Shyness and Self-Hatred

Early in my career, when clients would talk about intense forms of self-criticism or self-loathing, I used to make interpretations that focused on the savage and perfectionistic superego. Over time, I’d help them develop the mental ability to withstand this savagery and protect themselves from it. Later, as I described in this earlier post, I began to think more about learning from experience and facing our actual faults: the ways that brutal attacks on the self can represent a refusal to accept who we really are, with all our warts and limitations, which then leads to a cycle of crime and punishment where we repeatedly atone for our “sins” but learn nothing about what drives them. I still believe both of these perspectives have value.

Lately, however, as I’ve begun to focus more on shame and the defenses against it, I’ve come to see that self-hatred is a kind of defense in itself. Especially as I delve deeper into the work of Sylvan Tomkins and Donald Nathanson, I’m coming to understand how both shyness and self-hatred are strategies for coping with the shame that comes from rejection. They’re both examples of what Tompkins calls the “Attack Self” script for managing the painful experience of shame. From a lay perspective, for readers who aren’t familiar with affect theory, this might seem counter-intuitive but bear with me. I need to lay a little groundwork.

Because we’re social animals, we want more than anything else to belong, to feel connected to and accepted by other people in our tribe or pack — to have friends and lovers, to be part of a family, etc. Finding ourselves rejected in the face of such longing, one of the most painful experiences we humans can know, causes us to feel shame; the earliest version of this thwarted longing to connect — failed attachment in the mother-infant relationship during the first two years of life — produces an especially severe sense of inner defect that I refer to as basic or core shame. As described in a post on my blog at Psychology Today, basic shame can thus be seen as the result of unrequited love.

For people afflicted with basic shame, avoiding the experience of vulnerability and rejection becomes the central focus of their lives. To feel rejected anew puts them in contact with the excruciating experience of being defective or “ugly” at their core; to protect themselves from this pain, they develop strategies to prevent rejection from occurring. Shyness and self-hatred are two such strategies, but there are others, as well: developing an idealized false self (narcissism) or projecting the defect into others and loathing it there (contempt).

One particularly powerful way to avoid the experience of shame is total isolation: the loner with virtually no contact makes rejection impossible, and thus will never feel the shame that goes along with it. Shy people, on the other hand, may participate in different social groups but remain more or less “invisible” within them. They keep their true selves hidden in order to avoid rejection: because nothing essential is revealed, no one can reject them. This is the price they pay for “belonging,” although it’s a very limited type of membership. In my experience, there’s “more than meets the eye” with shy people: their mild exterior often conceals intense feelings of competitiveness, arrogance and contempt for others — emotions far too “dangerous” to reveal because they might provoke rejection.

Self-hatred as a defensive strategy works in two ways. First of all, the person “takes control” of the experience by rejecting himself first. One visitor to the site put it this way: “You can’t hurt me anywhere near as much as I can hurt myself.” What the person wants to avoid most of all is sudden, unexpected rejection in the face of a longing to connect; in order to minimize or prevent that experience, the person takes control of it: Your rejection has no effect because I hate and reject myself already. Secondarily, self-hatred reinforces the urge to avoid exposure and vulnerability, discouraging the person from taking risks.

Dylan, a shy and extremely sensitive client in my practice, works in an office dominated by several extroverts. Although Dylan comes across as a bit aloof, he secretly longs to participate but keeps himself from doing so with an abusive internal monologue that constantly insists nobody would be interested in what he has to say. As a young boy, Dylan was bullied and suffered deeply from it. His shyness developed as a self-protective strategy: by remaining invisible, he hoped to avoid drawing attention to himself and thus further rejection and cruelty. In his later teens and early 20s, he took refuge in a “cool” sort of indifference, but he has lately comes to see that it masks a powerful longing to connect.

Several weeks ago, he went to visit a group of friends who still live in the city where he’d attended college, eagerly anticipating a reunion with his best buddy from that era. Dylan’s enthusiasm was met by the pointed indifference of his friend; the sense of rejection he felt in the face of his openness and vulnerability was unbearable, sending him into a week-long bout of debilitating self-hatred. Although it might at first seem that this type of self-hatred is only adding fuel to the fire, it actually exemplifies the two defensive maneuvers I described: (1) he takes control of the experience of rejection by doing it himself; and (2) self-hatred reinforces the message that it’s far too dangerous to risk vulnerability and additional shame.

This newer view of self-hatred is enabling me to help several current clients to cope in more effective ways with their underlying shame, to tolerable vulnerability and risk more easily and thus to initiate more authentic contact with other people, beginning with the psychotherapy relationship. Psychotherapy provides an atmosphere where vulnerability can gradually be risked as trust develops. Over time, clients learn to face the fear of shame and rejection, relinquishing defensive tactics such as extreme shyness or self-hatred. In this way, it provides a kind of healing that makes shame avoidance less dominant and enables them to connect with and reveal themselves to other people who matter to them — the most important need felt by all human beings.

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My interview with Deb Scott tomorrow (Monday, December 10) will be featured in the Staff Picks section on the home page of BlogTalkRadio, beginning at noon. We’ll be discussing my new book so have a listen when you get a chance!

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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91 comments

    I respect your expertise in these matters, Dr. Burgo, but I feel for some reason (maybe just defensive) that you are wielding shame as something of a blunt instrument. The term “shame” throws a very wide semantic net that is bound to catch up both those responses that apply to a particular situation and those that do not. A word with so many emotional connotations seems a bit dangerous, especially to those of us who struggle to understand ourselves. I am thankful that my therapist avoids what, with due respect, I feel is a reductionist way of looking at complex maladaptive responses to loss, injury, absence, betrayal, and scarcity, among other experiences.

