Shame: From Toxic Collapse to Healing Exposure

Where healthy shame triggers our conscience (our innate moral sense), unhealthy shame triggers our inner critic (which often masquerades as our conscience).

When first recognizing the part that shame has played in their lives, many are amazed at — and sobered by — how influential that part has been— and what a gift it has been, in some ways. It is as if a lost continent of themselves has surfaced. Shame kept in the dark keeps us in the dark.

Shame may be not only our most hidden or submerged emotion, but it may be the one we shun the most. I recall a poll that asked what one was most afraid of. Dying didn’t top the list, but speaking in public did (speaking in public stripped of all clothing was not one of the items to consider). The fear of speaking in public is a fear of being shamed in public. Our aversion to directly feeling and staying with our shame is highlighted by our commonly describing our experience of it as mortifying.

Shame is the painfully self-conscious sense of our behavior — or self — being exposed as defective, with the immediate result that we are halted in our tracks, for better or for worse. The felt sense of shame is that of public condemnation, even if our only audience is our inner critic.

In healthy shame the voice of our conscience picks up volume, and the expression of fitting remorse becomes a very real option for us, which we act on as soon as possible. In unhealthy or toxic shame — which is much more common than healthy shame — our very self is under attack, whether from outside ourselves or from within in the form of our inner critic.

Implicit in shame is the fear of being humiliated. A burning loss of face; an excruciatingly contracted squirming; a crushingly negative exposure with nowhere to hide — and all in front of a hypercritical audience. The language of shame can be relatively benign (“I’m disappointed in you” or “You can do better than this”), but more often than not is, however inadvertently, cruel (“This is the best you can do?” or “I’ve shown you a hundred times how to do this, and you still can’t?”), and quite commonly toxic (“You’ll never amount to anything” or “You’re such a loser!”).

To add to shame’s impact, the preceding parenthetical statements can also be self-directed, giving them an added emphasis, before which we more often than not literally hang our heads, slipping into the characteristic droop and sag of shame. As mean as others can be to us, we can be even meaner to ourselves, as is epitomized by having (or being occupied by) an unrelentingly harsh inner critic, in the presence of which our default — our go-to automatic habit — is to shrink, cower, regress, or please.

Furthermore, we tend to be conflicted around shame, attaching a negative connotation both to having it (“You’re pathetic!”) and to not having it (“You’re shameless!”). Some parents may accuse their child — whom they have just shamed — of being shifty-eyed, making them wrong (more shame!) for their downward gaze and squirming demeanor, or get angry at the same child for not showing shame for failing to measure up to a particular standard. When we have an early history of being shamed — being told in so many words that we are defective — we will as adults very likely have very little tolerance for simply being present with our shame, given how paralyzing it originally was for us.

And there is a danger here: If we assign a totally negative connotation to shame, we will insufficiently attend to those situations where shame is entirely appropriate, as when we’ve hurt another and need to openly admit this, accessing enough remorse to voice a heartfelt “I’m sorry,” along with a sincere attempt to make whatever amends are fitting. Under such conditions we need to stay with our shame, and if we’re a parent, we need to help our child stay with his or her shame over, for example, being mean to a friend or sibling, rather than “getting away with it.”

Even the most well-meaning of us can easily slip into shaming others in ways that are far from helpful, without in many cases even knowing that we are doing so. For example, we may unfavorably compare one of our children to another, with the intention of motivating him or her to do better at a particular task, upping our disapproval intensity as we see that the opposite of what we desired is happening. Too many of us do not realize that shaming another so as to get better results — that is, the results that we want or expect — can backfire.

And why? Because when we feel shamed, our capacity to function well drops; we feel discombobulated, awkward, small, unable to focus very clearly. And when shame is aimed at our very being, we don’t just feel disoriented or fuzzy-minded, but also debilitatingly flattened, as if our self-sense has been run over by heavy machinery, leaving us incapable of functioning the way our shamer thinks we should.. At the same time, the intention to do what they want us to do becomes hugely central to us — when the feeling of our shame wanes enough, we’ll probably act out that intention as best we can, so as to lower the odds that our shamer will again come after us. (Such dynamics are very common not only in families, but also in all kinds of organizations.)

Imagine a child who is being shamed for not being able to figure out a math problem — being told that she is a disappointment, that she should be able to do it, that she is stupid. The more she is put down for her failure, the more she fails, and the more she fails, the more she is shamed. And the more forcefully she is criticized, the more driven she is to dissociate from the whole scene, giving the impression that she is not paying attention to what is being said to her.

