Feeling Shame and Guilt

Nobody wants pain–nobody wants shame.

Few people are so certain of themselves that they are invulnerable to shame attacks. How well do you remember the last time you felt ashamed?  The time before that?  A time in your childhood? Probably, like it happened yesterday!? Shame experiences are emblazoned on our minds.  Shame is NOT a mild emotion. Shame attacks HURT, regardless of the source. Once we have been devastated by a remark that exposed us unmercifully, the experience is rarely forgotten, even though we’d like to banish the memory forever.  

Shame is an extremely painful, unpleasant emotion experienced that accompanies an awareness of wrong-doing, impropriety, shortcoming OR transgression of behavior and/or concepts of what is held to be “right,” “good” or acceptable within a particular group. The most severe penalty for rule violation is the threat of being cast out or abandoned; that is, being exposed to a form of social and sometimes physical death.

Some descriptions of feelings which often accompany shame are:

“I wanted to crawl in a hole and die”
“I wished I could sink through the floor”  
“I could have just died with shame”
“I wanted to curl up and die”
“I wanted to sink into the ground”
“If only the earth had opened up and swallowed me right then.”
“I looked for a hole I could crawl in.”

Some emotions are accompanied by strong human action. For guilt, it is the need for punishment; for anxiety, it is the urge to run away; for shame, it is the desire to hide, to withdraw and retreat verbally and/or emotionally; to isolate oneself and lick the wounds.

Shame is not a disease, but a mark of our humanity.  We are a valuing species.  Despite the fact that values change from one generation to the next, shame plays an important part in our system of values.  Shame is a part of our human make up because we are valuing animals.

There are two kinds of shame: The “sense of shame” (shame felt in front of others) and “being ashamed” (the inner sense of shame, the one felt within).  You may feel shame because someone regards you as inferior OR because you so regard yourself.  

The single word “shame” in the English language refers to two kinds of shame. Almost all the other languages have at least TWO words for “shame.”  (1) One kind of shame is “being ashamed;” the response felt about oneself in front of or as they appear to another; a response to exposure where another viewing us does not share our opinion about ourselves, or who is imagined to have negative reactions to us. 

Example: “I was so ashamed I couldn’t even face her.” (2) The other kind of shame is the sense of shame; the inner sense of shame felt within oneself, reached by reflection; for failure to live up to an internalized ideal, or to the ideal image against which we measure parts or all of ourselves. Example: “I am so ashamed of myself.”

Guilt and Shame are not the same emotions. Shame concerns the person himself; guilt concerns the person’s actions. Shamed people believe something is wrong with them; guilty people believe they have done something wrong. Shamed people are bothered by their shortcomings; guilty people by their transgressions. Shame refers to some sort of failure, weakness or flaw of the self; guilt refers to some violation or attack upon the other.  However, it’s possible to feel both guilty AND ashamed at the same time.

Contempt is even harder to bear than anger or hatred.  Contempt triggers shame. The fear of disgrace; the anxiety about the possibility that we might be looked at with contempt for having dishonored ourselves. The feeling when one is looked at with such scorn; the effect of contempt directed against the self by others or by one’s own conscience.  One feels ashamed for being exposed by failing someone else’s expectations or failing the demands of performance by one’s own conscience, standing under the glare of one’s own mind’s eye.

Reactions to Being Ashamed

Shame has many faces and comes in many variations.  It’s not unusual to be afraid to challenge someone who has the power to shame or hurt us.  We may “lose interest” and abandon our question or goal.  On the other hand, our interest may be peaked and we may resolve to overcome the shame barrier.

When shamed, you may FEEL: worthless, humiliated, incompetent, inadequate, inadequate, stupid, weak, exposed, embarrassed, ridiculous, disconcerted, useless, no good, unlovable, not good enough, like a “nothing” or “nobody;” mortified, dishonored; too flawed to be wanted or valued by others; too deficient to rate any respect; “not OK”; as if you don’t belong, like an outsider.  All these emotions concern feelings about ourselves, not our actions.

When shamed, you may FEAR being: abandoned, deprived, hurt, pained, rejected, betrayed, belittled, neglected, shunned, scorned, contemptible, made fun of, or avoided.  You may fear not being accepted; fear public attention to your deficits; fear the loss of respect or esteem; fear losing intimacy with others; fear being made a public spectacle or an object of ridicule. The power behind blackmail is the threat of social exposure of personal actions.