    Your post reminded me for some reason of Cesar Millan (aka “the dog whisperer), who reduces most dog problems to the need for a pack leader. I have seen him in person, and have concluded that it is in fact his relationship with a troubled or troublesome dog that works; when owners try it at home, it often doesn’t, but it leads them to believe that there is a simple fix and that if they just keep at it (poking and hissing at their dog, for example), their dog will miraculously respond as they want. Having spent three years of twice weekly agility training to deal with my dog’s anxiety issues, I have come to see that everything rests on the same kind of therapeutic alliance that I am building in my weekly psychotherapy sessions. I know a lot of people hate comparisons between humans and dogs, but, at least for me, there is a lot to be learned from such comparisons. In my training, I see dogs with all kinds of issues, no two of them alike. Each is a unique combination of breed traits, individual temperament, and environmental responses. The ongoing development of the relationship between trainer and dog slowly rights their maladaptive behaviors and allows them gradually to give up their mindless defences and enjoy the dog park. Just like us!

    How much do you really get your clients to face their shame, and how much does the therapeutic alliance between you and them provide a safe, nurturing relationship in which they can slowly let down their guard? I ask this, too, in light of my feelings about the WDIDT forum. I have read your book, but I didn’t make it past ch. 1 in the forum. The pace is simply too fast; identifying and trying to dismantle defenses on a weekly schedule feels reckless to me. As I told my therapist after a lacerating session last week, “I have my own wisdom about myself.” Yes, a lot of that is made up of defenses, but they allow me to function in the world. As they come down (or in my case melt, as I see them as a fortress of ice that surrounds me), maybe life will become more “alive” for me. That’s the plan, at least. But I am beyond grateful for my therapist’s reassurances that there is no timetable, no schedule, no external standard that I have to meet in my self-examination, and that he will not further impair my damaged self-agency by making me see things his way. And that because shame is so hard to bear, we won’t talk about it until I am ready.

    Finally, I have to mention Jean Knox’s Self-Agency and Psychotherapy, which I mentioned in an earlier post. It examines the neurobiology of attachment gone wrong (including the still-face experiments) and the impact on self-agency. While her book looks at a lot of the same responses that could be called shame, the word itself does not appear. And that, for me—and maybe defensively—is a relief.

    “Yes, a lot of that is made up of defenses, but they allow me to function in the world. As they come down (or in my case melt, as I see them as a fortress of ice that surrounds me), maybe life will become more “alive” for me. That’s the plan, at least. But I am beyond grateful for my therapist’s reassurances that there is no timetable, no schedule, no external standard that I have to meet in my self-examination, and that he will not further impair my damaged self-agency by making me see things his way. And that because shame is so hard to bear, we won’t talk about it until I am ready.”

    sioux, I think what you describe may be the reason that some therapists want to lay a foundation of skills training, *before* delving into things like shame and trauma.

    The older therapeutic notion seems to have been that you just dig this stuff up and things will sort themselves out and heal. But maybe we need a framework to actually *handle* the stuff that gets dug up, first.

    Absolutely. Digging it up is part of the process but it’s gotta be ‘dial before you dig’

    If you’re not familiar, it’s a term in Oz that construction workers use, call the council/energy company to check if there are wires underground, or a big water pipe, one can kill you, the other is generally devastating.

    Psychology equivalent, get a map of the person’s mental landscape. What landmarks, potential hazards, what structures are supported. Then ask the landowner (client) if it’s okay to dig on their territory.

    Dial…then dig.

    I would say over the course of my life, I’ve moved from being an introvert to more of an extrovert at this point in my life.

    So how does a person come to break out of this cycle of tightly managing and controlling their ever-shrinking world, alternated with brave forays out into the larger and more dangerous world – followed by pain which kicks in the whole preemptive self-rejection thing all over again? I can totally see myself reacting as Dylan did. What would a healthier Dylan have told himself about what happened? And how does he GET healthier? I imagine that in talking with you he felt relieved and less isolated. How does that positive experience transfer over into real life when therapy has ended?

    I’m reading your book and working through it. I journal. And I’m in therapy. I’d like to be better today. If not yesterday. Your article here so clearly describes the kind of pain I’m dealing with:

    “What the person wants to avoid most of all is sudden, unexpected rejection in the face of a longing to connect; in order to minimize or prevent that experience, the person takes control of it: Your rejection has no effect because I hate and reject myself already. Secondarily, self-hatred reinforces the urge to avoid exposure and vulnerability, discouraging the person from taking risks.” Nails it.

    How much does motivation play a role in getting “better”? Or is that mostly something that happens slowly and over time in the context of a safe relationship? I’ve learned a lot by reading on your site here, and it’s helped me many times when I’ve wondered how well therapy is working and if it is worth it when I can’t quantify what exactly is happening. But the experience of learning to put my real self out there in a safe relationship (admittedly one-sided) does feel good – and it makes me want to find ways to “initiate authentic contact” in other relationships too. Not sure I get how this learning to “face the fear of shame and rejection” thing happens though. Maybe just keep showing up each week??

    Grandmother, yes I do think showing up week after week will make a different. The experience of revealing yourself in that relationship and not meeting with rejection should gradually help you to feel safer in initiating more authentic contact. I also think it’s crucial to choose well about when to reveal yourself. It would be a mistake to do so with someone who projects a fairly idealized self-image and appears to have it all together. Those people routinely project their shame into others in order to avoid it within themselves. Find someone who will understand the experience of shame and how it locks us up.

    “I also think it’s crucial to choose well about when to reveal yourself. It would be a mistake to do so with someone who projects a fairly idealized self-image and appears to have it all together. Those people routinely project their shame into others in order to avoid it within themselves. Find someone who will understand the experience of shame and how it locks us up.”

    Very true, so true. This is why I feel like I have to wear a mask when I’m ‘out in the world’.

    I am almost 52 and have suffered from all of things that seem to comprise a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis. While I abhor diagnoses because of their tendency to hyper-focus on them and invariably result in the person believing that they are “sick” or damaged goods (thus making it more difficult to “get on” with life and move forward), I use it here only to describe those things that I have had to deal with in my life.

    I came from an extremely violent home and was shamed regularly through anger and violence towards and around me. Needless to say, anxiety and depression, along with a host of social problems defined me for most of my life. I tried psychotropics for a period of time beginning in my late 20’s and following along with secular counseling. I discovered that this entire process made life far more difficult for me and did not resolve my issues (the meds were especially harmful and only resulted in needed more of something else).