Giving others the impression that they are defective is far from an effective approach to encouragement, yet all too often this strategy remains the operational preference of many of us when we are faced with another’s falling short of the expectations we have for them. This is where many relationships founder: One partner is trying and trying to measure up to the other’s standards — often with the threat (voiced or not) that if they don’t, they’ll be left; that partner, not surprisingly, is often on the verge of failing — that is, not measuring up — and the other is busy being disappointed, saying in so many words that the other is abandoning them, not showing up enough, not making a full effort to meet them, etcetera after painful etcetera.

We are so pervaded, both personally and collectively, by shame that we have shame regarding how much shame we have. To even talk about shame is, in most circles, more than a little embarrassing, unless it is clearly not about us. Shame painfully exposes us, with our reddening face or suddenly awkward speech or stumbling stance usually drawing even more unwanted attention our way. This can be helpful when we are in the midst of doing something harmful to another (like speaking cruelly to them), but in many cases it is just something we endure. I remember being strapped by the school principal when I was nine (this was the mid-50s), and making a huge effort not to cry when — less than a minute after my punishment in her office — I had to walk back into the classroom through its front door, with the other students gleefully pointing out my red face (crimson both with shame and the struggle not to weep). Getting to my desk was one of the longest journeys I ever took. And what did I do with this shame? Kept it to myself, as there’d have been even more shame if I’d told my parents about it.

A less dramatic but more damaging feeling of shame occurs when we are consistently put down by those who have authority over us, especially when they clearly have some distaste for us. If this characterized how one of our parents treated us when we were little, we very likely felt demoralized by such ongoing censure, shrinking with toxic shame so often that we more often than not defined ourselves through it, perhaps finding ourselves in the grip of excessive shyness (as if trying to literally shrink away from the scrutiny of others). Such agonizingly uncomfortable exposure — usually accompanied by megadoses of self-reproach — is at the core of the kind of shame that does no one any good; in its presence, our urge to disappear can be overwhelming.

The Nature of Shame

Much of shame is about failing to meet others’ values, and probably just as much of it is about failing to meet our own values (which are mostly just an internalization of the values of those who originally shamed us). But whether we are experiencing shame through external or internal pressures, the experience of it often puts us in a disempowered position.

When we feel shame or are being shamed, there may be a sense that we should be taking action. Yet in its initial arising shame readies us not for action but for on-the-spot stoppage. It strongly interrupts us, halting us in our tracks. There may also be a sudden sense of self-shrinkage, perhaps further tightened by our full-bodied, painfully obvious self-consciousness. We may feel a sudden loss of lift in our neck and upper torso, so that our head slumps forward and our chest caves in (as if we’ve just been slugged in our solar plexus); we look down and very likely do not want to look up; we may feel increased heat in our face, and to our consternation may blush; and we may experience a brief but unpleasantly intense period of confusion, mental blankness, and disorganization. Body and mind brake to a halt, however much they be spinning internally. Once things have all but ceased, physically and otherwise, intentions to take certain actions appear, ranging from making ourselves as small as possible to saying we’re sorry to getting angry at whoever put us in this position.

The slump and sag of shame show up at an early age. The upper bodies of plenty of adults bear at least some degree of a question mark shape when viewed in profile, as if still bent before a powerful force. Shame has that much power, enough to shape us for life. Others might hold themselves extra erect, as if on guard against displaying anything that might resemble shame. Excessive pride is another camouflage against shame, reddening us with effort instead of embarrassment, leaving us ever vigilant not to drop our eyes, holding the proof of our achievements unnaturally high, as if to offset the downward pull of shame.

Shame reduces our coordination, which only adds to it power to stop us in our tracks. This deposits us in a position where it’s hard not to contrast where we were right before our shame arrived and where we now are. At best, this sudden contrast sobers us, so that we don’t follow through on what we were about to do — like scorning another, overpursuing a particular pleasure, taking an ill-advised gamble, preparing to lash another with our rage, and so on. And the interruption of shame can not only halt us, so that we don’t do harm — or don’t do more harm — but also can give us a timely time-out to clean up whatever mess we have made, to make amends, to bring a clearer focus to what was motivating us before we were braked by the feeling of shame.

So when shame shows up it can crush us, and it can also serve us, as when it makes us less immune to remorse or less full of ourselves. In the latter case, shame is not an enemy, but an ally.

