by Caryl S. Avery

Generally, when I’m working on an article, I telephone friends, or friends of friends, and interview them on whatever I’m writing about: “Tell me about your experiences with jealousy,” or “Do you ever feel you have too many friends, too little time?” or “Have you ever dated a man who talked dirty during sex?” And invariably we’re off and running. I get non-stop stories about cheating spouses, time-crunched lives, men who use every four-letter word in bed except love.

But this time, when I called and explained I was writing about shame, suddenly all my sources dried up—at least temporarily. “Gee, I can’t think of anything offhand. Let me give it some thought and I’ll call you back.” Or, “I couldn’t talk about that—it’d be too embarrassing!”

At first, it seemed I had come up empty-handed. But on reflection, I realized that their initial reluctance to talk said as much about shame as their later, more forthcoming responses did. It bore silent testimony to what experts say: that shame—the horrible feeling of being deeply inadequate at our core—is the “secret” emotion, the one we’re most likely to keep hidden, not only from others, but from ourselves.

There are good reasons, however, for taking shame out of the closet. For one, it thrives in dark places; only by subjecting our shameful feelings to the light of day can we see the holes in our reasoning that keep us feeling bad about ourselves. For another, excessive shame can lead to depression, addictions, and a host of undesirable “defenses,” including perfectionism, arrogance, and humiliating and blaming others. It also can cause us unconsciously to seek out—or stay in—destructive relationships. At the very least, it interferes with intimacy.

Good shame, bad shame

This is not to say that all shame is destructive. Healthy shame is the temporary I-wish-I-could-drop-through-the-floor feeling we experience when we are exposed—to ourselves or others—as having fallen short of some ideal. The key word here is temporary.

For example: Just when you think you’re hot stuff at the office, you’re denied your usual merit raise. You feel deflated for a day or two, but the unpleasantness of the feeling inspires you to review your performance and improve it.

“Good shame is like having a true friend, one who is not afraid to tell you that you are messing up your life,” according to Ronald Potter-Efron, Ph.D., and his wife Patricia, authors of Letting Go of Shame. It may signal that you’re not living up to your potential (you dropped out of college in your junior year and now are embarrassed that you don’t have a degree), that you’ve gotten too big for your britches (your co-workers refer to you as “Her Highness”), or that you’ve violated your own ethics (you had an extramarital affair). But like a good friend, healthy shame says, “You’re not perfect, but I like you anyway.”

As John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame that Binds You,” puts it, “Healthy shame gives us permission to be human.” Consequently, shame lays the groundwork not only for humility, but for spirituality. It lets us know, says Bradshaw, that “We are not God…that there is something or someone greater than ourselves.”

Shame becomes “toxic” when it becomes a constant in our lives, a sickness of the soul rather than a kick in the pants. In toxic shame, you don’t feel you have a flaw, you feel you are a flaw—a weak, defective person, unlovable and unworthy of love.

“When one feels ashamed, one feels unworthy of being ‘in connection’ at the same time that one feels a deep longing to be connected,” says Judith V. Jordan, Ph.D., director of women’s studies at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. “There is a loss of empathic possibility—of the sense that anybody could possibly understand what you’re going through—as well as of self-empathy—your own appreciation of that which is human in you, including inevitable human failings.”

Because we feel exposed and vulnerable, we withdraw from relationships in order to protect ourselves from anticipated rejection. Paradoxically, explains Jordan, this retreat into hiding and secrecy locks us into our shame by reducing the opportunity for “cure” through human contact.

Why some people develop healthy shame and others toxic shame depends on a number of factors. “It’s always a complex interaction,” says Leon Wurmser, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of West Virginia in Charleston, and author of The Mask of Shame.

The roots of the problem generally go back to childhood. For instance, if you were ill as a child—perhaps with a chronic gastrointestinal problem—you might grow up with a profound sense of being weak and defective. Similarly, if your family belonged to an ostracized minority, you could carry into adulthood a conviction that you’re “bad.” Probably the majority of people who suffer from toxic shame grew up in shaming families. Virtually all parents use shaming techniques on occasion in raising their children: “Don’t cry, don’t be such a baby,” “Be a big girl and use the toilet/cut your meat yourself,” “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” And a certain amount of shaming may be necessary to socialize kids. But some parents “specialize in shaming,” say the Potter-Efrons.

They point out, however, that “virtually no parents set out to ruin the lives of their children. Shaming parents often come from shaming families themselves. They simply may not know a better way to parent, or they may not realize the damage they do with their shaming attacks.” It’s important to realize how your parents may have contributed to your shame, they note, not to blame them, but so you can begin to heal.

The Potter-Efrons identify the following “deficiency messages” that shaming parents often give children:

  • You are not good. “You have always been fat/ugly/stupid” convey that there is something bad about you that cannot be changed.

  • You are not good enough. Though more subtle, this kind of message is just as damaging. Classic examples: You bring home a report card with four A’s and one B. Your father congratulates you but then adds, “When I was in school, I never settled for anything less than straight A’s.” Implication: You have great potential—if only you would try harder. Children shamed in this way often feel they can never do enough to win their parents’ love. But they keep trying—often into adulthood.

  • You don’t belong. Comments like “You’re too smart for your own good” make you feel different from the rest of the family, left out.

  • You are not lovable. This is the message that comes across when a parent refuses to speak to a child or uses threat of abandonment as a means of control: “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t love you anymore.” The implication is that you’re worth loving only when you behave.

