Have You No Shame!?!

by Peter Milhado PHD on January 21, 2014

shame“Have you no shame?”  Where does this admonition come from?  It is usually directed at someone who goes public with their sexuality, greed, gluttony, relentless need for attention etc.  We diagnose and identify sociopaths by their inability to feel guilt as well as their incapacity for shame in many areas of their lives.  Like all human emotions, guilt and shame have a purpose and at their most virtuous serve the growth of the individual and maintain community.  Guilt and shame can guide us to our better selves and support the group on whom we are ultimately dependent for our survival. Shame requires for its effectiveness a respect for community.  However, when these emotions are poisoned and used to control and punish they cause needless and great human suffering.

When we act in a way that goes against our values like lying, cheating, or pretending, we feel guilt.  Guilt is a painful emotion, and reminds us to behave in a manner that agrees with our own personal code of honor.  Guilt includes anxiety about punishment for moral transgression and is one of the most inner directed of emotions.  Shame, on the other hand, includes the element of exposure… it requires an audience, even if that audience is only in our imagination.  In guilt we dread the punishment that might follow a particular act, in shame we dread the exposure itself.  There is a major difference between feeling guilty about what I did and feeling ashamed of whom I am.  In guilt I can still feel like a worthwhile human being who’s done a bad thing.  The worst of shame is that my total self can be unacceptable, (“I am bad”)… it can poison my whole being.  With shame often comes the expectation of abandonment and loss of love, it’s an overwhelming experience.

In adulthood, despair, loneliness, depression etc. often are related to the fact that something had gone terribly wrong early in life when the self was beginning to develop.  In early childhood, parents carry the archetype of the divine, which has awesome power and responsibility.  If parents, because of their own woundedness or narcissism, cannot see the true nature of their child, they cause great injury.  If we’re not appreciated for who we are, we end up with a self that is unacceptable.  When we’re either not seen or disapproved of we experience shame resulting in a self-image of feeling ugly, unwanted, unworthy, unlovable etc.

Shaming is one of the most dangerous child rearing practices to the child’s self-esteem.  “What a fool you are!”  “Everyone knows you can’t do anything right!”  “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”  These attacks, often delivered under the guise of wanting to do ‘what’s best’ for the child end up in the child’s self-loathing and self-contempt.  “I am stupid!”  “I can’t do anything right!”  “I’m bad” When shaming parents continuously turn away, withdraw love and ridicule they express contempt for the child which leads to the child forever feeling small, inadequate and unworthy.

Psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp said his mother often told him, ‘I love you but I don’t like you.’  This implied that his mother loved him ‘because she was a good mother’, but that she didn’t like him because he was an unsatisfactory child.  The message was ‘surely no one but my mother would have put up with me’ and led to a shame based personality, which he worked long on to repair.

If we’re not accepted for who we are as children, we may lead a life looking for approval by others hoping of finding a self that is finally validated.  Some approach the world with a ‘compliant self’ which eventually leads to depression and loss of inner authority.  They have to be ‘nice and loving’ to everybody-it’s a life of pretense and leads to meaninglessness and loss of soul.  Others are no longer able to carry the burden of overwhelming shame and secretly decide to misbehave.  The natural self hides behind spiteful shamelessness.  Many patients enter therapy because of severely limited self-acceptance.  If therapy works and they feel safe, they will slowly face the hidden aspects of themselves.  With greater self-understanding comes greater self-acceptance.  Greater self-acceptance leads to a richer and more soulful life.  Fooling others always consumes energy and limits freedom. (Sheldon Kopp)

One for all and all for one!

Peter Milhado © 2013

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