Humans have an acute ability to be self-conscious and shame is a self-conscious emotion involving an attack on the sense of self, often due to perceived or actual scorn from others. Mindfulness can help us tame our shame so that this painful emotion doesn’t derail us or hijack our actions in unskillful ways.
Shame differs from guilt in that the target of our ire is our very being, rather than our actions. This very painful emotion is meant to prevent us from violating group norms that might get us ejected from the social support networks that help us survive and reproduce. The problem is, many of us carry this feeling of self-condemnation with us all the time – and its often based on conditioning – what we have absorbed from our culture and the way others have treated us in our lives, rather than anti-social actions we’ve taken.
The level to which we dehumanize other human beings is a mirror reflection of how internally disconnected and dehumanized we are… If I can’t connect to my own humanity, I certainly can’t connect to yours… Compassion is the antidote to shame. – Tony McAleer, author of The Cure For Hate – A Former White Supremacists Journey From Violent Extremisim to Radical Compassion
The feeling of shame typically triggers avoidance behaviors. It makes us want to hide from the perceived scrutiny of others and any factors or situations that we attribute to our painful feelings. We react with social withdrawal, distracting ourselves, rationalizing or denying, numbing or dissociation, projecting and attacking in order to get immediate relief. Unfortunately this allows our fears to fester and grow in the background.
Shame isn’t just an uncomfortable emotion. When unexamined, our reactions to it can create grave harm. The shame of losing WWI and the ripple effects of war made the German people vulnerable to the denial, rationalization, projection and displacement that allowed the Holocaust. The perceived lift in status provided by being “white” or an American “patriot” fuels the fires of racism and xenophobia.
Jitarth Jadeja is a former QAnon follower who now helps people whose family members have been lost to conspiracy theories. He said that QAnon provided him with a sorely needed ego boost, and filled a need for connection and meaning. In a podcast with Rachel Bernstein, LMFT he said, “The people who fall for it are completely disenfranchised with where they are in life. There is a vast disconnect between their position in the social hierarchy… in comparison to how they view their potential to be.”
One of the mighty illusions that is constructed in the dailiness of life in our culture is that all pain is a negation of worthiness, that the real chosen people, the real worthy people, are the people that are most free from pain. – bell hooks
In many ways, the shame that makes us so vulnerable is an understandable consequence of the trauma of living in a hyper-individualistic, materialistic and competitive culture. The American dream advertised to us every day in the marketing, entertainment and social media is largely unattainable to most people due to increasing income inequality and declining upward mobility in the US. According to IRS data, those born into low-income families (bottom 20%) have only a 7.5% chance of moving into a high-income category (upper 20%) in their lifetimes – less likely than in other high GDP countries such as the UK, Canada, Sweden and Denmark. Yet, we’re taught that if we only work hard enough, we can achieve our dreams.
It’s hard for us to recognize that these perceived failures are not personal. Shame makes them personal because it triggers a sense of worthlessness or inadequacy about aspects of ourselves or in our basic nature. We feel bad about who we are and we have the urge to hide our “shortcomings” or prove our shame wrong.
We aren’t destined to do harm. Research in developmental psychology is revealing that we may be wired for kindness, or at least we develop it at a very early age. From infancy we are voluntary helpers, acting altruistically and preferring others who behave prosocially. We are also capable of inflicting great harm, especially if our natural inclination toward affiliation and altruism isn’t nurtured and our more violent and self-serving tendencies are rewarded. Intentionally teaching young children how to identify and self-regulate their emotions can not only enhance their personal wellbeing, it can build empathy, strengthen problem solving and peace building skills, decrease aggression and fighting, increase helping behaviors and cooperation, and help us get along over the long term (as has been demonstrated in years of multidisciplinary research on social emotional learning). Mindfulness training can play an important role in this.
Fortunately, we can rehumanize ourselves by recognizing our interconnection and practicing the cultivation of compassion for self and others. We can transform shame into guilt when warranted – taking responsibility for what we’ve done rather than condemning who we are. Dr. Chris Germer, co-creator of the Mindful Self-Compassion program, reminds us that self-compassion, including ourselves in the circle of care and kindness, is correlated in the research with less self-absorption and narcissism, and greater relationship satisfaction, motivation, happiness, health and resilience.
“We arrive in this world naked, dependent. Somewhere in the societal, cultural, familial conditioning of our lives, we become deluded into believing we are separate from others, from the Earth, and from the environment. By some sleight of hand, some illusion, we’ve become tricked into believing we are independent, solid, autonomous beings. We are encouraged to be strong in this illusion of independence. And we are rewarded with empty gifts, for our belief that acquisition of material wealth, of commodities and external objects, will bring happiness—will create a wall of safety around our lives and make us invincible. One of the things we rediscover as we travel this path is the tenderness we arrived with when we entered this worldly plane. We are waking up to reclaim the innate goodness that is our birthright. In this process of awakening, we are gaining the discernment of wisdom. This practice activates a memory of how to be naked in this world with each other. We get to learn again how to be naked of shame, naked of blame and judgment, naked of embarrassment and fear… The quality of all life is determined by how we treat ourselves and each other, how we care for each other, and how we consider all living beings. It is the quality of the contents of our hearts that determines whether we contribute to the very circumstances that cause pain, or whether we will actually effect some shift and movement toward something kinder and more equitable.” – Amana Brembry Johnson
- Shame and The Wish to Be Loved by Chris Germer
- Chris Germer leads a self-compassion break for shame
- Brene Brown’s TED Talk “We Need to Talk About Shame“
- Social Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say? from CASEL