In a recent article on how to overcome shame, Manfred Kets de Vries also points at the impact of shame. When shame becomes toxic it can end up in self-destructive behavior.
Shame has been used for centuries to point to non-acceptable behavior and make it visible to everyone to help groups remain functional. It thus served a purpose, one that will still be useful today. Taking it from an individual perspective, things are different. Everyone has a different relationship with shame and learned to react to it in their way.
Shame is a somewhat subtle and stealthy emotion as Kets de Vries points out. It easily passes by unnoticed. Whenever shame has transformed itself into a reflection on self and self-worth the individual experiencing may not even notice it as shame.
Shame is an emotion that tells the individual, that “he is bad”. Guilt is similar to shame, but with the major difference, that it addresses the behavior. Someone who experiences guilt, tells himself, that he has done something bad. It’s something most people can forgive themselves for. In contrast to this, when someone is experienced as bad, forgiveness is rarely available.
Someone becoming subject to shame will find it hard to step out of it. And if shame has built up over the years, it can be triggered in numerous hardly noticeable ways and will have shaped the role of the inner critic. Its result may then be adults who find it difficult to experience self-worth or feel good enough.
To Kets de Vries list of six ways to overcome shame, I think that it is important to add the ability to accept emotions as they are. It allows one to become descriptive of one’s own experience instead of being judgmental of it. Whenever judgment steps in, which is almost embedded in shame, resistance becomes the natural reaction.
Resistance then becomes reinforcing of the emotion by trying to deny it. It’s similar to the children’s game of closing one’s eyes to make something disappear. Denying it becomes a very short moment of relief, but never resolves the situation. This is true for the inner critic just as much as for others trying to soothe the appearance of shame. Our brains actually can’t deal with negative instructions.
Beyond harsh or steady criticism, neglect is also a possible source of shame. Rarely acknowledging someone’s presence or contribution to the work done and the results achieved by a team becomes a way to contribute to feelings of shame. This is not about exuberating praise given to everyone, it is about taking the time to see the work that is being done. Team health also depends on being able to name individual contributions.