THE BLOG
11/11/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What Is Shame? How Does It Color Your World?

A child is assaulted by a parent; the other parent looks away, dismisses the assault or explains it away, minimizes the hurt, or simply doesn't see. [1] What happens psychologically? The assault needs to be addressed in the short term, whether it is physical, psychological, or both. However, the way the event is witnessed by the other parent (or community, teacher, relative, etc.) will have a longer-term impact. When this child becomes an adult, they may never seek help, never talk about being abused, or take any effort to heal their injury for one simple reason -- they have internalized the viewpoint of the parent who witnessed the event and now they too dismiss, minimize, or deny its occurrence. While the initial assault, like any wound, requires address and redress, the insufficient witnessing wraps the wound in shame, like a bacterial laden bandage, infecting the person's beliefs, convincing them that their pain and suffering is a result of their own inadequacy.

As the child grows older they may experience a myriad of difficult feelings and patterns of behavior -- hurt, fear, insecurity, self-hatred, boundary confusion, cyclic patterns of difficult relationships, substance abuse, and more, but they never get to the root of the problem. They never make a genuine and loving inquiry into the reasons for their suffering. Instead, they ask, "What's wrong with me?" concluding that the feelings and patterns of behavior they suffer from exist because something is wrong with them not because something happened to them. This is the essence of shame. In a way, they "blame the victim" -- themselves. Further, they now witness their current life from the same internalized viewpoint, dismissing and minimizing disrespect and ill treatment, denying their hurts, looking for fixes and answers, and feeling a profound sense of wrongness in their being.

For example, they are likely to think they get hurt because of their weakness rather than because someone else bullied them, that they fail because they are stupid or undisciplined rather than because they have poor teachers or inadequate support, or that they are treated coldly because they are doing something wrong rather than because their friends, partners, or parents are jealous, get into moods, or simply lack the capacity to care for another.

Here are a few examples showing how a person who has been shamed responds to difficulties as if something is wrong with them instead of making a genuine, deeper, and more compassionate inquiry about themselves.

1) I remember a client who had a particularly cold father. Every time she got around him she felt like she needed to be extra nice to him, praise him, appreciate him, or somehow warm him up. When his coldness didn't change, she concluded that she failed. It took some time for her to see her father clearly -- a man with a coldness that ran through him for reasons entirely independent of her.

2) I remember another client whose husband was particularly frugal despite their relatively comfortable financial status. She would go out and buy shoes and then change the price tags when she brought them home so that he would not know how much they cost. Of course he would see the shoes and begin to inquire about her purchase. Afterwards she would always feel badly about herself, believing that she either had a spending problem or a dishonesty problem. However, the truth was that he had the spending problem and her dishonesty was simply a result of the fact that she was frightened about his reaction. Once she saw that clearly, she could be more understanding and compassionate about her circumstances, stop feeling ashamed when she purchased shoes, and learn ways to be more honest with her husband not only about her spending but also about her fear of his reactions.

3) Years ago I had a roommate who often watched television at night. When I would pull into the driveway I would see the bluish television light go out. By the time I entered the house, he would be sitting reading a book. Why was he hiding his television watching? It wasn't just that he thought he should be doing other activities (more "worthy" activities), it is that he thought watching television represented some kind of moral deficiency of his. Because of his shame, it was very difficult for him to inquire about what drew him to watching television -- was it a time of relaxation, was he wanting more "dream time," was he always "on" and wanted to be "off." As long as he tries to "fix" his deficiency rather than address his real need and reason for watching television, he is unlikely to make a change and is highly likely to feel worse about himself.

Shame has been called the "master emotion" because so much of our experience is filtered through this lens. In addition, it warps and confounds our understanding of ourselves and others in a way that makes sustainable resolutions extremely difficult if not impossible. It leads us to a never-ending cycle of trying to fix ourselves, dismissing our hurts and pains, and essentially living the question: "What's wrong with me?"

[1] While the abuse of a child is one situation where insufficient witnessing leads to shame, I use this example because of its general familiarity and ease of understanding.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.