Another way parents may unintentionally create shame in their children is through misattunement, according to Dr. Wurmser. A mother or father who is depressed or preoccupied may not pick up on his or her child’s subtle cues, cues that say, “Please notice me, please listen to me, please hear what I say, not what you want to hear.” “When interactions between parent and child consistently go wrong,” says Dr. Wurmser, “the child feels ‘I am not recognized and accepted for who I am,’ and thus feels rejected and ashamed.”

While any sort of abuse—emotional, physical—is bound to cause shame, the most devastating is sexual abuse, whether it involves actual touching by a parent or other adult or more subtle behaviors, such as voyeurism or exhibitionism.

Ann was sexually abused by her stepfather for five years, starting when she was 9. At the age of 19, she went into therapy for severe emotional problems, including life-threatening anorexia. At the root of her problems was this terrible secret she had been carrying around—and the conviction that what had happened was her fault. It took years of therapy before she could truly accept that as a child, she was totally vulnerable, bore no responsibility for the situation, and therefore had no reason to be ashamed.

“Sexual abuse that occurred in childhood isn’t your fault,” says Rita Freedman, Ph.D., author of Bodylove: Learning to Like Our Looks—and Ourselves. “Nor is violent abuse that occurs at any age. There is no shame in being a victim.

While toxic shame may be rooted in childhood, adult relationships may foster its growth: a boss who is overly critical, a spouse who puts you down. Such shaming can have the paradoxical effect of keeping you stuck in these relationships, since when you hear something often enough, you start to believe it.

People who come from shaming families have a higher risk of getting involved in shaming relationships for two reasons: First, their self-esteem is so low that they’re easy targets for those who lift themselves up by putting others down. Second, they are so used to being shamed by people close to them that they think it’s normal. It’s not.

A tip-off that you’re in an unhealthy relationship, according to the Potter-Efrons, is if you feel “generally competent and worthwhile” except in the presence of the particular person. Other signs: he or she repeatedly acts superior; compares you unfavorably to others; ignores you/makes you feel invisible; dismisses your needs or feelings as silly or excessive.

So painful is the feeling of being chronically shamed that we develop defenses against it—defenses that may spare us pain in the short term but hurt us in the long term. For example:

  • Perfectionism. Having gotten the message while growing up that we have to “perform” in order to be loved, we become afraid of making a mistake. That would mean loss of love, which in turn would confirm what we feel deep down—that we are unlovable. To avoid this shame, we feel a constant pressure to achieve. While this drive may help us professionally, it’s harmful personally. We can never let up long enough to enjoy the fruits of our labor. And we never feel valued for who we are (limitations and all), just for what we do. As some experts put it, our shame turns us into a “human doing,” rather than a human being.

  • Arrogance. We need to feel superior to make up for feeling inferior. Consequently, we put ourselves on a pedestal where nobody can see our shame, according to the Potter-Efrons. But the price we pay “is not being connected to others. Someone on a pedestal cannot be warmed by the beauty of intimacy.”

  • Criticizing or humiliating others. A common way of getting rid of shame is to “pass it on.” Donald L. Nathanson, M.D., senior attending psychiatrist at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital, explains: “Often when we’re stuck in a moment of shame and can’t elevate our self-esteem, we try to lower the self-esteem of somebody around us so that we’re relatively better than someone.”

  • Addictions. Just as we might become “addicted” to blaming or criticizing others to avoid the pain of shame, we can become addicted to virtually anything that numbs or distracts us from that painful feeling—alcohol, drugs, food, work, sex, gambling, television, shopping, obsessing (for example, over a bad relationship). The problem is, says Bradshaw, that as the addiction deepens—and we are confronted with the consequences of our drinking, overeating, buying—so does our shame. The addiction becomes just one more thing to be ashamed of.

Healing the shame

Although toxic shame often requires professional treatment, there are steps you can take to help yourself.

  1. Look for shame signals. Since we go to great measures to hide our shame from ourselves, it may take some sleuthing to discover if shame is doing you dirt. Some clues: You suffer from chronic low self-esteem; tend to criticize and blame yourself; have a history of relationships with people who don’t listen to you or take your needs seriously; keep large areas of your life secret. If these hit home, the tips below may be especially useful.

  2. Share your secrets. “By speaking the unspeakable, you can conquer its hold on you,” says Freedman. This doesn’t mean telling the world about whatever you feel ashamed of, but confiding in one or two people you trust. “Most people discover when they share a secret that it’s less traumatic than they had thought and that others have had a similar experience and similar feelings about it.”

  3. Stop calling yourself names, like fat/lazy/incompetent/crazy. When you catch such thoughts going through your head, remind yourself they are remembrances of things past—and that you no longer have to accept messages you received as a child. Or try Bradshaw’s technique of substituting a positive thought, such as “It’s okay to be imperfect” or “It takes courage to be imperfect.”

  4. Try “as if” thinking and acting, a concept from Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead of waiting until you feel free from excessive shame, suggest the Potter-Efrons, ask yourself, “What would I do now if I truly respected myself?” and substitute “self-caring thoughts and behaviors for self-shaming ones.”

  5. Give yourself time and attention. The key is to choose to love and accept yourself unconditionally. “Then you will allow yourself time to just be,” says Bradshaw. This involves setting aside time for solitude, exercise, your love life, and vacations and fun. It also means paying attention to your feelings, wants, and needs.

  6. Find a 12-Step program or other support group, especially if you have an addiction. Seeing that others can accept you just as you are makes it easier to accept yourself. You can find such groups through your church or synagogue, your local mental health association, and often your physician.

*Originally published in New Woman, May 1991.