Before looking at the roots of shame, it’s probably a good idea to start off by establishing the difference between guilt and shame. There is a tendency to use the two terms interchangeably or to imagine shame as some kind of worse version of guilt....But there is a difference between the two. Where shame focuses on the self, guilt has the focus on the behaviour. It is sometimes expressed as: “I did a horrible thing” (shame) as opposed to “I did a horrible thing” (guilt).

Also the emotional and physiological (body) experience of guilt is quite different from shame. Guilt tends to bring about feelings of tension, worry, remorse, regret or maybe an attempt to conceal or cover up.

As a feeling shame has been described in many different ways such as: feeling exposed, being flawed, inadequate, inferior, worthless, diseased, defective, ridiculous, lonely, invisible, rejected or alienated. It’s worth noting how closely these feelings correspond with those clusters of core beliefs around ‘unlovelable’ or ‘helpless’ described by Aaron and Judith Beck, that we talked about in the first podcast on Core Beliefs. Once of the unique characteristics shame is a self-awareness so it’s probably also worth digging a bit deeper into the idea of self-awareness.

Social psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund came up with a concept of TWO types of self-awareness. So the first is what they call an objective self-awareness.

In objective self-awareness the focus of attention is on your inner feelings and thoughts. It’s the kind of self-awareness and self- understanding that we hope people achieve on our programmes through learning about psychology. It could also be described as the kind of self-reflection encouraged by step work for people who are in 12 step fellowships. It’s fair to say that this kind of self-awareness is pretty much essential in order to maintain some kind of behavioural change around using drugs and alcohol.

What is relevant to shame is the second type of self-awareness that Duval and Wicklund identify. They call this a ‘subjective’ self-awareness in which the focus of attention is on ‘the self as a social object’.

What they mean by ‘self as social object’ is the experience of yourself having interactions with other people and social groups. If you think of an experience like going to school – it isn’t just you, in a little bubble... what can make the experience of going to school hard is all the other interactions you have every single day. These might be with other pupils and teachers - but you also interact with the rules and regulations of the school, the bigger rules and regulations of the education authority, the expectations other people might have about your education...and so on. We inhabit a complex reality!

Philosophers do love writing complex books about the complex reality that we inhabit. Lots of philosophical writings describe shame as an emotion of self-awareness (‘self as social object’) that causes you to feel anxious because you worry about how you are seen and judged by others.

The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in his book Being & Nothingness wrote about (perv alert!) someone spying on their lover through a keyhole but only experiencing shame about this act when they become aware they are being observed doing it!

We live in a shame based society that tells us we need to be richer, thinner, prettier, whiter...etc. All around are messages that we’re just not trying hard enough and we should feel shame for being broke, not thin enough or buff enough, not successful enough....

The idea of a ‘meritocracy’ is a society that says people who are rich and successful got to be there because they are uniquely talented - on their own merit....rather than the fact that they were born into privileged ethnicity, inherited money, gender or they were fortunate in which part of the world they were born in.

People who are stigmatized by both negative personal core beliefs and the kinds of stigmatizing circumstances such as poverty that we talked about in our second ‘Core Beliefs’ podcast, are often understandably sensitive to the concern (‘Oh poor you’), pity, or disgust (‘why don’t you learn to budget properly...’) that they feel from others.

What we try and do with shame

The psychologist Erik Erikson suggested that people can try to absorb shame by guilt-so they will behave in ways to externalise their shame by committing crime or treating others badly and generally being a bit of a shit. The video clip about the work of the Compassionate Mind Foundation that accompanies this handout shows examples of this. People can bring about guilt to obliterate the shame they feel. It’s a bit like, ‘if I’m guilty you won’t notice my shame’. Shame is something to hide.

Shame seems to play a big part in people feeling anger and hostility. It’s been suggested that individuals protect their self-worth against feelings of inferiority and shame by externalizing blame for their failures, which leads to feelings of hostility and anger toward other people.

As humans we want to avoid feeling shame at any cost. The compass of shame was developed by Donald Nathanson to describe the ways we try and deal with shame. For most people almost anything feels better than shame, so we develop a set of defensive strategies to convert it into something less toxic, and over the course of our lives we increase these responses to suit various situations. The patterns are grouped as the four poles of a compass. Attack Self; Withdrawal ; Avoidance; Attack Other

Withdrawal: The person acknowledges and accepts the messages of shame they experience as being true about themselves and they try to withdraw or hide from the situation or the world. They will feel emotions such as sadness, fear and anxiety. Thoughts include an awareness that they feel uncomfortable with other people and awareness of (the imagined) shameful actions, faults or negative personal characteristics they have. However these negative feelings and thoughts may be really hard to identify as ‘shame’.

Attack Self: The person acknowledges and accepts the messages of shame as being true and they turn anger inwards. They will feel emotions such as self-directed anger, contempt or disgust, which magnify the impact of shame. Thoughts include awareness of (imagined) shameful actions, faults or negative personal characteristics they have. As in Withdrawal, these negative feelings and thoughts may be acknowledged, but may not be identified easily as ‘shame’.

Attack Other: The person may – or may not – acknowledge the negative experience of themselves and usually do not accept the shame message (however the deep feeling of shame is there). They will attempt to make someone else to feel worse. Anger is directed outward, perhaps toward the source of the shaming event. The thoughts are that someone else or their actions or faults are to blame. The motivation is to bolster the self-image and externalize the shame.

Avoidance: The person typically does not acknowledge the negative experience of self, typically does not accept the message of shame (denial), and will attempt to distract themselves from any painful feelings. Shame may be denied or blotted out with drugs, alcohol, sex or other forms of distraction. Thoughts include very little awareness of shame or shameful actions, faults, or negative characteristics. The motivation is to minimize the conscious experience of shame or show yourself as being above the weakness of shame.

Questions to think about for the seminars....

  • When you hear the word 'shame' what is your immediate response?
  • Can you identify any times when you felt shame as a child?
  • Looking at the 'compass of shame' do you recognise any ways of dealing with shame that feel familiar to you?