    I believe that my faith in Christ has been the key to my healing from all of the emotional ills that once plagued me. Through Christ I have found forgiveness and learned to forgive; I have been able to turn away from self-focus and become more other-focused; and I have learned to take responsibility for my own choices and to live with the consequences of those choices in a healthy manner. Most importantly, discovering that we serve a faithful and sovereign God who cares only for our good, I am set free from believing in the profound nature of any “mistakes” I believe that I have made. My faith has also led me to seek out a classical homeopath who has treated me for many years and there is no question in my mind that it is God who has allowed me to heal and live in freedom from the guilt and shame that so controlled me.

    Aha, on the projecting shame on others. Oddly, I found your blog when searching for how to deflect shame that others try to put on you.

    I’ve learned from Brene Brown (interview w/Oprah on 6 types of people not to share your shame with) not to tell certain people about your shame, because their reaction can intensify it. Further, I’ve extrapolated her message to mean, 6 types of people not to share personal info with.

    Any idea on how to deflect unsolicited shame? One response I have is “I’ll take that comment into consideration”, but it sounds a bit snarky to me and it doesn’t fit all situations.

    Now I understand why I keep thinking about my mistakes in social situations like, for example, tripping over something, farting too loud in a public bathroom, suddenly choking on my own saliva during an exam (happened years ago), mispronouncing a word, etc. It’s a way to scare me into avoiding a similar situation in the future!
    I never even identified going over and over my mistakes as self-hatred and thought that this incessant inner dialogue was the perfectionist in me trying to learn from my mistakes. Now that I realise this inner dialogue is self-hatred I can finally start fighting it.
    I think I may have even projected this self-hatred onto other people around me, making me feel they hate me thus me rejecting them for feeling they hate me then maybe them rejecting me because I rejected them, adding more fuel to the fire.

    Someone once told me that if all it takes for another to end a relationship with you is one mess-up, the relationship is not worth having. Avoid the perfectionist, judging types like the plague.

    Honestly, I find this assumption that all shy or quiet people are self-loathing to be really inaccurate. I’m an introverted person (I wouldn’t say I’m shy but I don’t talk much) and during conversations with others I often find myself daydreaming or struggling to pay attention, which is kind of embarrassing (I don’t have ADD). Because I don’t talk much, I’m sometimes asked, “Why are you being shy?” To which I secretly want to respond “because you’re a dull moron” but that’s not polite, so I have to giggle and put on the nice quiet girl act to appease the person. Weirdly enough I’m good at public speaking though.

    Btw I ordered a copy of your book 2 weeks ago but it hasn’t come yet!

    I think we need to distinguish shyness from being quiet or introverted. According to Merriam-Webster, the first definition of shy is “easily frightened.” I don’t think that all quiet or introverted people are afraid, but when fear is involved (fear of making a mistake, fear of looking foolish, fear of being judged or rejected, etc.), then it’s not merely a different character style, an alternative to extroversion. So yes, I think that all shy people (those easily frightened) fit this description.

    While I do not think underlying self-hatred may always lie at the heart of shyness, I do think it may indeed serve as a survival mechanism. As I think of some small children who would be “slow to warm up” when they first arrive and later are as lively as can be, I think it is good to test the waters before putting oneself out there. I used to be painfully shy to the point where I could hardly move my lips to make conversation with another person. However, I could act in classroom plays, give speeches or both the oratory and theatrical variety. And control did have a lot to do with it as you are prepared and it is scripted. I have found that it not too unusual for introverts to do better in public performance than in isolation. I am not nearly as shy I was although there are certain dynamics where it manifest itself. I coped in 8th grade by being a loner although students were nice to me. I did attend a slumber party towards the end of the year and had a good time. It is ironic that I am social now but limited by my condition in my ability to go places. Don’t feel you need to analyze this Dr. Burgo unless you want to do so. I am open if you want to do so. I only bought and purchased one book so far and my debt goes much further than that small purchase and other ways that I hope to repay you. So I feel guilty commenting here if it makes extra work for you.

    What I think is important in what you say is the description “painfully shy.” That’s the condition I’m talking about, not introversion or a temperament that prefers quiet and solitude.

    did not make clear that I was not painfully shy until I switches schools in the 8th grade although nothing bad happened when changing schools other than being new and not knowing the people who in some cases had gone to school together for 8 years(two other new students that year).

    While there may be a portion of shy adults who have turned to shyness as a defense against shame, I think conceptualizing shyness as a defense ignores the research on temperament, particularly Jerome Kagan’s work on the Inhibited Child and the physiological differences noted among high reactive infants who become extremely shy preschoolers. People are wired differently from birth. The attachment piece might be relevant if the infant and mother are not a particularly good temperamental match, but even with secure attachment, shy people can grow up believing there is something fundamentally wrong with them because they are not as gregarious as others. Society values extravert traits so much more than introvert traits. Susan Cain makes a compelling argument for the value of introverts in “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”.

    Like other readers, you are confusing introversion with shyness. A preference for quiet and solitary pursuits is disposition; fear of exposure is not.

    Thanks for the important distinction between being painfully shy and introversion or someone who prefers solitude. Introverted people do tend to make good scholars from what I hear so it may serve a very useful. However, they may or may not be shy.

    Hm. Agree there is a type of self hatred/self destruction that is defensive. Mine goes ‘If I destroy myself better than you destroyed me, then I win’. One-upmanship I suppose is defensive at it’s core. But there is also a shame and self hatred that is of a different nature, I think. Not one that is preemptive but one that is responsive. Assigned and assumed. In other words, no one else would take upon themselves any responsibility, blame, shame, or feeling – so it all got deflected back on me. Unable to make it stick to any existing person involved, and unable to bear it myself, I made somebody new to take it all. The hatred she feels for me for dumping all the pain on her, gives a different meaning to ‘self’ hatred all together. Then there’s someone else who takes the shame. I respectfully disagree that all people are desperate for a connection with someone. Some want nothing to do with any other person, not so much because of defensive shame as to not be found out, seen and eliminated. Then there’s those who will latch on to a ‘relationship’, not even caring if it’s real, just for chance number 2739 that THIS one, in all it’s fairytaleness, might not hurt. POOF! It just sucks when you have both those people in you at the same time. Hoppin down the bunny trail. (Warning: White rabbit. Do not follow.)

