The topic of shame intersects with my previous blog posts and is an incredibly important issue I wish to address. It is unclear as to whether or not shame is truly an emotion like anger, sadness, and joy; I don't imagine that animals other than humans are plagued by it. Nonetheless, shame is pervasive in the world of human beings. Unlike guilt, which is the experience of feeling bad about something you have done or not done, shame is feeling bad about a part of oneself, a part of self that one believes is wrong, unacceptable, or ugly. For example, people may feel shame about their appearance, their sexual orientation, or their ethnicity. Like guilt, shame serves no healthy function and is usually inhibiting people from accepting themselves and living fully authentic lives.
We are taught to feel ashamed of parts of ourselves from an early age. If our parents, our peers, and our friends and acquaintances believe that something about us is wrong, then the likelihood is that we will believe that what others are saying or thinking about us must be true. We develop in relation to others. If the circles of influence we are most closely surrounded by believe one thing, we are likely to be swayed in the same direction. Thus, young boys and girls who are surrounded by people who believe that boys should not exhibit feminine traits and girls should not exhibit masculine traits will feel shame around their own feminine or masculine parts of self. Teenage girls and boys who grow up in a world where they are taught that having same-sex feelings is wrong will likely develop shame if they are experiencing sexual attractions to people of the same sex. For the fortunate ones who are taught from a young age that there is nothing shameful about normal, human parts of self, these children may grow up accepting the parts of themselves that others learned were shameful.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I have found that in order to move from a place of shame to a place of acceptance, an individual needs to connect to his or her anger toward the people, institutions, and societies that have perpetuated the myths that have led to the shame in the first place. Keeping with the example of someone who grows up feeling shame about having same-sex feelings, in order to progress from shame to acceptance, one must redirect the anger that is turned against oneself to its proper target(s), the people responsible for the shaming. I use the example of same-sex feelings here, but this concept applies to any parts of one's self of which one has learned to be ashamed. My last post was about the healthy emotion of anger. Here is another way in which anger is essential to the formation of a healthy, authentic self. In psychotherapy, patients have an opportunity to explore the parts of themselves that have caused them shame and learn to access the underlying healthy anger they feel about having been taught the false lessons that any parts of their true selves are bad, ugly, wrong, or shameful.