What Is Shame?

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David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

Shame is perhaps one of the most common emotions underlying addiction. This feeling is taught to us at an early age, and from many sources. Our parents, siblings, and childhood peers may shame us, sometimes without knowing it. The media and religious institutions are also harshly critical and condemning. Children are defenseless to resist because they are hard-wired to accept as true anything that an adult tells them. If we are told that we are bad, stupid, inadequate, ugly, or anything else that instills a kernel of self-doubt, we accept it as the truth. These beliefs persist in our subconscious long after we grow up, and although we sometimes consciously refute those negative statements with affirmations (such as “I am worthy”), remnants of such shame persist even in the most evolved person.

When we are bullied, made fun of, outed by others before we are prepared, or encounter failure, these old kernels of shame are activated. The message is the same, whether they originated with our parents, teachers, peers, the church, newspapers, television, or the Internet: I am flawed. People react in different ways to this disturbing belief about themselves. Some rebel, although this doesn’t necessarily resolve the underlying conviction and related feelings. Some withdraw and hide, creating secrets to which they devote large amounts of psychic energy. Others simply numb the pain through the use of mood-altering drugs or behaviors. None of these coping mechanisms effectively rid us of shame; they only serve to drive us deeper into problematic behaviors and widen the gulf between our conscious adult selves and the wounded inner child that remains inside.

Shame provides both a powerful vehicle for the initial creation of addictive patterns and the impetus for their continuation. The underlying conclusion of shame is, “I am flawed,” and, “I can’t allow the world to know the real me.” These beliefs are adopted from an early age when an aspect of ourselves is perceived to be wrong or unacceptable. Children often have no other way to address these feelings except to bury or disconnect from them. Thus, from a very young age and literally driven by a need to survive, those who are highly vulnerable to shame learn to create a “false self” for public consumption along with a private and secret inner world.

This is in contrast to similar but distinct emotions such as guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. It is instructive to understand the differences between these particular emotional states and shame. Shame says, “There is something wrong with me,” and therefore, “I must hide parts of myself or else I’ll be abandoned and rejected.” Guilt, on the other, says, “I did something wrong, and I feel bad about it,” and, “what can I do to fix it and not do it again.” Humiliation feels like something we don’t deserve, while shame feels something like we do deserve. Embarrassment may cause us to blush and laugh at ourselves for something we did while comforted with the knowledge that we aren’t the only ones to have done so. Shame, however, makes us feel isolated, alone, and uniquely unfortunate.