    This is great. I’m currently reading Andrew Morrison’s Shame: The Underside of Narcissism. It’s a great little compilation of a lot of the great thinkers of psychology’s views on shame. That and John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You are great resources, and I think would convert anyone who doubts how essential an understanding of shame is when evaluating human behaviour.

    I just bought you book Joseph. Will I need some kind of code from one of the pages in order to join the discussion group? I haven’t read the book yet, it’s next on my queue. Thanks.

    To join the discussion group, click on the “Forum” tab on the menu then register. I have to then assign you to the discussion group before you can participate and I’ll send you an email once I’ve done so.

    After reading many of your postings albeit tacitly so far, I have a question for you. Don’t worry, not a personal question. The logic of your thinking would converge upon the conclusion that, psycho dynamic theory if applied from all quarters could totalise human subjectivity. Do you believe this to be true. If not, what is left of the human subject beyond a psycho dynamic perspective, and is it so little that psycho dynamic theory is worthy of valorization as a way of understanding the human subject in your mind? I read your book and understand your coordinates within the field. What would you advise I read next to widen this constellation of knowledge?

    “The logic of your thinking would converge upon the conclusion that, psycho dynamic theory if applied from all quarters could totalise human subjectivity.”

    I don’t understand what this means.

    I’m sure you know Adam, that this reading of therapy, is a response from the Frankfurt School who looked to Lacan re-reading Freud. Critics of Freud wondered if the old man did indeed only see us human beings as a machine, a collection of drives. Prompting the contemporary question (not so contemporary, as you almost quote Benjamin verbatim from circa.1950), can a therapist, with their training, look at an individual and account fully for human subjectivity. Moreover, specific to the site, and particular to this post, are you asking, am I my defense mechanisms and nothing more?

    Dr.:
    I am grateful for, but frightened by your site
    My mother abandoned me at birth; my father died at 9-10. Mother did not claim me; I became a ward of the state; was brought up by a woman from Nazi Germany. very strict; nothing was ever good enough. Terrified of being sent to an orphanage if I did anything wrong.
    Became an overachiever but with alcohol abuse issues.
    I was aware of my sense of deep shame before I read this blog. Then I was “OMG” he knows and gets it. But now I feel like a narcissist loser with little hope.
    So, not only are our childhoods a tragedy, but we are doomed to be defective emotionally all our lives?

    No, you’re not doomed. It just takes some hard work and time. Some good therapy with an empathic therapist would help. Is that a possibility for you?

    Hi Kevin, I empathize with your comments, largely because, my formative circumstances weren’t vastly dissimilar from your own. I too became the over achiever, vying for excellence, and then hitting the bottle between times. One way or another, we’re all fucked. But not doomed. Take a look around you, some have bodies that don’t work, bits missing, or too many. Disease, impairment, some are broken hearted, some overwhelmed by grief. Some worry about being the wrong shape, size, smell, some feel unspeakably lonely and empty. And yet whatever your trouble, like everybody else, in some ways you’ll have it together: things you can do, a unique way of looking at life, ways in which you a productive, intelligent, creative.

    There are nearly seven billion of us today, all with our histories, all with wishes for the future, and all with the present moment to navigate. So yes, in some ways you might be broken, everybody I know worth talking to is broken in one way or another, buy you’re not doomed. Dommed is for Greek tragedy, an unswerving, fatalistic course that is unalterable. The road ahead often looks that way, but it is alterable, and it is altered by the myriad little changes and connections that present themselves to us everyday. Give up being doomed, it’s too fucking easy, look at what’s in front of you today. I bet you can find a first move towards something better, will you choose it?

    I really like what you have to say here, Warren. Everybody’s broken in some way — the question is, can we be real about it together, or do we end up trying to hide from one another behind our successful selves so that nobody sees how vulnerable we feel?

    As I was reading your post, my reaction was something like ‘Oh my God, you’re so right!” . I didn’t even realize, until now, that self-hatred is the way I cope with rejection. I remember there was a time when I was in deep pain because of bullying and I used to imagine myself talking to my aggressors and telling them ” Say whatever you want. I already hate myself and you can’t make me feel worse”. Now I wonder how can someone use this for his own sake.

    This post reminds me of how I noticed recently that whenever I was in a shame-provoking situation, or even remembering one, I would have automatic thoughts like “I hate myself” and “I’m a horrible person,” but without any real feelings attached to them. It’s as though the concept or thought of being a bad person was blocking out the actual experience of shame. I decided that when I found myself thinking those things in the future, I would try changing them to “I’m a normal person with normal flaws and limitations” or “I feel embarrassed, but on the whole I like myself.” I’m actually surprised at how much mileage I’ve gotten out of just that little change. I can let myself feel the shame a bit but bounce back from it faster, and I don’t seem to have to go out of my way to avoid it so much.

    Excellent strategy! I think the fear of shame often makes it seem much worse than the actual experience of it turns out to be.

    This explains A LOT! Thanks for this.
    I never had a sense of belonging in my family, or anywhere else, for that matter. For me it was more than self-hate it was an absolute loathing, as much hate as I could muster. For the most part I have moved past that. There are moments when I hit another depressive episode that I self-hate, but that’s another story.
    Anyway – thanks again for explaining this, it really helps to move it from an emotional place to a cognitive one – where I can say to myself “Aaaahhh, now I get it.”

    Great post! I teach a class on Shame and Guilt and this is a very helpful look at shyness and self-hatred. I find with my clients that the fear of rejection and vulnerability is what promotes so many of the defenses that they carry and fight so hard to release, yet hold onto. Not sure if you have written on this but the deep needed to hold our parents/caregivers opinion of us as truth is also a reason behind why many hold onto those lies of childhood. It’s interesting that though we say we want to release ourselves from this bondage, a huge reason why we hold onto it is because it feels life threatening to say “their” belief of us is a lie. If you have time, what is your take on this?

