© Paul Wilson for Auckland Therapy Blog, 10 July 2018
When I ask people which emotions they believe most strongly influence us and our behaviour, people are quick to list love and fear, and some include anger and sadness. Few Westerners ever mention shame or its opposite, pride. Yet I believe that this pair of emotions are the most important social emotions, having an enormous yet largely unappreciated impact on our social life and wellbeing.
In modern Western society, we celebrate rationality, individuality, positivity and success. One of the side effects of this is that acknowledging our inherent emotional dependence has become shameful. Also our emotional nature including aggression and sexuality is meant to be restrained and kept private. Even perfectly natural feelings can become shame laden, such as doubt, failure, and disappointment. As a result, we feel shame more and more, yet we talk about it less and less. In short, we become ashamed of shame.
In English, the word shame tends to be associated with significant social disgrace. We actually feel shame on a broad continuum that ranges from slight discomfort and awkwardness, through embarrassment all the way up to humiliation, and finally, complete mortification. In fact, shame is the only emotion that is linked with the idea of death when it is felt so overwhelming that we wish the world would swallow us up so we could disappear from the gaze of others. Even when others aren’t present, we often imagine how we look to others and what they might feel about us and react accordingly.
Often we confuse the notions of shame and guilt. Guilt is felt about our behaviour – I did something bad, whereas shame falls more on the whole of the self - I am bad. Intense shame leads us to feel fundamentally unlovable and inadequate.
Humans are born completely dependent on others and remain so for the first years of our life. Not securing the love and attention of our caregivers would literally mean death. Shame is the emotional warning light which turns on whenever these all-important social bonds are damaged or even threatened. We feel it to focus our attention on not damaging these relationships further and also to motivate us to make repairs to them.
Even as adults, we never stop needing emotional connection with others to remain psychologically healthy. In fact, to be without intimate social bonds causes feelings of shame which underlies the pain of loneliness. Most of us monitor our behaviour to avoid embarrassment so instinctively and continuously that actual moments of embarrassment are rare. And when someone loses their composure, we often politely look away to allow them to regain their composure. This all largely happens automatically and outside our conscious awareness - shame is rendered nigh invisible.
Because the healthy expression of shame is not well supported in Western culture, shame is often masked by another emotion. This tendency to ‘bypass’ shame can become a vicious circle when what we do to avoid shame leads us to feel yet more shame. The two most common mental health concerns in the West are depression and social anxiety. Depression is shame masked by sadness and self-disgust in which feelings of inadequacy lead us to withdraw emotionally from others. Social anxiety is shame masked by fear in which the prospect of rejection and humiliation lead us to avoid social contact completely. Yet withdrawing from emotional contact from others only increases our feelings of shame.
If shame is playing a large part in your emotional life, opening up to someone who cares about you about the distress and vulnerability you are feeling is the way out – it’s what shame is for. When we strengthen those all-important emotional bonds, the shame warning light can begin to turn off.