EXPOSED/HIDING INSTINCT: The shamed person who has been exposed becomes aware of something formerly hidden, and desperately wishes to hide or get away from the shaming source.  The shamed person may feel very small, vulnerable or like a child in the Shamers presence.  The longer the shamed person stays around the Shamer, the worse they feel about themselves. Both shame and guilt activate the human instinct to cover that which is exposed.  Appearance or exposure is central in triggering shame; disappearance is the logical outcome of shame.

DEFECTIVE: The shamed person feels naked and defective. The sudden annihilation of personal integrity generates self-damnation. Shamed people may feel as though they deserve to be abandoned because they are not good enough to keep.

SEPARATION: Shame is a very painfully separator, separating us from what we care about. In the moment of exposure and shame, a painful separation occurs. As soon as a person conveys a shame message to you, a gulf opens between the two of you, and a separation occurs.  They are no longer on your side.  In the moment of shame, a person feels totally shorn from his fellow humans–utterly alone, shut out, isolated, ostracized, excluded–not JUST from the one who shamed him, but from all possible others.  Everyone fears separation from those they love. Death, divorce, kidnappers, fire, war are separators we fear or dread because they separate us from things we love and care about.  Shame temporarily discon¬nects people from each other.  

ABANDONMENT: Shame is often achieved by threat of rejection or removal from a group, as found in clubs, schools and professional societies.  There is a strong urge or tendency to want to live up to the expectations of a particular individual or group that offers a sense of closeness, love or approval. The core of shame is considered by many to be the fear of abandonment, some causes of which are: excommunication, being shut out, separated, cut off, loss, desertion, expelled, ostracized, alienated, estranged, and rejection.  

Shame digs deeper when it is our own people who reject us. Only people who are members of a community ever feel it, and only a community that cares for its members can effectively make them feel it. The paradox of all true communities is that the closer knit and caring a community is, the more cruel can be its shaming. One has to belong to a real community to feel the shame of being shut out of it.  Shame it epitomized with Hester Prynne’s punishment for becoming pregnant out of wedlock was to wear the Scarlet Letter “A” (for Adultery) embroidered on all her dresses (The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne).

We are immunized against shame by pride.  Community or group pride is encouraged. As long as we are proud, we cannot be ashamed.  Pride that protects us from shame also tempts us to shame people who belong to another group. If we give in to that temptation, we may persuade ourselves that “our way” is the only “right” way; that our religion is the only “true” religion; and that we are the “best” people in the world.  Our pride in “our” group then tempts us to despise other groups, and to look down upon or to shame others simply because they are not in “our group.” We may also feel shame when another group despises “our” group.

Those Who Shame Others

Sometimes a person is shamed quite unintentionally; and other times, a Shamer will deliberately, maliciously, and cruelly set out to shame a person.  The Shamer may be the one who is in the wrong–or envious.  Shamers are victimizers. They actively seek to lower or deflate another by undermining their self-worth. Shamers lose intimacy with others while remaining aloof and superior. They lose the beauty of relationships based on mutual respect and dignity. They pay a high price for power and authority.  

A Shamer attempts to make a person feel ashamed of a personal trait that is irrelevant to the issue at hand.  Even though giving lip service that God is the judge, some Shamers are overly critical and judgmental.  Disregarding the fact that we ALL fall short of the glory of God, a Shamer will allude to or point out your shortcomings, mistakes, defects or failures.  A Shamer may cast doubt on your intelligence, integrity, sanity, judgment, morality, spirituality, etc.  A Shamer may be full of contempt, scorn and disdain; or they may sweet-talk and smile at you, while they plunge a knife in your heart and cruelly turn it.  The Shamer’s object is to diminish their victim; then, they can feel better about themselves.  

The opposite of the Shamer’s attitude was expressed by John the Baptist who said, “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must increase”, John 3:30.

Methods of Shame

Statements such as: You are X (unlovable, don’t belong)
threats of abandonment or rejection
keeping secrets
physical and sexual abuse
overly concerned with public image
disgusted looks, frowns, sighs, ignoring
abused by an eyebrow

What Causes Shame?

What causes shame?  Practically anything–IF we let it. However, a source of shame for one person may be a matter of indifference to another.  George Bernard Shaw wrote in Man and Superman: “We live in an atmosphere of shame: we are ashamed of everything that is real about us: ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinions, of our experiences, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins.”  What’s left?  Shame deals with comparison. Comparison turns up inconsistencies. Inconsistencies cause shame. Shame begets shame.