    I’m not sure exactly what I think. Nathanson holds that it’s more threatening to believe that there’s something wrong with the parents/caregivers — that is, to realize that we’re helpless and dependent on people who don’t protect us in our vulnerable state — than to believe there’s something defective about ourselves. I think for that reason, it’s very hard to let go of the self-hatred because it means experiencing terrifying vulnerability.

    I’ve been reading much of your site over the last week (trying to recover from incredibly unempathic and narcissistic tendencies) and what you write often helps me greatly in terms of strategies for dealing with rage and contempt and self-pity (realising what’s actually going on shame-wise) as well as your recommendations for practicing mindfulness and quieting the constant mind chatter.
    This post (like many others) really hit home for me, especially you saying “there’s “more than meets the eye” with shy people: their mild exterior often conceals intense feelings of competitiveness, arrogance and contempt for others”. While I’m not shy in every social situation, in those where I have been (at uni, in sports teams), I felt huge amounts of contempt for my peers- I didn’t want to talk to them because they were too stupid/boring, so it didn’t matter if they didn’t talk to me. I’m trying to recognise that, and be kinder and more outgoing in situations where I would have said I felt uncomfortable (fear of rejection) as well as recognising where that discomfort comes from.
    Thank you for your writing, it helps so many people. That much is obvious from the comments.

    I have had way to much experience in my life with both shyness and self hatred. The good news is, when I tell people now I “used to be incredibly shy” they laugh and usually say “no way!”. Some are interested enough to ask how I changed and I tell them “millions of dollars of therapy and Karaoke”. Which is pretty true. I still suffer from self hatred but at least can see it for what it is most of the time and it isn’t as debilitating as it once was. My earliest form of self hatred which is still with me to this day is one which is very very common with most women. I hate my body, and the way I look. These days I look in the mirror and think I look weird or off and sometimes ugly, but the higher self inside of me looking on can usually spot the trick and kind of ignore the insult because I pretty much look the same every day. Sometimes I still have to ask my husband how I look and he always…no matter how often I ask, says how beautiful I am and how he can’t understand how I could feel ugly. He hasn’t failed me in 15 years. And now I believe him. It’s almost a little game we play. When I was younger, I felt so ugly, so offputting, so FAT, so disgusting that I berated myself thoroughly every day before I got out of bed and put some sort of sack dress on and suffered through the day trying to be invisible. It was so painful to not want to live in my own body. But apparently it was less painful than the feelings and suffering it was defending against. Thankfully I have worked through much of these issues (thank you therapy and 12 step groups and Karaoke!). But life is painful. God Bless all who try to fully live inside their own lives!

    Hello.
    I am very shy- yet extremely confident. For example, public speaking to smaller large groups is of no issue to me. I did not have a childhood. My mother was/ is a malignant narcissist and I long ago ceased any contact with her. I married somebody who though of different gender and ethnicity, was exactly the same as my mother. We are divorcing after 34 years a this request.i loved him very much. I no longer do.

    My point is, I have pretty much decided at the age of 52 it is easier to t have friends; to float where the wind blows you. My husband played a large and sneaky role in estranging me from my friends.i had many.i was very popular. I am unable to reconnect-too much time, coupled with an international move has rendered reconnection almost impossible. The desire is there, the reality makes it otherwise.

    So….I float through life. I smile at people. I ind my own business, give money to street beggars and watch my oung adult children grow. I don’t know how to overcome the shyness. Partly I think it a defensive mechanism, as my personality type is prey to predatory types. My heart is so broken bythe terrible things my husband has done, that I have just clammed up even tighter.

    Does this pass with time? The shyness coupled with deep betrayal?

    Thankyou for your help, I appreciate it.

    I think it’s possible for this to change, but it would take time. You’d need to make very sure of the other person before you made yourself vulnerable because I imagine more hurt would be devastating.

    Hello Mr. Burgo,
    Thankyou for your response, I appreciate it. I am trying to get through financial settlement currently of the divorce process requested by my husband. I tried for two years to resolve this. We each wrote an agreed plan and signed a copy. He continually broke it. I am a highly qualified, educated person. Yet I am unfortunately medically retired. This won’t change. Currently I have a very badly fractured leg.

    Anyway, he refuses the services of a lawyer and represents himself. He believes himself the intellectual equal of the Federal Court Judge. He is not. His oft stated desire is that I become destitute, toothless, earn money through prostitution and live under a bridge.

    This nonsense has gone on for years. He has been arrested twice- which made his violence worse. However, he dose respect court orders stipulated by the judge to neither approach me directly or via third party.

    I am so drained now, I just want to settle the finances and disappear. Then I know my children will betaken care of financially by my very watertight will. I just have this sorrow I can’t shift. I think the broken leg as really sent me ober the edge. I am not mentally unwell, I am very sad.

    You may or may not find this interesting – but the content of this post lead me to finally getting around to purchasing your book. This may not work for everyone, but it got me off my butt. This and I am finally clearing some things up around my office and the house so my mind is more able to focus on other things.

    Hi Joseph

    Thank you for this post I read a part of it to my therapist and am using some of it in my work at present.

    I also registered but do not appear to have been assigned to a group as when I log on there are no threads of conversations. I did get an email saying I had been set up but have never been able to access any conversations. I have bought the book prior to registering

    This post has revealed a pattern of behavior I didn’t see in myself. When I am authentic I have been treated with disrespect and when I treat a person with empathy or generosity from the heart I get the reverse back. This causes a conundrum. I go back to isolation and an intense period of grief and anger. I can’t seem to stop putting myself out there to connect. It’s a vicious circle. I do have connections that are solid and nurturing. These friends although all over the Country write and we support one another. How do I stop the cycle in everyday life with connection in the moment. I feel like my little inner child keeps popping out and then getting hurt. I must somehow find a healthy defense. The problem is without being genuine I would never experience relationships that nurture both parties. It’s the addictive cycle of needing to being loved by everyone and then shame because it’s not working that I somehow behaviourly change. It helps to understand what’s happening thanks to your post Dr. Burgo.

    Rhonda

    Empathy and authenticity doesn’t mean the opposite of disrespect/uncaring/dishonesty. It’s a continuum and somewhere in the middle is a safe place.