One of the reasons we have such an aversion to shame is that it immediately takes us away from pleasurable or positive experience. Shame is to positive feeling as disgust is to hunger. Disgust emphatically interrupts hunger when something for which we hunger — and not just food! — simply doesn’t “smell right” or makes us feel “sick” or is distasteful. Shame does the same thing for upbeat or pleasure-driven feelings. For example, we’re having a positive experience — but when this experience for some reason doesn’t register as “right” to our core value system or innate moral sense, our pleasure-seeking usually gets decisively interrupted. This is one of the many ways that shame serves us: it can protect us from getting overly attached to our feel-good urges, especially when it’s not safe or socially appropriate to thus indulge.

An example: A man is on a date and is showing signs of wanting to get sexual, even though his date keeps showing some reluctance to proceed. She’s much younger than him and clearly has a hard time saying no without smiling. So it’s easy for him not to believe her. He keeps overriding her hesitation, feeling an increasingly strong desire to have sex with her. Suddenly he sees her fear, sees her innocence and urge to please beneath all her makeup, and shame arises in him. He sees too much to be able to proceed; his desire to go ahead has been strongly interrupted, with his conscience quickly taking up a lot of space. He stops, and soon is grateful that he did.

Without shame, there is no conscience, no moral time-out. Of course, we can override or bypass our shame, letting it morph into aggression, withdrawal, dissociation, or guilt, but its presence can serve us if we stay with it.

It is often a fine line between how shames can serve us and how it can debilitate us. Shame’s presence can be toxic, as when it is delivered or received in ways that crush or obliterate our self-esteem, making us feel like crawling into a hole or disappearing or even killing ourselves. When shame’s focus shifts from our behavior to us, we are in dangerous territory, for once we are ashamed of and/or shamed for our very being (as in “feeling worthless”) and have no alternative view of ourselves to contrast this with — as frequently happens in childhood — we start to live as though we truly are defective. And the more defective or unworthy we take ourselves to be, the more driven we will be to seek some sort of compensatory “solution,” some sort of strategy to distance ourselves from the raw feeling of our shame as much as possible

Strategies to Evade Feeling Shame

Because of our aversion to the felt experience of shame, we rarely let it stay as it is, if at all possible. We may dissociate from it, getting emotionally numb, or absorb ourselves in abstraction or energetically consuming fixes (like pornography or long hours in front of the television). We may infuse it with fear, which usually generates guilt, or we may push it into the background, letting other emotions — like anger — take center stage.

For example, if we are in a situation that triggers shame in us, we may get angry to such a righteously convincing degree that we genuinely believe that we are only angry, whether our anger is directed at another or at ourselves. In either case, our anger — especially if it is allowed to mutate into aggression — distracts us from our shame (and actually amplifies it, when we step aside enough to see the damage our “attack other” and “attack self” activity has done). So much of what we do is a “solution” to our shame — be it aggression, withdrawal, inflated pride, hyper-achievement, spiritual escapism, or excessive interest in sexuality — a means of getting away from our shame or covering it up, to the point of not even knowing that we were feeling shame. But when these “solutions” wane, our shame reemerges and reasserts itself, undigested and unresolved, ever inviting us to cease avoiding it.

Even if we can evade others’ scrutiny at times of feeling shame or being shamed — a difficult task, given how noticeable and transparent our self-enwrapment may be — we cannot so easily evade our own inner scrutiny. Long after our face has lost its blush, and long after the shaming episode has passed, we may still be cringing or wincing internally, replaying the shame-inducing event (“How could I?”). Eventually, we’ll likely invest some energy in distancing ourselves from it, a common example of which is fantasizing about some form of retaliation — after all, it’s the shortest of distances from shame to aggression.

And if retaliation or revenge is not a possibility for us, we might simply withdraw, finding some solace in emotional dissociation or exaggerated privacy, losing ourselves in activities (mental and otherwise) that are consolingly distracting. And if we cannot not successfully remove ourselves very far from our shaming — as commonly happens in young children — we may find ourselves burdened with debilitating shyness. Unfortunately, the “solutions” we found to shame during our childhood and teen years don’t necessarily go away as we grow into adulthood, but just continue in more sophisticated forms. For example, we might have found a respite from shame by defeating other children academically or athletically, and now as an adult find ourselves driven to intellectually overpower others who trigger shame in us, regardless of how clearly and compassionately they see us.

