, and uncomfortably, focusing on what is ‘wrong’ with ‘me’.
We don’t have to learn to feel shame. Like fear, anger, interest, and joy, we come innately able to experience the feeling, the sensation, of shame. However, we do learn what will cause us to experience – what will trigger – shame. Infants feel no shame when unloading in their diapers yet, a few years later, they can feel intense shame if they pee their pants in school.
We can LEARN to feel shame about our bodies*, abilities*, performance*, backgrounds*, relationships*, behavior*, possessions*… We can LEARN to feel shame about any aspect, attribute, relation, or reflection of ourselves that we consider to be important and, in relation to which, we we consider ourselves to be failing or not good enough. How we learn the “triggers” that cause us to feel shame, and how we learn to relate to the feeling of shame, shapes our lives.
Just as it is natural for us to feel pain when our bodies get hurt, it’s natural for us to feel shame when our ‘selves’ get hurt. And, just as it is natural for us to want to avoid what causes us pain, it’s natural for us to want to avoid what causes us shame.
Children who grow up ashamed of their bodies avoid wearing bathing suits in public.
Children who grow up ashamed of their singing avoid singing.
Children who grow up ashamed of their dancing avoid dancing.
Children who grow up ashamed of their teeth avoid smiling.
Children who grow up ashamed of their sexuality avoid revealing their sexuality.
Shame is one of human nature’s’ most powerful learning motivators. Shame focuses our attention on what we need to learn in order to not feel shame. Our innate emotional intelligence drives our mental activity so as to avoid feeling shame like our body intelligence drives our physical behavior to avoid feeling pain. Our natural inclination to avoid shame motivates us to change our behavior in one of three ways:
1) To overcome whatever we feel the shame is about.
2) To avoid engaging in whatever we feel the shame is about.
3) To demote the importance of whatever we feel the shame is about.
These three often go round and round working out (learning) whether to ‘keep trying’ (overcome) or ‘give up’ (avoid or demote).
Avoiding shame by ‘overcoming’ the ‘failing’ that we think or feel is causing it can motivate us to exercise, work or study harder, break a bad habit, stick to a diet, color our hair, whiten our teeth, in short to ‘improve’ whatever it is we feel shame about so we won’t feel the shame. Overcoming shame can be very difficult and it can be very rewarding. In addition to overcoming what we think or feel is the cause of shame, it also builds up our confidence in overcoming shame more generally. In other words, learning to overcome what we think or feel is causing us shame results in greater ‘frustration tolerance’, greater ‘attention span’ and an increased capacity to stretch the limits of ourselves. Overcoming shame is a form of healthy learning as it is an adaptive response both to the immediate situation and to our future learning. Overcoming shame involves ‘learning into the shame’ rather than unconsciously-automatically ‘shaming-out’ of learning.
Avoiding shame by avoiding or demoting the importance of whatever we blame for causing it drives our learning too. It motivates us to learn to get better at avoiding or ignoring whatever we blame for causing the shame. Rather than being ‘positively’ motivated by shame (as when ‘overcoming’), these responses to shame misorient/misdirect our attention so as to keep whatever we blame for the shame from getting attention.
Rather than getting better at dancing and overcoming the initial shame we feel for our awkwardness, we can avoid the shame by avoiding dancing. We can just demote the importance of dancing until it doesn’t matter whether we do it or not.
If we avoid thinking about our overweight bodies so that we won’t feel shame, our ability to learn to take care of our bodies will be diminished.
If we feel too much shame about a bad habit and avoid the bad feeling by avoiding dwelling on the habit we will undermine learning to free ourselves from the bad habit.
When we avoid reading to avoid the shame we feel when we read it has an obviously unhealthy effect on our learning to get better at reading. (See Downward Spiral of Shame in sidebar)
This kind of learning is generally unhealthy and maladaptive.
Children who experience chronic shame about some aspect of themselves or performance will eventually demote whatever the importance of whatever they blame to “whatever”, “reading isn’t important”, “math isn’t important”, “school isn’t important” and, even more tragically, “being smart isn’t important” and “I am not good at learning”. All of which are immediately emotionally responsive, self-protecting, ways of managing shame that orient and direct their learning to avoid learning – that direct their learning in unhealthy ways.
A Trying Shame
We all fear shame. Except for the fear of harm or death to ourselves and loved ones, all our other great fears are fears related to shame. Survey after survey indicates that the # 1 fear of Adults is public speaking which is, essentially, a fear of imagined failure, a fear of shame.
- bodies: weight, height, shape, teeth (smile), hair, hands, feet, postures, age, complexion, attractiveness, scars…
- abilities: speaking, singing, dancing…
- performance: academic, vocational, athletic, sexual
- backgrounds: race, religions, families, poverty, neighborhoods, nations…
- relationships: parents, siblings, spouses, children, friends, colleagues, co-workers…
- behavior: bad habits, bad deeds, fears, anger…
- possessions: homes, cars, clothing, furnishings, tech…
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