    I waver between between too open and giving and then too closed and ungiving. The problem is that I don’t know safe boundaries and that’s difficult to learn but I’m closer than I ever was. My guess is you might be having a similar difficulty.

    You can be honest without putting it all out there and wagering the risk of disrespect (even when unintentional). You’re not a liar if you keep to yourself what you need to. You’re not uncaring if you draw a line in the sand that says “I can do this much for a person and no more before it’s bad for me” and stick to it.

    Easier said than done but I eventually learned this is possible. The hard way. And it turns out that I used to hang around some real dropkicks who don’t represent the everyday, caring, well intentioned (and easily mistaken) rest of humanity. Taking off the old poo coloured glasses is hard but it’s happening…

    Sound familiar?

    Thank you for an extremely informative article.

    I have a question, however. Do you believe that certain life situations make such a defense mechanism more or less necessary for a person? I’m asking this obviously because I believe I am in such a situation. I have recently quite consciously decided to remind myself of what a subhuman PoS I am everytime I end up in an embarassing situation. The catch, however, is that I really am objectively inferior to the average person – I have a number of significant physical flaws, both immediately apparent and not, and nothing that would really make up for it. When at first I recognized my isolation as a runaway defense mechanism several years ago, I went on a self-improvement binge, which ended up backfiring badly. Not only were most of the goals I set for myself unattainable, I also found that most people really do dislike me and are willing to shame and\or reject me for them. My current train of thought goes like this:

    I am inferior to the average person -> It’s impossible for me to become better -> Therefore, in an embarassing situation, I need to check if it’s caused by any of my inherent flaws -> If it is, I need to remind myself that there’s little reason to kick myself in the nuts over this because it’s not like I can do anything about it

    The defense mechanism works. It hasn’t made my life significantly better, but with it I’ve managed to lower the number of bouts of self-hatred to an almost non-existent number (~3 times a year).

    Do you believe it’s possible for such a situation to exist, or do you believe I am wrong in seeing the world as hostile (or mostly just unaccepting of me) ?

    Thank you for this site. I was diagnosed with bpd in August and just hanging on as I wait for therapy which starts in jan. I’ve been thinking a lot about shame this last week as I’m looking for work but I have done a very public and humiliating job of destroying my career. It has been pretty brutal.

    I was thrown out of home when i was 14. i told my mother her boyfriend had been abusing me, a well respected teacher, she said he was too powerful to prosecute and she kicked me out. I lived on the streets and have looked after myself since, but have done a very bad job of it.

    My work has been the one thing I prided myself, I got myself through uni and managed to work with high profile leaders in the arts, social rights but I failed to address the personal and spiritual side of life and now Im faced with a train wreck. I feel a terrible,sense of guilt and apologised to my past employers but I spend days in bed paralysed by grief and regret and a real fear about how I will make a living.

    I recently had a dream where I deliberately shut all the doors of a room knowing I could not get out and I was left in this tiny white room.

    That pretty much sums up my life as i now live in a boarding house room which i rarely leave.

    All this because of a five letter word. Shame. I feel too embarressed to go for a run. I’m writing this and laughing as I can see how ridiculous it is.

    There is a great movie called Shame. This movie I highly recommend as it sums up beautifully the destructive force if has on our lives. It is a beautiful film and one many bpd and people experiencing mental illness would relate.

    Hi Joseph,
    As we’ve been talking about how self-rejection and assuming “I am not enough” are actually a defense mechanism of mine, this understanding has obviously started to dawn on me. Interestingly, I was sitting today and thinking of different things that happened to me today, particularly my habitual attitude of inferiority and being less than, and then I thought that it might actually be some kind of defense, to ward off that “unexpected and sudden rejection” you are talking about in your post. And then I went to search online for “self-rejection as a defense mechanism” and found your post. So interesting. This “unexpected and sudden” rejection is what i learned in my childhood—again and again and again, up until I finally “learned” not to believe in myself, not to hold myself in high regard, to assume my inadequacy.
    So, it definitely sounds true to me what you have written.
    Thanks.

    I’m glad. It seems increasingly true to me — like I’m understanding self-loathing in an entirely new way.

    Several of the posts here confirm my experience– that something like shyness (risk-avoidance) and self-hatred (the shame that comes from having exposed oneself to risk & having been rejected) can be exhibited within the same person. I was shy & risk-avoidant in pre-teen years, then extrovert in teen years (suffering often from shame when rejected), then shy again from age 20-30, at which point I settled into what feels normal to me; extroversion, suffering shame when rejected.

    During ‘shy’ years, I often felt disassociated in a ‘party’ situation, as though my boundaries were overwhelmed by all those stronger egos. Completely identify with being, on the inside, arrogant, competitive, contemptuous– yet not in the moment; in the moment I was overwhelmed & withdrew. I apparently ‘hid my light under a bushel’; it was commonplace for my ‘real’ self to surprise and impress those who became my close friends (“but you don’t SEEM like that usually”)
    The connection, or rationale I would insert: during those ‘shy’ 20’s I was married to the man I had chosen in college years, whose sun seemed to outshine my own. Though in privacy we were intellectual equals, I chose a man who was “better than me” in every area of intellectual and socially-recognized strength. It was only as he succumbed to his own issues (& I realized he was not superior, & the relationship foundered) that I began coming into my own.

    The context: my mother was an intrinsically extroverted, enthusiastic & brilliant person who had suffered throughout childhood & teens at the hands of a borderline, narcissicistic & predatory stepfather.

    Are these two ways of being just two sides of the same coin?

    “their mild exterior often conceals intense feelings of competitiveness, arrogance and contempt for others — emotions far too “dangerous” to reveal because they might provoke rejection.”

    I’m surprised that didn’t get more of a reaction than it did from commenters but it certainly surprised me. Are those who are concealing such feelings aware of them themselves? It is hard for me to reconcile the idea of self-repressed and self-loathing people having intensely arrogant feelings.

    Not all of them do, of course. Often the feelings are unconscious but in many cases, the person is quite aware of them. They’re a secret comfort.

