It is said that an animal experiencing the neuro-equivalent of shame, is more likely to be put on the edge of the herd and thus be more vulnerable to being attacked by the wild animals, keeping the others safe. It is sacrificed for the sake of the healthier herd members.
Similarly, with we humans, one of our greatest fears is being cast out of our ‘tribe’ – our families, societies and communities. Traditionally this meant isolation, humiliation and usually death. This has such a powerful, primal grip on us that we will do just about anything to keep that inclusion; we will trade much to maintain that sense of security of being part of our ‘tribe’.
When an individual has a heavy dose of ‘core shame’ they harbour an even greater fear of being perceived as unworthy and, thus, vulnerable to being cast out. This primal fear contributes to why core shame has such an uncomfortable visceral feel to it, propelling us to do much to cover it over and distract ourselves from it.
The origins of core shame
No baby is born with shame; it is instilled later, though likely we all bring in our different predilections to this dynamic. During our very impressionable formative years, the messages conveyed by our early care-givers are incorporated into the self. We do not know who we are until it is reflected back to us, and our developing self-assessment can be very challenging if that reflection is not positive. Family and ancestral influences will also have a significant bearing on one’s susceptibility to shame.
When we are little and relatively egocentric, any significant trauma experienced related to the behaviour of others, is often interpreted as being our fault. Something is wrong with us. This natural inclination for the young infant or child to blame themselves, rather than their care-givers, is because awareness of the significant faults of the care-givers, upon whom they are so reliant for their survival, is perceived as life-threatening and is too potent a stress for the helpless young one to endure. So, blame goes inwards, regardless of the circumstances, and this can develop into core shame. A survival ploy in the short-term but very destructive to the individual in the long term.
If one is deemed the black sheep, the one designated as odd, different or flawed within their family or other significant groups, and the one upon whom the other members project out their own unaddressed and unowned aspects and issues, they might be more susceptible to experiencing ‘core shame’. In later life, if this remains unhealed, this dynamic can contribute one to becoming the obsequious people pleaser or the renegade rebel.
If the messages received were consistently harsh and not of love and kindness, that external voice becomes the internal voice and can insidiously develop into the critical, over-bearing superego. The ‘superego’ (a term coined by Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud) incorporates the morals and values of family and society that are learned during the early, formative years of life. Aided by punishment or approval, the child internalises these values. The superego defines who we are, or rather, who we should be and, particularly, how we might be falling short of that ideal.
Core shame and the ‘superego’
The superego is designed to safeguard our survival and belonging; however, it can easily become over-zealous in its role and become the harsh tyrant rather than the protector. In adult life, it can become that controlling, critical voice that prevents the expansion of the individual beyond the sometimes-suffocating confines of societal norms. This can become very destructive to individuation and growth in adulthood. It is very difficult to expand and express our true selves when we are dominated by shame.
Whereas guilt is regret for what one has done, core shame is a feeling of inherent wrongness of the very self. Core shame can be utterly overwhelming and life can become an ongoing hiding of, and apology for, the self. Essentially it is a rejection of the self or of aspects that are deemed unacceptable and this can cause a split in the psyche.
When our being is permeated with shame, we often apologise for who we are, for our very existence. We cast ourselves lower than others, inviting more shame. Underlying this are core beliefs such as “I am not enough”, “I will not be accepted as I am” and so on. As one cannot get away from the self, often this sense of inherent wrongness is suppressed and various distractions and addictions might be employed to dim one’s awareness of it.
How core shame leads to perfectionism and the Over-Responsible adult
This fear of rejection from society, usually unconscious, might have one try hard to mould themself into what they believe is an acceptable version that might maintain their belonging. If we have a deep sense of shame, we might endeavour to compensate in an attempt to display our ‘worth’ to society.
This is where ‘perfectionism’ (distinct from just wanting to do things well) comes in, where we raise the bar to a humanly impossible level in an endeavour to compensate for that sense of being flawed within. The bar is often set to an unachievable level, thus inviting more of a sense of failure and inadequacy – and thus, more shame. Our achievement oriented, look-at-me society, that values what we do and own and how we look, rather than our essential beingness, drives this dynamic.
Often that sense of shame propels one to become the over-responsible adult as a compensation for an inner sense of inadequacy. The over-responsible adult, as opposed to the mature, appropriately responsible adult, will have one feel very over-burdened by responsibilities that they feel they really cannot live up to. Associated with this is often the seeking of approval and acknowledgement from others, which further diminishes personal power.
Self-punishment as a compensation for core shame
Guilt and shame call for punishment and one might choose to punish oneself as a trade-off for being punished by others. This pattern, aided by a significant sense of unworthiness and low self-esteem, becomes a vicious cycle of unconsciously sabotaging one’s success and happiness. Associated with this is a profound lack of entitlement. This, of course, is all an unconscious process. No-one is consciously trying to punish themselves (or very few!).
Our self-judgements will have us push away the parts of ourselves that we are judging. Rejecting those parts will never bring about resolution but rather relegate them to the shadow, from where they continue their deleterious effects. Alternatively, we will project our un-owned parts onto others and life itself.