We may feel ashamed for failing to meet the expectations of someone; for failing our own expectations; for our weaknesses; for our less than perfect body; for losing control; for inappropriate reactions; for lack of knowledge, etc., etc.

Healthy and Unhealthy Shame

Shame protects and guards the inner self. Shame can be healthy or unhealthy. Healthy shame protects our relationships with others and guards our faith. Leo Rangell wrote in The Mind of Watergate: “The guardian that protects the core of integrity (shame) makes an objection to the compromise of integrity.”  

Unhealthy Shame: A feeling of inferiority can be generated in most anyone.  Simply set up a “norm” or “average” standard and then show the person where they do not measure up.  Most will feel guilty for not measuring up.  What if the standards or norms are outrageous or impossible?  Does the person deserve the guilt they feel?  Is it the individual’s fault they don’t measure up?  No–the fault lies with the imperfect standard.  When you find yourself feeling inferior or guilty–examine the standard closely.  Does it have a Biblical basis? Does the person measuring your performance have the right to do so?  Who gave the workers the “right” to intrude into, shame and expose your personal life without reprisal? 

Shame and Comparisons

Shame deals with comparison. Comparison turns up inconsistencies. Inconsistencies cause shame. Shame begets shame.  For example, suppose you asked a worker: “Is there any Biblical justification for women not wearing slacks?”  They claim they follow the New Testament teachings; therefore, they have no Biblical basis for enforcing this practice; further, the verse they use as a basis is from the Old Testament.  The worker being questioned knows there is a possibility they might be made ashamed for not having a good answer. Therefore, the question triggers anxiety and the shame-weapon may be turned upon the questioner.  Nietzsche wrote (1937):  “Shame occurs where man feels that he is nothing but a tool in the hands of a will infinitely greater than his own within his separate individuality.”

God did not create a standard person and in some way label that person by saying: “This is it.” He made unique individuals. There is no common man, no standardized, common pattern.  Feelings of inferiority come about because we judge ourselves and measure ourselves, not against our own “norm” or “par,” but against the “norm” of another.  When we do this, we always come out second best.  If we think, believe, and assume that we should measure up to some other person’s “norm,” we may wind up feeling miserable or second-rate and conclude that there is something wrong with us.  It follows that we will feel we are not worthy, that we do not deserve certain things, and that it would be out of place for us to fully express our own thoughts, etc. without apology or without feeling guilty about them.  The miserable feeling comes about from the entirely erroneous idea that “I should be like X.”  In truth, there are no fixed standards common to EVERYONE.  Individuals make up the classification of “everyone” and no two of them are alike.  

The truth is:  You are not inferior; you are not superior; you are just YOU.  You are not in competition with any other personality, simply because there is not another person on the face of the earth like you, or in your particular class. You are an individual. You are unique.  Whether or not you are inferior depends on what and whose norms you measure yourself by.  You might be an inferior pianist, ball player, typist or driver–compared to some–but that does not make you an inferior person.

The Shame Family

Shame is activated in three forms:   

(1) Shame Anxiety; fearing we will shame ourselves; anxious…(future)

(2) Shame in Action: a reaction; the shame has occurred; being made to feel ashamed. (present and past)

(3) Shame Prevention:  as a preventive attitude; taking measures/installing steps so it won’t occur again. (future)

(1) Shame Anxiety and Fear

“I’d rather be dead than face such shame.”

“There are two things which give victory–courage before enemies, and fear of cowardly disgrace with friends.” (Plato, The Laws)

So painfully etched in our minds are the occasions we’ve experienced shame that we fear shame. The fear of shame or disgrace plays a large part in motivating human beings.  To be excessively anxious that we are going to shame ourselves in the present or future is to suffer from Shame Anxiety.  For example, I’m not familiar with the proper protocol for being in the presence of royalty.  So, if I were expecting to meet royalty in the future, I’m certain that I would be anxious that I would commit some huge blunder without being aware of doing so.  We fear we will dishonor ourselves, and be looked upon with contempt.  Anticipation of shame controls and limits behavior.

Face your fears. Fears are usually far worse than what the future really holds in store for you.  What are you risking?  What is the worst thing that could happen in the scenario?  What would you do if the worst happened?  Decide on this! Exactly how would you proceed?  Do you feel at peace with your decision?  If so, proceed with the risk.  You’re prepared.