    I know I have these undesirable character traits and I’m disgusted by them so I act shy and I try to keep away from others. That makes me feel worse (because I don’t want to be alone) so I end up in this downward spiral of self hate and depression. Meanwhile, these undesirable characters are who I am and unless I change myself completely or pretend they’re not there. (act shy) I’ll always have the same problem. It’s like a vicious cycle. If that even makes sense..

    Having spent a life dealing with shyness as a function of fear of shame, I’d say your observations are accurate.
    One effect you might have missed accounting for is an almost obsessive drive to succeed and be unassailably better (at something)…
    It made me very successful in my career but for the reasons you describe, a hollow victory.

    Thanks for adding that bit. When I read your comment, it immediately made me think of a couple of clients it might apply to, as well.

    I concur with the title thesis to a point. I often feel the syndrome of Shame, Disgust and Rage at others along the lines of “Imminent Rejection.” On the other hand I am convinced that some people are just plain abusive and cruel. Rejecting them (out of hand) is the smart thing to do, not a clinical expression of symptoms. Some people lack manners, respect or good intentions and should be treated accordingly. I won’t let me own neurosis interfere with my desire to avoid rude people.

    Hi Joe,

    This was a very interesting read. I have two questions:

    1. Is shame the only explanation for shyness?
    2. Another feeling-coupling I’m curious about is jealousy and competition. What are your thoughts on this?

    I don’t think that shame is the only explanation for shyness. I think there are introspective personality types, as other readers have noted.

    Jealousy (or envy) and competition definitely go together but that’s a large topic for another day.

    when you realize that your falling in love with a woman who used to like you and she moved on, you cant help but think about all the chances you had when she did like you. Its very easy to hate yourself for being shy and not liking her at first. Love sucks.

    Lately, I’ve been crippled by self-hate (in fact, I don’t know the difference between self-loathing or self-hate, they,re the same to me….).
    I try to live with it, try to admit my flaws, my imperfections, try to understand that it stems from basic shame (coming from a very dysfunctional family) but my self-loathing paralyses me, cripples me in depression, in wanting to not exist, passively exist. This morning, I glanced at 2 portraits of me when I was 9 and 5. I place these portraits on my shelf thinking it would help soften me to myself. I had forgotten they were there and I raised my head, saw my 2 me(s) at glance and I had a furious envy to smash the glass, the whole thing off the shelve. Quite unconsciously. Then, I cried, thinking how could you? You were so serious, sad, profound, charming and cute? How could your mother destroy that sacredness…Dr. Burgo, in spite of knowing self-hatred is a defence, I don,t think I’ll ever love myself or at least stop hating myself so much. and it pains me. After 20 years of therapy, I’m at the same point.

    Your comment makes me sad. It sounds as if the point of your self-hatred might be to keep you stuck, in the same place, and therefore not vulnerable and at risk of being hurt by others.

    You may be right…No one has been able to love me or come close to me. I don’t believe them.

    But could it also be that since the only type of love that was shown to me was hatred, anger and criticism, it’s now the only comfortable “love” for me?

    JUST A THOUGHT-SINCE AGE 8 I HAVE HAD A PHYSICAL CONDITION WHICH
    TODAY WOULD NOT SEEM SIGNIFICANT. THE SHAME CONTINUED UNTIL COLLEGE
    AND STOPPED. KEEPING THE SECRET ALL THOSE YEARS PUT A LABEL ON ME AND
    MADE FOR MANY LATER DIFFICULTIES. NOW I AM COMING OFF ALL MY MEDS AT
    THE MATURE AGE OG 68. I WONDERED IF THE MEDS BLOCKED SOME OF MY
    CHANGES IN SELF THAT AT THIS TIME ARE BEGINNING TO APPEAR. MAYBE THE PAST CATCHES UP BECAUSE I DO WISH TO CHANGE EVEN THOUGH I AM QUITE OLD-IS THERAPY SOMETIMES UNABLE TO TREAT THE DIFFICULTIES WE FACE?

    This was an exceptional post! I myself have been working through the pains of unrequited love — after allowing myself to really ‘let go’/open up to someone for the first time. It’s been a difficult experience, but its definitely resulted in a lot of growth. Stumbling into this article today was exactly what I needed.

    Hello. I’m filled with sadness. I’ve known for a long time that something is very wrong, but it seems permanent. I cannot even begin to elaborate, the comment would be too lengthy.
    And also, my shame, convoluted as it stands, prevents me from uttering words, words I have inside, silenced finally at death. I have watched my life spent in a prison and I can physically see with my soul, the baby, the child, the teenager, having tried, looked for help, asking, yet never receiving.
    My thought on this is: I am starting to believe that some of us are just born to be rejected and our behaviour is merely reflecting what was written into our birthright and the acceptance of that sentence can only lead to making a decision to ending a useless life. It might be a very disappointing trip to try and change or accept what is.
    I use an animal analogy, in that when observing a pack of dogs/wolves or what have you, there is hiearchy, always there is one that is at the bottom, the one to eat last etc. It moves by itself, shyly glancing at other dogs, never part of play or hunt, litterally just a living organism waiting for death. Maybe we think too much of our ability to reason, and there is no other reason except mother nature playing cruel jokes.

    The dog thing is about food scarcity and no way for the pack to stay alive if a dog is weak. I presume you know this aspect. However, I understand the analogy and the possibility of mother nature playing a cruel trick by having a weak dog in the litter, that is unlikely to survive. The dog is essentially rejected.

    However, I do not think certain people are given to messed-up families to cull the herd. Instead, I think it our poor use of reason that does that for us. I think that we have reason so that we can build a hierarchy of our choosing in the human world – we as a society are given the power to manage the pack and to choose to help or not help others. I think it is because of our high ability to reason that we can think of ways around our dilemmas and thrive. I think that as a whole, we shape how it turns out for individuals.

    P.S. There are a lot of good, caring people in the world. There is hope, made easier if one can find at least one other to help them partly through the struggle. My journey started with a teacher believing in me and a co-worker pointing out, in a compassionate way, how I thought so negatively and how to change it.

    In my experience, there’s “more than meets the eye” with shy people: their mild exterior often conceals intense feelings of competitiveness, arrogance and contempt for others — emotions far too “dangerous” to reveal because they might provoke rejection.

