It’s All About Attitudes – Part 4: Shame

Shame in silhouette

by Rusty Fleischer, Program Director, and Jerry Medol, Director –

Shame seems to be one of the most common attitudes in anger work. Addressing shame and educating clients on its effect on their lives is often the key to addressing anger related needs.

So what is shame, how are we affected by it as children? How does it carry over to our lives as adults? Why is it important? How do we recognize it? What can we do to break its hold?

Before we go into these topics, it is important to differentiate between shame and guilt. For that purpose we refer to what Fossum and Mason say in their book Facing Shame that; “While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.” In other words, guilt relates to the situations where I have done something wrong.

  • Shame is an emotion that carries false beliefs and fear
  • Shame is a message of disrespect that says “something is wrong with you”, that “you ARE something wrong”
  • Shame is a negative tool for controlling other people and situations
  • Shame is a lie

As children we grow up with the message “shame on you” for doing or not doing something. Those were the messages of what and how we “should” or “should not” be doing.  Those were the messages we heard in our homes, our schools, our churches and communities.

In situations of abuse, a child will wrongly believe that no matter what the abuse, it is his or her fault. This stems from the fact that the child is totally dependent on his or her caretaker, someone he or she loves and trusts. When the abuse happens, the child interprets it as if he or she, not the caretaker, is being or doing something wrong. It’s only natural for a child to believe an adult he or she trusts and not question or reject the information, attitudes or motives.

As adults we continue to carry the false beliefs that we that “we are not good enough”, or that we are “unworthy”, “not valued”, “inadequate” and more. We believe that if something doesn’t go as it “should” that it is our fault and “shame on me”. Those messages and beliefs can have a crippling effect that can last all of our lives, unless we learn to contradict it.

The most important thing to remember is that shame is a lie. It’s just not true. Each of us, no matter who we are, is a valued human being and there is nothing wrong with us. None of us are perfect and none of us are at fault. We are what and who we are, and in order to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life it is essential to accept that simple truth.

Often a parent will use shame to stop or prevent some harmful or undesirable behavior i.e.: “you shouldn’t run out into the street like that”, “shame on you for talking that way”.

The problem with words of that nature is that the parent is not telling the child that the behavior is dangerous and scaring them, or that they feel disrespected and the behavior has to stop it. The parent is essentially saying to the child that there is something wrong with you, the child, not with the child’s behavior.

Part of being a child is exploring and testing limits and boundaries. This is not wrong even though the behavior may be dangerous, rude or disrespectful. As a parent you definitely want the behavior to change or stop. But have you done something shameful? Is the behavior something shameful?  Absolutely not!

Shame is not an effective discipline device. It is a negative control device. Its intent is to stop some undesired behavior, but its path is to doubt or undermine the confidence and well-being of the receiving party.

Shamed people tend to become resentful and uncooperative, and often hostile. Shame is an expression of disrespect. In fact respect and shame are polar opposites. If you are getting shame and don’t like it, you probably want respect.

It is common for an abused and shamed person to hold the anger inside and repress feelings, clinging to the shame and negativity and not talking about it. This turns into repressed anger that tends to accumulate as stress and at some point gets acted out in different forms such as inappropriate anger-related behaviors, anxiety and any number of medical conditions or social disorders.

Examples of this may be depression, being temperamental or explosive and possibly becoming rageful and violent or turning to substance abuse. Often the hurt and loss the individual is experiencing are not addressed because the outward behavior creates a diversion that prevents closeness or intimacy.

Last year we met with Steven, a 45 year old teacher who was beaten and bullied as a kid by his older brother and his brother’s friends. Steven was a sensitive, chubby kid who had major vision problems and who got teased and harassed on a regular basis.

As an adult Steven married, had three children and at a certain point realized that he was treating his children and wife a lot like his brother treated him. He was critical, intolerant and abusive. Although he was a loving man, patience and caretaking were beyond him.

When Steven came to our office we started with teaching him to recognize when he was being abusive and thoughtless and not listening to his wife or kids. Through the process Steven learned to recognize and identify that when he was being abusive, those were the times he was feeling abused himself. His attitude towards his family was a form of retribution and payback.

As Steven was able to recognize his signals and his own behavior, he was able to replace the aggressive and defensive attitudes with risk-taking wants and caring messages that changed his relationship with each of his children.  As he learns how to be more assertive and honest he and his wife are allowing themselves to take more risks in order to renegotiate their relationship and re-unite.

Shame messages are intended to control and are based in disrespect and need to not be accepted. Healthy anger will tell you that you do not deserve to be treated with disrespect. It is important not to accept both the message and its messenger at face value.

Contradicting shame, stopping the drama of inappropriate anger-related behavior and preempting stress-based illnesses are all excellent reasons to learn to manage anger. Learning to set limits and boundaries, separate anger feelings from stress and anger-related behavior can be the way to building and maintaining respect-based relationships in order to salvage marriages and keep families together.

All names have been changed to protect the privacy of clients.

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