How Shame Can Make A Mockery Of Us All

A tutor at my counselling course told me early on in the course that many of the problems clients present with “stem from shame”.

That surprised me. Surely, shame is transitory, I thought. We all suffer from occasional embarrassment but we all get over it quite quickly, don’t we? It’s not like it has to power to influence us for long periods, does it? 

The thought came and went and didn’t resurface for quite a while – a bit like my concept of shame – but, when it did, I began to realise my tutor of many years’ experience was a great deal more knowledgeable than I’d given her credit for. 

I was learning from my own work with clients that shame played a very large part in the reason for their visit to a therapist. They might say they were looking at exploring one issue but, hidden way, sometimes way back in an early part of their journey through life, some sense of shame was making their present difficult to manage.

My continued interest in and exploration of the subject meant I needed to understand the difference between shame and guilt. I understood there was a difference but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Following a fair bit of online research, it seems right for me to go with the suggestion that shame is the feeling we have about our “whole” selves and something involving our “whole” selves, whereas experiences of guilt are connected with something we might have done to another.  

Looking at it from an early-sign perspective, I can see how there is a link with shame and embarrassment perhaps more at the lower end of the scale which, if we can pick up and reflect on in time, can be dealt with and then we can move on. We may feel a little awkward, maybe even blush as the blood rushes to our cheeks and reflects our feelings in a somatic way, for all to see. If we’re naturally resilient, we can learn that we feel uncomfortable with what we have either felt or revealed and we can learn from that experience. It can, indeed, be transitory.  

But real shame or shame that has become a part of us is something else. Shame, according to Carl Jung, is a “soul-eating emotion”. It can envelop your soul. Your “whole” being and become all consuming. And that is what may bring someone to therapy.

Children do not feel shame. Watch the variety of toddler who has a secure start to life go for something they want. They don’t feel awkward about their determination to achieve whatever goal it is they want at that particular moment. They are unaware of Machiavelli’s The Prince and the end justifying the means. They are only interested in achieving their aim at that particular moment in time. They don’t know why they want it, they just do. And if they are thwarted in their desire, they tend to be upset and/or angry. But not ashamed of their desire. Children acquire a sense of shame through the teachings of others.

Shame is acquired, not inherent

It’s fairly clear from such an example that shame, in an ordinary sense, is an important part of learning. It’s connected with empathy. 

For instance, I remember being told the Japanese ask their children: “How would you feel if…?” The adults put the child in the position of the “other” so that they can understand how someone else would feel. For a society to work well, we need to factor the “other” into our way of being. 

Shame becomes a problem when it overrides everything else and stops us from moving on, from continuing to develop our whole selves. What if you took to heart something someone said to you as a child in a throwaway line that you, a highly sensitive little person, took to heart. The chances are the person who said it will not even remember the conversation or be mortified if reminded of their words, appreciating that those same words had done such damage. It happens all the time. I hear it from confidences my adults are generous enough to share with me.  

Taking another example.  What about the adult person who is stopped from doing something different because of the fear of failing or the sense of being observed failing? It’s easier to imagine in our world of social media because many of us tend to publicise our efforts through a social media page. In the past, if we tried something and it didn’t work, it was no big deal – a bit of transitory embarrassment, maybe, but not the sense of public humiliation we might fear now. Ah, there’s another word. Humiliation, a public shaming. That is something we all fear.

So what’s to be done? Well, there is no instant answer. What may have taken a lifetime to develop cannot be “cured” abruptly. I’d suggest we need to be aware of our thoughts, our feelings, our bodily reaction to a twinge of awkwardness, embarrassment, shame so that we catch it before it catches us.

A twinge of such emotions can be useful, as a way of learning and understanding about ourselves and trying to help us be a better, more fully formed person, someone who generally – remember, we all muck up, don’t expect perfection – adds to the greater good. 

A little bit of shame may have its uses. But don’t let it eat your soul.

By: Lulu Sinclair

Photo by Gage Walker on Unsplash

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash