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If Shame Feels So Bad, Why Is It a Part of Us
Many who study the evolution of emotions in complex social creatures like us believe that all emotions have evolved to serve a positive purpose in our survival and reproductive efforts at some time in our history as a species or as individuals, even if these emotions make us feel terrible in the moment. Shame is no different. It's how we've evolved to deal with the possibility of behaving so badly, or being so "worthless," that our group kicks us out, leaving us to fend for ourselves in a harsh world.
There may be no greater fear for most us, and no greater pain, than being abandoned by our social group/loved ones. In our ancestral history, those who fell out of favor and were kicked out of the group were at grave risk of death from the many dangers in the distant past. With no group for help or support, the odds of survival were much more slim than they would be with a tribe of like-minded members trying to help each other survive.
We've come a ways since those days. Now, without a group for social support, we can, at least in current U.S. culture, usually find a store that will sell us food, a soup kitchen that will nourish us, and if we get a little lucky and are willing to follow the rules, shelter to house us during dangerous weather. But as studies have amply shown, there is a high correlation between lack of social support and diminished life span. We may not be at imminent risk of death from wild animal attacks as our ancestors might have been, but our health outcomes and length of life tend to diminish severely without any social support. The world can still be a dangerous place for those without the friendship or support of others.
To combat this possibility of group exclusion, we humans (and possibly a few other species, though this possibility is highly debated) have evolved a response to our flaws and fallibilities that may harm the thriving of our group, even slightly, if those flaws are expressed and revealed.
We feel and (usually) display shame.
It's our way of telling others, "I feel terrible about what I've done and what it reveals about me, and I will work hard to correct myself so that it doesn't happen again in the future, so please don't abandon me." Without this signal to others of the genuine knowledge of our flawed self and need for correction, they may be much more likely to see us as a continued danger to the overall good of the group and kick us out.
As an example, a colleague once told me of a painful shame episode that has lasted all of his life, though in much diminished intensity now. When he was seven, he was held back in the second grade for failing to keep up with his classmates in various ways. Upon hearing the news, his father berated him angrily, clearly showing his tremendous disappointment in his son. The colleague felt tremendous shame that is seared into his memory. He was a little confused as to why he still felt the effects of this episode given that he now was a successful psychologist with a happy marriage and a great house - the American Dream - despite his earlier challenges.
I asked him how his father might have reacted had my colleague's reaction been different. What if he had told his father, "Dad, don't get so worked up. I'm going to end up with a Ph.D, a successful career, a happy home life. You're only reacting to your fears that this means something irreversible and bad for our family and your legacy. Therapy might help you, or you can just chill. I'll be fine."
We both could imagine his father becoming enraged and doubling down on his fear that his son was destined for failure. A slap to the face to shock some "sense" into my colleague might not have been out of the question. Instead, he had to show his shame, and keep showing or feeling it as he worked to get back into good graces with his father. Feeling shame can serve as a less painful alternative to the terror of abandonment by loved ones.
In earlier times when life was quite a bit more nasty, brutish, and short, displaying a lack of shame might have lead his father and elders to wonder if he were worth the tribe spending their limited resources on such a "flawed" child who did not understand the gravity of his challenges.
A shame response can serve us as it tends to bring forth empathy responses from others, softening their anger, and lessening the chances of abandonment. Since we know we all have flaws, when we see the flaws of others who show contrition and a desire to change, we are usually much more forgiving. Another's revelation of shame tells most of us, "OK, he's still workable. No need for such harsh punishment." If we signal that we feel terribly about our flaws (very often over-exaggerated in our minds), we will trigger others' empathy and sympathy, and let them know of our desire to make things right, and therefore increase our odds of staying in the group and staying alive. In some religions, this impulse to reveal our shame to our God - confession - keeps us in good graces and out of the pits of hell.
However, excessive worry about our possible shameful qualities that we sometimes exaggerate to insure the group will stick with us, runs the risk of alienating those in whose good graces we're trying so hard to keep, and risks developing increasingly troubling emotions and fears. We can feel shame about our shame, and develop fear that we're always at risk of being seen as unacceptable no matter what we do.
There are other strategies for dealing with the fear of showing shame, including the pretense that you have none, acting as though you care nothing about others' opinions. You're above them and what they might think of you. Of course, there's risk in that strategy as well. More on that in a moment.
As with any human quality, there are outliers who do not feel things most of us do. The only people who don't feel shame are those who have very little to no capacity for empathy, compassion, or social connection. More on that, also, in a moment.
How We Deal with Shame
We're all flawed, fallible individuals who make mistakes that can generate the disappointment or even wrath of others, though we wish it were different. Shame helps us mitigate this risk. With the above exceptions, we all carry shame to some degree, triggered when we display our fallibility. But because shame can be so painful, and carries with it no guarantee that it will bring softened responses in others, we have developed three ways to avoid feeling it and avoid revealing our less than stellar qualities. However, as with most things we try so hard to avoid, the fury to avoid it brings its own set of problems. (Credit to researcher and clinician Brené Brown for her work on the below three "shame shields").
1. We avoid any possible shame by hiding our full selves from others. We don't take risks that could bring failure in our work or love lives. We don't share our true feelings. We don't ruffle feathers or assert desires that may conflict with others. We don't interact much with the world, preferring to stay hidden and "safe." But the quality of our lives suffers greatly. There's rarely a sense of seizing the day. We often fail to connect with others in satisfying ways. We're at heightened risk for depression.
2. We try to convince others we have no flaws and thus no need for shame. We try to perfect ourselves. We try to please people constantly. We try to prove how great we are, and may lie frequently to impress others, even cheat to win the favor of others (depending on our sense of ethics and justice). But we tend to procrastinate and privately judge ourselves harshly. We often fail to connect with others in satisfying ways. We're at heightened risk for anxiety, burnout, and depression.
3. We try to shame others to bring them down to our perceived level, or more frequently, a few notches below. We deny our flaws and attack others for any perceived criticism (sometimes ten times harder to get them to never outwardly question our superiority). But we suffer from frequent, unpleasant and often unproductive anger. We often fail to connect with others in satisfying ways. We're at heightened risk for feelings of hatred and poor health.
It should be no surprise that we often use a combination of these three strategies to avoid feeling shame, though we tend to have a dominant strategy (mine is #2. I really do have awesome farts, I just usually pretend I never have that issue). The problem is that by overusing these avoidance strategies, we strengthen our shame responses and never learn to deal with them effectively, keeping us feeling cut off from the rest of humanity.
One Man's Strategy
Which brings me back to Donald Trump. Many pundits remark that he has no shame, and I can see why. The things he has said and done over the years, including while president, would horrify many, and have brought wide-spread condemnation. But they have also brought him wide-spread admiration from those who like that he seems to be impervious to public opinion. His behavior, grandiosity, and verbal attacks have also contributed to his great wealth and fame, as well as five children who have lived lives of great privilege. Isn't there a part of us all that would like to truly not care what others think and have those outward markers of prestige? By the evolutionary measures of fitness - survival and reproductive success - Donald Trump has up to this point been a roaring triumph.
But to quote my favorite lyricist, Ian Anderson, life is a long song. Those who seem to be doing well, riding high in April, might get shot down in May (yes, I switched lyricists for those not fans of Jethro Tull or Frank Sinatra). None of us can ever be sure that a shame-avoiding strategy that works in some areas or periods of life won't later have grave effects in those or other areas of our lives. Our powers of prediction about our strategies just aren't that impervious to fallibility.
And while my powers of analysis are equally fallible, it's my impression that Donald Trump is working hard, extraordinarily hard, to avoid the feeling of shame that accompanies his belief that he may not be the most superior person in the world. He appears to use a combination of strategies 3 and 2 in extreme measures, severely attacking others for any perceived slight, while also telling everyone who will listen how smart, compassionate, wealthy, great, etc., he is.
Though he may have little shame when it comes to people he views as inferior - he really doesn't seem to care what ordinary people think except in relation to personal monetary or fame desires - I believe he feels deep shame over what other equally or more successful people (wealthy and powerful by his definition) may conclude about him if he's not wildly successful at increasing his power and wealth. It's why he can attack the New York Times newspaper so relentlessly while also courting their approval in numerous interviews.
Donald Trump's shame strategies have been with him most of his life and I fear he'll never give them up even if exposed as having done something profoundly wrong or hurtful. A shamed man determined to blame others and keep up the facade as the most superior person in the world is something that has alarmed countless Americans on both sides of the aisle. It's hard to see how his strategies will work well for the American people who aren't named or married to a Trump, or aren't in his circle of business associates who can make money or maintain power from his policies and manipulations. As I write this in July 2017, there seems the possibility that even family members and close confidants may be in their own legal or political trouble due to his inability to admit anything that could touch on the issue of a mistake, a wrongdoing, a personal flaw, in a word - shame.
But at least the remote possibility of positive shame is present - and thus redemption - if president Trump's actions cause widespread harm, something I fear is not part of the psychological makeup of a certain leader in Russia about whom Trump will not say a negative word. Then again, there's this quote from then candidate Trump to CNN on 7/22/15. "Why do I have to, you know, repent? Why do I have to ask for forgiveness if you're not making mistakes?”
What the Rest of Us Can Do
For us ordinary citizens who make mistakes and deal with shame and the fear that our shame will be revealed, there are ways to reduce shameful feelings about our flaws to appropriate levels. These levels keep us in good graces with important people while curtailing excessive worry about what everyone might think about our weaknesses or flaws that contribute to our social standing.
These ways involve speaking about, or even displaying our shame in small but likely safe ways, rather than avoiding it through one or more of the above strategies. By speaking about shame and risking the revelation of what has been hidden, most often shame is reduced and connections strengthened with those who recognize we all have flaws and fears about those flaws being revealed.
The particulars of each person's shame and the strategies to hide it are unique, so blanket recommendations can only go so far. But you might start by revealing shame to someone you trust but haven't told before. It will be a risk. Widen your circle as far as you decide you need to. You also might consider acting in ways you fear will bring others' slight disapproval to test their reactions and, more importantly, to test your ability to cope with those reactions no matter what they might be. We often believe we will be judged harshly, and when we're (most often) not, we can feel great relief.
If you want no shame in your life you'll need to be able to tell anyone in any context your feared, shameful "truths" - which means you'll need to do exactly that with someone or some group. Most of us don't want to go that far, however. We can stand a little shame that stays hidden, not because we think there's anything terribly wrong with us, but because the mildly shameful aspects of our selves are not a dominant part of our lives, or we value privacy, or a little mystery, or we want to avoid the prejudices of others - prejudices that can have real world consequences.
If you believe shame is running your life in unhealthy ways, a therapist can help you tease out the particulars and devise a plan to help you get a handle on this universal emotion so that you can keep you moving forward in healthy ways. But first you might need to accept that you'll likely feel some shame about asking for help. You could be surprised at the acceptance you'll get from a professional who has been where you are and knows how to help. Freedom from excessive shame can make a world of difference.
Steve Mackey is a cognitive-behavioral, exposure based, and motivational coherence-based mental health counselor and psychotherapist who offers individual counseling and psychotherapy services for issues related to anxiety, depression, fear, mood problems, low self-esteem, anger, habits, and relationship struggles for adults at 2020 Capitol Ave., Suite 5, Sacramento, CA 95811, serving the Sacramento, Elk Grove, Folsom, Roseville, Citrus Heights, Orangevale, Carmichael, Davis, and Galt communities. For more information contact 916 549-5772.
The information provided on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Visiting this website does not constitute a therapist-client relationship. Information found on the internet is not a substitute for individualized evaluation and treatment by a mental health professional. All written and visual materials are the exclusive copyright of Steve Mackey, © 2011-2016.
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Does Donald Trump Feel Shame?
I'd feel too much shame if I were to mislead you with a fake headline. That's not who I want you to think I am - a con, a deceiver. So I will get to Donald Trump and the issue of his possible involvement with shame. However, this article is more about you, me, all of us, and shame - one of the most dominant, painful, yet often hidden, aspects of our emotional lives - and how we unconsciously deal with it and how we can consciously reduce its painful effects. But first, a few words about shame and related painful emotional responses.
Shame is an intensely negative and painful emotional reaction to being seen, or possibly being seen, as inherently flawed and unworthy of the respect and/or love of others. Additionally, for shame to take hold, we must strongly suspect that others' negative opinions or potential opinions of our worth are valid. Shame can be distinguished from similar emotions by its all encompassing negative evaluation of our essence. Shame says "I'm bad, unworthy, unlovable." It is both a cognitive construct, or way of thinking, and a deeply felt emotion.
Guilt, on the other hand, is an evaluation not of our essence, but of our behavior that has contributed harm to others (though guilt and shame can accompany each other depending on the offensive behavior we've displayed). Whereas shame speaks to our essence or perceived worth to important others, guilt is more limited. Guilt accompanies the belief that "My behavior was bad" (but not my essence, the entirety of my self). It, too, can be quite intense and unpleasant, especially if the harm caused is great or if there is no way to rectify it. Guilt is the attempt to emotionally reconcile the discrepancy between our behaviors and our values.
Embarrassment is another related painful emotion, less severe, however, in its intensity and of a slightly different quality. It's the emotional signal to others that we have revealed a flaw in our social role that could have negative repercussions, but hopefully won't. We want others to think of us as socially competent people who know the rules of our culture. We know we're not supposed to fart or have spinach in our teeth while in public, but when we accidentally do, our embarrassed response let's others know we're competent enough to know we've violated a social norm and feel a little worried/bad about it. We also know that others have done similar things, and since no real harm has been done, the feeling is usually fleeting and something we can often laugh about in the future. Embarrassment also tends to be more context dependent. While I may be embarrassed if I fart in public, farting at home is more of a sporting contest with my wife (I confess she wins every time as I actually don't fart at all. Except when I do. Then I have the best farts in the world, believe me).
Humiliation is the final related emotional reaction we work hard to avoid. Humiliation is a shame response with an added component - anger at another for having revealed or exposed our shameful inferiority or unlovability. The injustice of the exposure by another can take some of the sting out of the feelings of shame, but, of course, then there's anger to deal with and a difficult decision as to how to approach the offender who has wronged us. You can also humiliate yourself by accidently revealing something you see as shameful, creating feelings of anger toward yourself.