Monsters Under the Bed

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What happens to the individual’s relationships to others

when he resolves to be,

not a mass of conventions, but himself?


- Marjorie Grene


sound mind is, in actuality, a well-run committee. Freud notwithstanding, a healthy psyche is made up of the many aspects of our personality, each arguing reasonably yet passionately from its particular point of view. So, for example, if we are thinking about what to do with a Saturday afternoon, we might be “discussing” the options inside our head with voices that sound like the boss (Get going on cleaning out that garage!), the nutritionist (Let’s go to the farmer’s market for some healthy foods.), the social planner (You ought to have Ron and Sally over for dinner.), the dreamer (Maybe I could try writing a short story.), the coach (Good day for a longer run.) and perhaps the brat (I don’t want to do ANYTHING.) The more distinct and respected each member of our committee is, the healthier we are psychologically. This partitioned personality represents a good design, because all those members – in this case the boss to the brat – provide us with rich brainstorming input and hearty internal discussions with which to generate and evaluate options.

Unfortunately, most of us have an imposter serving on our committee. Often disguised as The Voice of Reason, this committee member is actually a saboteur looking to undermine our self-esteem. This duplicitous character is shame.

There are two points to be made here. The first is that shame is toxic, it is always toxic and it should be eliminated completely from our lives. The second is that, no matter what we have been told, we don’t need shame to make us behave ourselves because that is what guilt is designed for.

Let me define the concepts, because shame is often used synonymously with guilt, but, psychologically and existentially, they couldn’t be more different.

Guilt

Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling that occurs when we have broken one of our own rules. In other words, it is the dismay we experience when we act in a way that doesn’t represent who we are trying to be. If, for example, we believe interrupting is rude, then guilty feelings will occur when we find ourselves butting into someone's side of a conversation.

Guilt is obviously constructive because it reminds us that ignoring our personal values results in an inner distress that urges us to renew our efforts to be a better version of ourselves. The pain of guilt can range from mild disappointment to extreme anguish. We feel guilty if we forget to stop and think before we speak, if we choose not to feed ourselves healthy food, if we indulge in discourteous driving or if we back away from an important challenge. We also feel guilty if we drive over our cat, slap a child, steal from our employer or sleep with someone’s spouse. As I said, guilty feelings can range from gentle to nearly debilitating.

Our job relative to guilt is to first allow the feelings to manifest themselves and then determine what our guilt is trying to teach us. Sometimes guilt is a light warning we can occasionally ignore. (There’s room in your life for a chocolate chip cookie.) If the sense of guilt is strong, however, it is likely an indication that we should reinforce the rule we have broken. If we feel guilty about a pattern of poor eating, we will want to recommit to eating healthily. Or our remorse over a road rage incident tells us we need to work harder to get our impatience under control. Sometimes guilt can feel overwhelming, requiring outside help in both changing our behavior and also forgiving ourselves.

But, the implication of feeling guilty is this: We are each an individual with a well thought through set of values who sometimes makes mistakes. More to the point, our feelings of guilt tell us that we can be trusted to monitor our own behavior and hold ourselves appropriately accountable. Thus, guilt is an internally directed feedback system that reveals our fundamental individual decency.

Shame

Shame, on the other hand, is external feedback that attacks not our behavior but our personhood. Shame on you. Those who originally shamed us weren’t suggesting that we made a mistake and our actions were bad. They were stating that we were bad.

 

Breaking Free of the Shame Trap

- Christine Brautigam Evans

How Good Do We Have to Be?

- Harold S. Kushner

Novels

Folly

- Laurie R. King

The Bluest Eye

- Toni Morrison

 

 

What about people who do really horrible things? Shouldn't we use shame to make them stop?

There are two reasons people do really horrible things: either they are sociopaths or they have been so badly shamed they have become stunted humans. For the former, shame will be ineffective because sociopaths are immune to social pressure...

 

What does that mean – we are bad? In cultural terms, it means that we are not of value to the community. That is not a good state of affairs for us.

Humans are designed to want frantically to belong because, as fairly defenseless mammals, we can only survive if we have the support and resources available in a community. This need to be included, however, results in extreme vulnerability to threatened exile. The humiliation and disgrace experienced when we are shamed serve as harsh reminders that we need the group much more than the group needs us. If we continue along the path we’re on, shame warns us, we will be asked to leave the safety of the group. Shame takes us metaphorically by the shoulders, walks us to the edge of town and says, “See out there? You will be sent out into that wilderness if you don’t behave yourself.” If that happens, we will fail to survive. It is clear, then, why shame is so powerful. On a very primitive, yet very real level, we understand that shameful behavior can lead to very unpleasant outcomes up to and including our death.

A critical point: the threat of exile (death) is made explicitly only in the most abusive families. For most of us, it is an unarticulated threat – sometimes as subtle as a frown or a "tsk" sound. Ironically, the subtlety makes the fear harder to fight, for, like a monster under the bed, its very vagueness connects it more securely to our imagination where terror enlarges it to truly epic proportions. We know we are being threatened, but by what? How do we fight the sense that everyone is disappointed in us?

Shame is a formidable punishment, a dose of social rejection that implies that we deserve to die for our mistakes. Please believe that this is not an overstatement. And because little kids can’t distinguish between trivial mistakes and egregious mistakes, they start to shame themselves for every little thing they get wrong. Instead of learning from their missteps, then, they learn to internalize that voice that tells them that they are no good.

If this describes your childhood, wise and thoughtful guilt will have been replaced on your committee by shame – that cleverly disguised saboteur of self-esteem. You can prove to yourself whether or not this is true for you with a simple experiment. Start paying very close attention to how you talk to yourself. Listen carefully to the tone of voice and the type of words you use to give yourself directions and feedback. Now, picture talking to someone else in the same manner that you talk with yourself. If you cannot imagine speaking to others the way you speak internally to yourself, you will know you are hounded by shame.

We need to learn to be vigilant in observing internalized shaming (without shaming ourselves when we find it!), and replace it with the following thinking: Sometimes we behave badly and hurt ourselves and/or others. We are capable of learning from those mistakes. We learn by reacting emotionally to our mistakes, but not with shame. We must replace shame and the resultant self-loathing with guilt, curiosity about our behavior, and respectful self-talk.

We need to understand that guilt is meant to create in us pride in our ability to self-correct. Shame, on the other hand, always leaves us feeling badly about ourselves and therefore less motivated to try new things. Shame punishes, guilt guides.

Every single article on this website is designed to help you root out shame in all of its clever disguises and kick it out of your head. There is no room on our committee for such a wicked, wicked impostor.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.