Shame Deflates Us

Not only does shame expose us, stripping us down in a second or two, but also deflates us — rapidly and very emphatically — in the face of such exposure, regardless of however much it might heat us up. In anger, such heatedness inflates our upper torso, seemingly enlarging us, but in shame it burns away our sense of internal structuring, so that we tend to collapse. This, so to speak, takes the wind out of our sails, helping to halt our forward momentum, giving us a perhaps timely break to reconsider what we were doing right before our shame arrived.

It is tempting to compensate for shame’s deflationary impact by overcommitting ourselves to an inflated pride, trying to put ourselves in a position where we are seemingly beyond the reach of shame. Such pride holds us artificially aloft, leaving us nowhere to go but down, particularly when the rude pricks of reality do their relatively thankless job. And when our pride-bubble is burst and we take a fall, shame awaits us, including the shame of having fallen. Then more pride may ensue, or we might not be quite so quick to try to flee our shame.

We may also find some respite from being deflated by shame through indulging in anger’s capacity to inflate or pump us up (think of the hugely bulked up mesomorphic marvels of comic books, seemingly about to burst with anger, getting increasingly thin-skinned as their upper torso expands). But once our anger passes, our shame reasserts itself, however subtly, giving us an opportunity to not turn away from it.

It is quite an achievement to fully feel our shame and stay with it without losing spine or heart; doing so is an act of what could be called heroic vulnerability.

Shame, Aggression, and the Inner Critic

Shame easily, quickly, and very commonly mutates into aggression, whether against others or ourselves. In fact, it may so rapidly shift into aggression that we may not even notice that there was any shame there to begin with. And if our shame is sufficiently strong to really humiliate us, our resulting aggression might manifest not just as ill will or hostility, but as outright violence.

The myth of the humiliated one going after his or her perpetrators with violent intent gets a big dose of cultural justification in many a film — and an abundance of viewers, for whom there is a vicarious thrill in witnessing (and perhaps cheering on) such primal aggression. After all, there are few among us who don’t enjoy seeing the underdog rise up and strike back, especially if that one endured extreme humiliation.

Aggression against our offending others offers a potent distraction from their shaming of us, even if all we do is act out such aggression mentally, delivering biting thoughts and cutting comebacks, attacking them from our neocortical towers. Aggression turned back against ourselves is much more insidious, for it may be so well hidden that no one except us really knows the torture we are enduring through such internalized attacks.

The epitome and key agent of aggression against ourselves is our inner critic. Our inner critic is a composite of the main critical/shaming voices we heard as a child. It provides a heartlessly negative appraisal of us, reinforcing our sense of ourselves as defective; we can never measure up. What was done to us by those who most successfully shamed us is what we are now doing to ourselves through our inner critic when we let it assume an authoritative position in our psyche.

As solid as it might seem, our inner critic is more verb than noun. It is not an entity, however much we have personalized it, but is a doing, an activity, a cognocentric arising that feeds on our attention and energy, carrying a should-infested authority that all too many of us don’t question any more than young children question their parents’ authority.

We all have an inner critic, but we are not all run by it. For some, it is a mildly irritating voice emanating from a back corner of the mind; for others it is an unrelenting nagging that easily corners them; and for some it is a tyrannical voice broadcasting with such force that they can’t hear much else. The inner critic can be so relentless, so viciously shaming, so powerful, that some are driven to suicidal thoughts. There are those who believe the inner critic is always right, that it is none other than their conscience, that they have no more right to question it than they did their parents when they were children. They believe that their inner critic is a clear-seeing fully adult version of themselves.

Their freedom starts when they realize that they not only are not their inner critic, but that it loses its power when they cease taking its content seriously, and stop letting it masquerade as their conscience.

Healthy and Unhealthy Shame

Since shame has had such a negative impact on so many of us that it has become commonplace to condemn shame itself. But shame is not inherently a problem! Again, the issue is how we handle our shame. Toxic shame, unhealthy shame, shame that dehumanizes and crushes, is not an innate emotion, but rather the result of choices with which we have saddled shame.

As with fear, we can become intimate with our shame, so that it serves rather than hinders us. And this begins with learning the difference between healthy and unhealthy shame.