Most of us visit these levels at times of course but experiencing them as temporary mental/emotional states is very different to them being an enduring ‘state of being’ – to which one has long ago become consciously, or more so unconsciously, identified with.
When those self-defeating states remain entrenched, they build upon themselves and potentially attract all sorts of ‘energies’ that enhance them and strengthen their grip. The human psyche, particularly when in a vulnerable state, can be subject to unhealthy influences and one needs to have some awareness and vigilance regarding this process.
Why core shame affects your health
Sustained shame is not good for one’s health; in fact, it is illness inducing. Research has indicated that shame, particularly, induces a rise in inflammatory markers (IL-6, TNF alpha), compared to general affective states, including guilt. We know that chronic inflammation is associated with just about any chronic disease state known to mankind, as well as with depression. Though most of us might dip into shame at times, it is clearly detrimental, physically and psychologically, when embedded.
The good news is that studies have also demonstrated that when emotional expression is associated with cognitive processing of the experience, it can lead to positive immunological effects, i.e., when we can examine, process and integrate our shame, it will have less harmful effects. Studies have also shown that in cultures that have more acceptance of these emotions, they will less likely have deleterious outcomes.
Is there an antidote to core shame?
So, what is the antidote to shame? How do we integrate and heal it? It starts with facing and acknowledging the problem. We cannot deal with what we do not acknowledge.
This involves recognising the associated mental/emotional/behavioural patterns such as perfectionism, over-responsibility, avoidance, critical inner voice, chronic tension, lack of personal wellbeing, ill-health and so on and knowing that all of these traits are our being’s way of trying to cope with or compensate for that deep sense of shame.
Compassion for self is the quality to employ in addressing one’s core shame. Compassion is solution oriented and worlds away from pity, which is disempowering and looks down upon the subject of its gaze. Studies have also demonstrated that self-compassion will generate a reduction in inflammatory biomarkers such as IL-6, and is thus protective against stress-induced inflammation and inflammation related disease.
When (so-called) negative emotions are considered, in their temporary state, to be acceptable and a part of normal life (i.e., nothing to be ashamed of), they will have less adverse effects. Acceptance, rather than denial, suppression or the covering over or projecting out of negative emotions, invites a healthier outcome. Acceptance does not preclude efforts to change them; in fact, the paradox is that acceptance is the point of change.
Using intention and determination to turn the ship around
Of course, When negative emotions, such as shame, are entrenched as a way of being, it might take some considerable intention and determination to bring them out of the shadows to a place of integration and healing. We do need to be firm with the critical, judging, rejecting parts of ourselves but in a compassionate way. We need to enfold the rejected parts into the whole, ideally with some awareness that this whole dynamic comes from a wounded place, often started in early childhood, and is maintained out of a redundant survival habit.
With healthy assertion and enough determination and energy, we need to put a firm hand up to the self-critical, over-demanding shame-inspired inner voice. We need to say a firm ‘No!’ to the mental games. Here we need to be careful that the critical superego is not employed in this process as it will just be furthering what we are trying to be rid of.
As we are essentially energetic beings, via electromagnetics we are all broadcasting our inner state, positive or negative; and others will pick up on this energy and respond accordingly. And when we can say a firm “No!” to the criticism and demands of our own superego, we can also better assert ourselves with others. When we learn to turn compassion, healthy acceptance and respect towards ourselves, we will also invite the same, without need, from others.
Shame is a heavy, dense state, so bringing some lightness into the fray is helpful. Recognising its subtle and not so subtle whispers and countering them with more self-affirming and uplifting messages can divert that energy before it takes hold. This must become a discipline and a healthy habit.
Why awareness and mindfulness are critical to dissolve the toxic habit
Awareness and a mindfulness approach is the key. If the whole dynamic remains in the shadows, we continue to be controlled by its unconscious positioning. Its grip will loosen (tenacious though it is!) by laying it on the table to consciously observe it. We use the ‘observer self’ to observe, with compassion, the mental and emotional antics of the ego self and firmly and persistently put a stop to this aspect of our psyche’s critical control.
If we have an unconscious ego identity with the program, we are less likely to relinquish it as that would be like annihilating the very self. We are less controlled by what we can objectively examine and not identify with.
Acceptance of those aspects of ourselves that we do not celebrate is one of the biggest challenges. When we hone that mature, wiser observer-self, it can entrain those more immature, self-defeating aspects to itself. Like the kindly, though firm parent, it unconditionally accepts and guides those more aberrant aspects and knows to call out when enough is enough.
Essentially, resolving the core shame is a journey of self-love and self-empowerment. This is very different to self-absorption, which is more likely to be the case when one is in the grips of core shame. Forgiving our humanness, while intending healthier, more life-affirming states, is clearly beneficial. Specific or in-depth therapies are beyond the scope of this article and it is advised that anyone who is struggling in this or similar areas gets appropriate professional help. Some people might need guidance in dealing specifically with related past, unresolved traumas.