(2) Shame in Action – Reactions of The Shamed

When the Shamer mentions something that may produce shame, the other quickly closes the door of communication and raises social defenses to exclude him/her. Disappearance is the logical outcome of shame and contempt.

Facial Expression: Obvious indicators of the presence of shame are people hanging their heads or looking “hang-dog,” because it’s difficult to face others feeling that way.  Almost always, the shamed person has difficulty looking at the Shamer and will avoid making eye contact, look away or look down. Some will flush or blush.

Confusion: Confusion of the mind is a basic element of shame. Shame manages to derail both cognition and coordination.  Persons in this condition may lose their “presence of mind” and utter inappropriate remarks. Being very distressed, they may blush and stammer, make awkward movements, and strange expressions. They may suffer a degree of paralysis, become mute or numb emotionally; assume a stony mask expression; or freeze out all feelings. They may conceal, deny or ignore their shame.  Compounding their pain, they are often ashamed of being ashamed, or embarrassed because they are embarrassed. The last thing the shamed person wants to do is to talk about what they are feeling.

Interest is immediately reduced in the subject or person at hand. Shame nearly always diminishes excitement and interest, dampens enthusiasm, and reduces the desire to learn.  Shaming restricts thought and imagination.

(3) Shame Prevention or Avoidance – Anticipation of Shame

Many times the deciding factor is reached by imagining any shame that could result from an action under consideration should it be exposed to others.  Some protective measures for Shame Avoidance when being shamed are: denial, concealment, self-defense, appeasement and counter-attack.  Anonymity also protects against the possibility of shame.

Shame is prevented when we embrace the cultural norms for desired and undesired behavior and by conforming to group standards. Shame can be avoided or reduced by foregoing the acts that provoke it, and by respectfully observing taboos.  If you fear rejection in a situation, project yourself into the future and imagine the rejection actually occurred. What would or could possibly happen then?  How would you feel?  Is possible rejection a risk you care to take?  You do not constantly have to be a people pleaser who is afraid of being rejected or abandoned.  Take your critics lightly!  Tell yourself, “I am beyond being shamed by men.  What you think of me matters SOME, but not much. I will NOT be shamed by your criticism.”

After recovering from an intensely shameful experience, take preventative measures and install some “stops,” so you will not ever suffer that shameful experience again.  Learn all you can from what life deals to you–especially from your painful experiences.

Imagine being “caught” doing certain behaviors in which you would feel ashamed.  Consider them carefully, and accept or reject them for yourself–not because of who they came from (parent, authority figure, worker).  Replace the old rejected messages with beliefs and convictions for which you personally know there is Biblical support.  If you are led by the Holy Spirit, you have the ability to competently make choices and form convictions in line with God’s will.

Extinguishing or Discharging Shame

Scorn and shame are powerful tools that are used to make a person conform; but they are NOT the tools of the righteous

You can take or leave Shame. Accept or reject. Ultimately, it is up to you–whether or not you allow yourself to feel the pain of being ashamed.  Shame cries out for relief. Shame won’t go away by our dreading it, fearing it, hating it or fighting it. It cannot be wished away or willed away through being tough.

IF shame has been accepted, it must be replaced–NOT just removed.  Replace shame with honor and self-respect.  DON NOT take a Shamer’s attempt to shame you personally. They would have done the same to anyone in a threatening situation. It’s best TO REJECT THE SHAME when the attempt is FIRST made  You’re not deserving of false shame–the shame doesn’t belong to you.  Don’t let yourself be hurt and carry a grudge around.

What is the best way to proceed after you’ve been the target of a shame attack? This can’t be emphasized enough:  DON’T take it personally!  They would have said the same thing to ANYONE who asked this threatening question.

OBJECTIVITY: Whenever we “stand” afar off and objectively recognize that a technique to diminish us is being used, it doesn’t seem to sting quite as much.  Be objective and “watch” their technique from the sidelines. 

What are your options?

1.  Ignore the shame attempt, without argument or comment and stick to your question.

2.  Call them to account for their technique. Make them take the responsibility for their attempt to shame you.  

3.  Cause the Shame to backfire; boomerang; turn the tables on the one using it. Reiterate the question. Return the shame attempted on you.  Keep yourself free.  