First of all, healthy shame is primarily directed at a particular action, whereas unhealthy shame is primarily directed at the doer of that action. For example, if our partner has repeatedly lied to us about something very important to our relationship, it’s fitting that they feel shame for what they have done, but not fitting that they go into shame for who they are. In the former case, remorse and atonement are probably close at hand, but in the latter case, they are all but out of reach. We certainly need to hold our partner accountable and are under no obligation to excuse their behavior, but we don’t need to attack or vilify their being, however tempted we might be to do so. We can rage at them for lying to us, we can cry hard for their betrayal of us, we can accept the decrease in our trust for them, but we still have no right to dehumanize them, as would happen if we were to shame them for their very being.

Both healthy and unhealthy shame interrupt, expose, and deflate us, but then diverge: In healthy shame we empower ourselves to take healing action, but in unhealthy shame we disempower ourselves, doing little more than looking for some sort of escape or compensatory activity.

In healthy shame we are stirred to set things right, to sincerely express our remorse, whereas in unhealthy shame we tend to freeze, rendering ourselves all but incapable of setting things right — we are so busy fleeing or flagellating ourselves that we don’t even see what is needed right now.

That is, healthy shame mobilizes us, and unhealthy shame immobilizes us.

Healthy shame triggers our conscience, whereas unhealthy shame triggers our inner critic, which often masquerades as our conscience.

(And what is conscience? It can be defined, aside from whatever lens we pass it through, as the activated presence of our innate moral sense, its core of compassion arising from a mix of empathy and shame-informed — but not shame-dominated! — consideration. Moral intelligence in the raw.)

Healthy shame opens our heart — after initially contracting it — but unhealthy shame closes our heart, and keeps it closed. In healthy shame, we feel for the one we have hurt (including ourselves), however painful that might be; but in unhealthy shame, we are so swamped by our own contractedness that we don’t feel for the one we’ve hurt (including ourselves), our empathic wall being as thick as it is impermeable.

Healthy shame temporarily brings us to our knees, then — if we take fitting action — restores our dignity. Unhealthy shame doesn’t just bring us to our knees but flattens us, obliterating our dignity. Healthy shame features humility, unhealthy shame humiliation.

In healthy shame, we are shaken up then returned to wholeness, whereas in unhealthy shame, we are fragmented, blown apart, becoming a mob of warring factions in a dimly lit land.

Healthy shame and compassion can coexist; but unhealthy shame and compassion cannot coexist, simply because our empathy has been sealed off, crushed, become irrelevant to us — and without empathy, there is no compassion.

Working with Shame

Shame flattens our perspective and narrows our view, leaving us floundering in exaggerated self-consciousness — which is a misnomer, since when we’re self-conscious, we’re not so much conscious of our self as we are of the other(s) apparently watching us. Becoming conscious of our self-consciousness — that is, letting it be the object rather than the subject of our attention — goes a long way to help free us from shame’s grip. The point is not to flee shame, but to step back from it just far enough so we can see it — and its hold on us — more clearly.

In shame, our privacy is usually undressed in a hurry; there’s an almost immediate sense of being disturbingly exposed, as if our clothes have just been removed in a very public, well-lit place, with more than enough people watching intently. Imagine this scene, with you being the suddenly naked one on stage before a critical, far-from-sympathetic audience, and notice if you feel any of the telltale signs of shame: hanging head, upper back rounding, face heating up, body cringing, face contracting. Now imagine there is no escape from this scene, and notice how hard it is to lift your head, gaze directly at your audience, and rest in your innate dignity.

Essential to working with shame is meeting it with compassion. This gives shame room to breathe, room to openly be itself without fear of being looked down upon.

Bringing our shame into our heart is not easy, but utterly necessary if we are to cease being diminished or run by it. The closer we get to our shame, the more clearly we can see it and our history with it

We also need to differentiate shame from the fear, anger, hurt, or disgust that may arise from and camouflage it. Does the felt presence of shame drive us into compensatory emotional activity? What do we tend to do emotionally when shame is catalyzed in us? Addressing these and related questions is an essential aspect of working with shame. And to do this, we need to stop shaming ourselves for having shame.

The more room you make in your heart for your shame, the more able you’ll be to stay with your shame, separating what’s healthy in it from what’s unhealthy, making space for whatever action needs to be taken, be it to express remorse or to set a clear boundary with someone who’s putting you down.

There’s no real getting away from shame, though we may live in a way that keeps us removed from it. In fact, shame may be our most hidden emotion. Bringing it out of the shadows is a deeply healing undertaking, a journey that, sooner or later, we must take if we are to truly live. When we have become intimate with our shame, we don’t let it mutate into aggression or relational disengagement, confessing it as it arises, recognizing that it is simply the herald of conscience and needs to be related to as such.