    I’m not sure what you mean here. Shy people are more competitive, arrogant and contemptuous than the general population? Or these are simply qualities the general population may not associate with shy people. Also doesn’t the “danger” that shy people feel more often result from attempting to establish a connection and failing over revealing their negative feelings they may have toward other people?

    I don’t think that shy people are necessarily more competitive, arrogant or contemptuous; but the mild, self-effacing exterior masks the feelings that many other people have and display more overtly. I don’t think I understand your last question.

    I really sympathise with your client Dylan’s situation- right up to the reunion with a close friend that didn’t go so well. I was also bullied, and responded to it in the same way- by being ‘invisible’ as much as possible, even so far as to block out the world and pretend I don’t exist in that time space. I’ve self-analysed myself a hundred times over and came up with much of what you have written here. At some point in my childhood I decided there was something wrong with me to warrant all the hate, and the feeling stuck. I’ve reinvented myself several times, but the feeling never changed.
    ‘Avoidance’ is my defense against rejection, which I see as inevitable, and I am largely a loner because of this. Even among my small circle of friends, fear of rejection has me keeping people at arms length- literally- fearing they’ll get too close and see something they don’t like. It leaves me feeling hollow, but I rationalise it’s better than nothing. The few times I have bit the bullet and opened myself up, I’ve been hurt and ended up right back where I began, and trusting people even less. I’ve reached the point where I’m not sure I am capable of letting someone in again, or if I even want to try. It’s strange that even though I can objectively understand and recognise all this, I still can’t bring myself to kick the habit. I hope Dylan has had better luck.

    I felt awful reading your comment because it has taken me so long to get here and read it. I’ve been finishing my book and am woefully behind in approving comments. Given your candor and bravery in talking about your experience, you deserved to be treated better. I’m sorry.

    I think extroverts can be shy too. They’ll talk and talk at gatherings, but it’s all superficial and mostly gathering any personal info from others.

    I went into a social situation this morning returning to a old job I left because I felt rejected. But I still have a friend there so I made the effort to socialize and avoid individuals I felt rejected by in the past. Everything went well until I saw an individual whose relationship was very important to me and has rejected me. I began have a negative internal dialogue which I thought were just painful memories of things the ex-narc in my old life had said to me to reject me and make me feel unloveable. I was attempting to tear down those beliefs when I came across this article. It helped me to realize the internal dialogue was a form of self-hate, excuses for why I felt disliked and rejected. In the future I will monitor my ego for this and I also concluded fear is pointing me in the direction I should go- become more social for those authentic connections. And just as I was thinking I should approach people with love and compassion to succeed here , I should see the next reading on your list is Love in the Face of Hatred. I havent’ read it yet but already I feel better and think the Creator pointed me in the direction of your articles for healing. Thank you for being true and authentic to your internal self.

    As I’ve read this, I’ve broken down in tears several times. I can see myself in all of this, and how I’ve built my personality around a core shame. Shy and self-depricating is how I’ve been described all my life, and even today (an experience which prompted the google search that landed me here). While changing sounds good in a distant, theoretical sense, as I read this article I thought to myself that were it even possible to reform, I don’t know if I would want to change these behaviors which have become my personality, my identity. Who will I be if not Shy, Self-hating Naomi? And isn’t that just another layer of self-hate? This is my natural state I think, in a basic biological sense; and trying to reprogram that would be like fighting windmills.

    No doubt about it, this kind of change is incredibly hard, especially when defenses are built into your personality and sense of self. There are potentially great rewards on the other side, however.

    Shyness is a learned condition, where individuals who learn that they are not desirable companions or partners naturally withdraw. It is hardly self-protective; they learn from others that they should NOT socially engage because their presence is NOT wanted amongst other people. How is that self-protective if they are simply following guidance passed on from learned experience?
    Also, my experience is that shy people only desire to be “good enough”. But they have learned from others that, at least socially, they do not pass ” good enough” threshold. Yet you blame them for learning from experience? You blame shy people for introjecting what others have expressed as being socially acceptable? You blame them for extracting insight from countless social failures?
    Indeed!

    Sorry I realize this is a very old post but I only just came upon it and felt such resonance I had to comment (something I never do BTW).
    From my personal perspective, I agree with you self-hatred is innately wrapped up with shame and is an albeit strange defense mechanism for shame. I grew up with a narcissistic mother who suffered from severe depression. When I escaped that home to find freedom in the outside world I was unfortunate enough to become the victim of a brutal rape. I didn’t tell anyone about it, why would I, from my experience no one would care. I was angry, not at the rapist but at myself for being the kind of damaged person who allows themselves to be raped, who did not fight back, who became submissive to the rapist. I hated that self, the weak, naive, stupid girl I was. Now I see that this inward reflected anger and self hatred was my way of coping with the shame of the rape and my perceived response (submission) to the rapist. Whenever, the feelings of shame arise, self flagellation is the best and quickest cure. I developed the self-hatred into a bulletproof vest, no-one could ever hurt me as much as I hurt myself. I used this vest to both isolate myself from others and drive myself toward some unattainable ambition. I completely understand Dylan’s reaction to his friends rejection. When you wear self-hatred as a vest to protect against shame, it is easy to take any small rejection/criticism as a reflection of your own knowledge of self-worth. I have been in that exact situation, and I can say that the initial feeling that comes with such rejection is shame (that this it the person you are), embarrassment (that you put yourself out there) quickly followed by self flagellation which looks something like … ‘you are so stupid, what did you think would happen’ (this may be on the kinder end of the spectrum)…..

    However, once I was able to acknowledge this pattern, I could loosen the vest and begin to treat my self with more kindness. I’m still working on it – I see it is a long term project. I don’t know if I know what ‘normal’ looks like or if that’s the goal, but I would be happy feeling more settled, calm and comfortable in my skin.

    Your blog is fantastic! Please keep writing.

    Thanks, Dawn. I’d be curious to hear more about how you managed to “loosen the vest.” I think the goal (“normal”) is to allow yourself to be vulnerable to other people, risking shame but also allowing yourself the opportunity to be known and loved.

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