4. Jokes dissolve humiliation. Gentle ridicule. Good-humored laughter at yourself and your relationship to the other.    

PERFECTION: Don’t be ashamed because you are not perfect.  An individual who is aware of himself and his characteristics (his attributes, as well as flaws, faults, and imperfections) is not ashamed when these are pointed out or criticized, nor will there be an urge to protect by denying or ignoring the reality of the situation.

1 John 1:8-10 states:  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

We are all filthy rags before God. Jesus lived a perfect life in our stead and paid for our imperfections (sins) on the cross for us.  His righteousness is imputed to us.  You should not, even for a second feel as though the Shamer’s attack might be warranted. Don’t decide you’re NOT OK.

RESPECT: It is certain that the shame attack will not work if the shame-weapon used has no effect on you. If it doesn’t bother you…you won’t react by feeling ashamed.  So hang on to your self-respect.  There is a tendency for others not to respect those who have little or no self-respect. You do not deserve the intended shame and have no reason to be ashamed!  It is false shame–not shame you truly deserve.  THEY are the ones who should be ashamed–for stooping to use such a low-down, dirty tactic.  Scorn and shame are powerful tools that are used to make a person conform, but they are NOT the tools of the righteous and they do NOT prove the truth.  You are worthy of respect. God is your judge, not man. It’s up to you whether or not you will be treated with re¬spect.  Others are watching you for cues.   

CERTAINTY: One way to avoid shame is by being certain that you are Right. When you are secure in your beliefs or faith, you won’t be ashamed and can’t be made to feel ashamed.  Being secure within yourself destroys the power of the Shamer.  Reconsider and study the actions that you would feel ashamed for others to see you doing.  Mark the places in your Bible.  Accept or reject them for yourself.  Replace the old rejected messages with your own beliefs and convictions for which you can personally show Biblical support.

Ways to Heal/Eliminate Shame

The Friends and Workers are prejudiced against, often mock and ridicule, and feel superior to those who leave their group. The tendency of some is to lose their sense of self-worth when faced with a Friend or Worker and to feel ashamed. To restore your self-worth, move toward others who validate and appre¬ciate your worth and stand.

Shame begins to heal when it is exposed to others in a safe environment. When we counter our natural desire to hide our shame by letting others reassure us that we will not be abandoned…that we have value.  When we share with someone we trust, who will validate our decision and worth. Move towards others, instead of retreating.

Mourning is a necessary part of healing shame. To put the past away so it stays put away, you must grieve.  Grieve for what you lost that you will never recover. There has been a death or divorce; and you will need to face your losses in order to recover.  Grieve for them individually–lost time, needless suffering, lost youth, hidden beauty, loss of reputation; grieve for all the bad things that will be said about you that you don’t deserve, for whatever it is that hurts or could hurt.  You can’t stop people from thinking and saying what they want; however, you might not hear much of what is said about you.  What you don’t hear–won’t hurt you personally!  Why are you so afraid of what you THINK someone else will think or say about you?  Don’t borrow hurt.  “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.”  Matt 6:34.

If you fear rejection, project yourself into the future. Imagine you have taken the step, come out into the open, been exposed, whatever, and were rejected by some significant others and you are looking back. How would you feel then? Would you be wishing you had chosen differently?  How will you feel when your children are grown and ask you why you chose this way, knowing what you know?  Why did you make them jump through the system’s hoops?  In the end, will you wish you had bowed down and followed the Friends and Workers party line? Or wish you had faced and endured the rejection?  Wished you had taken a stand for Truth and Justice?

A quirk of our emotions is that our feelings lag behind our minds in adjusting to a new mindset or environment.  It took constant repetition to get these messages of deficiency into you.  It takes the same to get them out.  Repetition is convincing.  This time the preaching must be done by you to yourself. Each time you don’t want to do something, and you realize it is because of what someone might think of you–talk yourself UP. Others would talk you DOWN.  

Certain Scriptures are VERY good shame healers.  When your feelings lag behind, the scriptures endorse what your mind knows is true, and what common sense told you should be the case (or was that the Spirit telling you?)  The more Scriptures you find to support your beliefs and rights that you physically locate in your Bible and mark or write down, the less ashamed you will feel. God is on your side. “If God be for us, who can be against us?.” (Romans 8:31)

Don’t overlook or underestimate the power of time–things WILL get better.

By Cherie Kropp