In this video, I discuss the concept of basic shame and how it shows up in psychotherapy.
[NOTE: Shame and its toxic effects are a central theme of my website; all articles related to this topic can be found under the heading Shame/Narcissism in the category menu to the right. This gateway post contains basic information about the roots of shame in early emotional trauma. For a case illustration of shame and its effects upon relationships, you might want to read my post about toxic shame avoidance, using the film 'Avatar' as a metaphor. To learn more about core defenses against shame -- narcissism, blaming and contempt -- click here. I've also written about normal or everyday shame and the process of healing shame.]
When most people use the word shame, they usually mean to describe an experience that comes up because of outside influences — our parents’ disapproval or the opinion of society-at-large, for example. If I do poorly on a test or my business fails, I might not want anyone else to know because I’m afraid they’ll think less of me. Shame also arises when we violate our own internal values, but we’ve usually absorbed them from our families and the world around us.
Over my years of psychotherapy practice, I’ve come to understand that there’s another kind of shame, one in many ways distinct from the type described above. I refer to it as basic shame and I’ll be using that phrase repeatedly on this site. Here’s my basic shame definition.
When things go very wrong in childhood, for whatever reason — an alcoholic parent, bitter divorce, mental illness in those around you, a mother with bipolar or manic-depressive issues or a father with highly narcissistic behavior — it almost always damages you at your roots and deforms you psychically, just like a birth defect or physical handicap. You may feel fundamentally afraid and insecure in the world. You might find it impossible to love and trust other people. You could be prone to violent emotional outbursts or struggle with an addiction yourself. If the environment is toxic, we’re almost always damaged by it in lasting ways. With my clients, I often talk about mental scars or psychological handicaps. They impose limitations and have to be taken into account just as you would a physical handicap.
It is the awareness of being damaged, often an unconscious awareness, that I refer to as basic shame. It is intrinsic and internal, though we may confuse it with the outside world: those of us who are troubled by basic shame dread being seen and usually fear that others will look down upon us. We feel as if we are “ugly” or “deformed”. We may be burdened by a feeling of self-hatred throughout our lives.
This concept of basic shame is akin to John Bradshaw’s ideas about toxic shame, although he tends to focus on shaming influences that come from the environment; on child abuse and molestation, as well as invasive experiences that overwhelm the immature ego. While I agree that these influences produce core feelings of shame, I believe that basic shame results from a much broader spectrum of experiences. It tends to accompany all other mental disorders; it embodies the awareness that our development went amiss in childhood, and that as a result, we have grown up “deformed” or “handicapped”.
The feeling that you’re damaged and fundamentally different from other people may become so painful, so unbearable that you have to disown it: you may project it outside (blame) or finds ways to deny it (narcissism). I’ve come to see basic shame as a central problem for almost everyone who has ever entered my practice, and in this later post, I discuss the characteristic defenses against it.
Finding Your Own Way
One way to tap into your own shame is to think about an experience where you felt deeply embarrassed, possibly humiliated in public. You may have felt a hot, searing sensation at the time. What caused you to feel that way? What shameful “fact” do you feel that this experience revealed to others? It maybe be something you didn’t feel in the moment but only later, when reviewing what happened.
My particular defense against basic shame (or one of them!) is to take refuge in the idea that I’m somehow very special. If I’m not careful or if I’ve had too much to drink, I may on occasion wind up talking as if I’m doing something incredibly creative, or I’m especially talented: a great cook, musician, writer, etc. You get the picture. Whenever I find myself talking this way, a searing sense of humiliation comes over me — shame at the egotistical way I’m talking, and shame for my underlying damage.
How do you defend against shame? Chances are you’re either a blamer or a narcissist and if you take an honest look, you might see your defenses in action. What about your friends and family? It will be easier to spot their defenses than you’re own, of course.