Shame is one of our most feared emotions. It makes us want to hide or disappear. Fear of experiencing shame underlies other presenting conditions such as anxiety. It stems from feelings of not being good enough, or being flawed, a fraud, or unlovable. These are common human feelings, but often people think that they are alone in feeling this way, that other people are ‘normal’ and do not experience such self-doubt.
Underlying feelings of shame are carried within us from pivotal childhood experiences, usually involving public humiliation, or persistent abuse or neglect. The feelings of being flawed, unlovable or unworthy are a hidden secret which we work hard to hide, either by avoiding situations that trigger these feelings, or by trying hard to be perfect and good, so that the flaws or failings are never exposed. Often we are not even aware that this is what underlies our fear or insecurity.
A person who has been humiliated often in childhood will be sensitive to shaming experiences in adulthood. His radar will be finely tuned to the possibility of humiliation, and he will frequently react to any perceived put down or criticism. Often he will project blame and rejection onto others, attributing negative intentions when there were none. Sometimes the smallest signs of withdrawal of affection will trigger old wounds, and he will suddenly lash out at those who have slighted him, usually unaware of the shame memories that have been triggered. The aggression serves to keep the feelings of failure or weakness out of his awareness.
Avoidance of shame is particularly acute for men, who have internalised ideas about what it means to be a man. Mostly they have been taught not to cry, and to appear strong, which leads to feelings of vulnerability being associated with weakness or femininity. Feelings of not being manly enough underlie a lot of male acting out behaviour, such as addictions and domestic violence. Even a relatively minor event can trigger a man’s fear that he is failing at some central task of being a real man. Not keeping his wife or partner happy can be a major shame trigger for example. While the fear of shame remains out of awareness, old patterns will be repeated, and loved ones may struggle to understand the reason for over-reaction or withdrawal.
Counselling can assist in:
- understanding the precursors to underlying shame, which can aid recognition of the current triggers.
- learning to tolerate feelings of shame without reverting to previous maladaptive responses.
- finding emotional support.
- accepting that these hidden feelings are common, which reduces self-criticism.
- learning self-soothing techniques to manage over-arousal, to reduce attacking others.
- developing feelings of competency and self-regard.