When did you first hear those words?
I can’t tell you how old I was or what I was doing when I first heard my mother direct those words at me. Had I peed my pants? Or perhaps hit my sister? Or broken a toy?
Who knows. But the power of those three words was unmistakable and unshakeable – at least for many years.
No doubt my mother’s intention was to discourage me from repeating whatever behaviors she thought harmful to my long-term wellbeing. This was probably a technique her parents and teachers had used on her when she was a child. And it probably worked in the short term. I certainly did not want to do the things that caused my mother to say “Shame on you!”
But as I grew into an adolescent, admonitions that I should be “ashamed” of myself, only aroused rebellion in me. And that result is all too common. What many parents don’t get is that shaming children is often a great way to ensure they indulge in even more destructive behaviors over time.
Of course the negative effects of shaming are not limited to children. At any age, when we feel shamed, we’re more likely to act out in harmful ways. And even if we don’t act out the rage that shame can induce, we’ll almost certainly turn that rage inward. Not surprisingly this often leads to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and difficulties in our connections with others.
Research professor and shame expert, Brene Brown, warns “Shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive behavior than the cure. Guilt and empathy are the emotions that lead us to question how our actions affect other people, and both of these are severely diminished by the presence of shame.”
While we may understand how shaming can cause low self-esteem, it may not be as easy to understand how shame can actually cause the destructive behaviors we are trying to control when we resort to shaming others. However, that is indeed one of the ironic side effects of shame as the former director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School, James Gilligan, M.D. points out:
“A central precondition for committing violence, then, is the presence of overwhelming shame in the absence of feelings of either love or guilt; the shame stimulates rage, and the violent impulses . . . and the feelings that would normally inhibit the expression of those feelings and the acting out of those impulses, such as love and/or guilt, are absent.”
Many of us are confused about the difference between guilt and shame. And for good reason! We sometimes use these words interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing.
While educated people don’t always agree on how these two concepts differ, the generally accepted definitions are that shame is how we feel about ourselves while guilt is how we feel about our behavior. So when we feel shame, we literally feel ashamed of ourselves. But when we feel guilty, we are most likely experiencing empathy for those we’ve hurt. And those feelings of empathy often motivate us to do what we can to right the wrong (to make an amends).
When we’re in the throes of shame, we’re pulled inward into self-pity. This is very different from having a healthy conscience, which enables us to use our guilt to connect empathetically with others. The latter leads to an ability to take responsibility for our actions and still feel good about ourselves.
One way you can tell if you are experiencing shame or guilt is whether you feel immersed in remorse or if you find your focus moving toward empathy for those you have harmed. It may seem like a subtle difference but it is a key distinction. Remorse is closely connected to feelings of self-pity. Guilt moves toward the actions of amends and positive change and ultimately creates a sense of integrity and empowerment.
Shame is indeed destructive to a healthy sense of ourselves, but most of us have internalized a sizable amount of it. So how then do we heal the shame? As counterintuitive as it may seem, you can begin to alleviate those feelings of shame by taking responsibility for the harm you’ve created in the lives of others, and making amends for it in ways that are meaningful to both you and those you have harmed.
This can feel self-defeating when we’re suffering from shame. Shame causes most of us to want to run and hide. We don’t want to think about what we did. We don’t want to talk about it, nor do we want anyone else to talk about it. But the more we run from our feelings of shame, the more those feelings will envelope us and take over our life.
I know from my own personal experience and from my work with my clients, that the very best way to reduce and even eliminate shame is to face the things we have done head on, as humbly and honestly as possible. The courage required to do that is immensely healing. And taking it one step further and making amends to those we have harmed restores our sense of integrity and heightens our self-esteem.
In reality, the truth really does set you free. Free from the shame. Free from the fear of being found out. Free from the emotional isolation and loneliness that comes from feelings of shame.
If you want to learn more about healing shame and increasing your level of empathy, I would love to help you. That is what I do every day for my clients. I can honestly tell you that the transformation I am privileged to help facilitate and witness every day inspires me to my core.