Shame on you.
Shame on me.
Shame is not synonymous with 'guilt,' but often made to be worse. One definition describes it as "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety." Another, "a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute." It sure does hurt! Is there anyone who hasn't felt shame? We feel so alone, apart, singled out with shame. With shame, it is "I" that is the focus of something wrong at that very moment, no one else. No, with shame we're not singled out for a reward or praise. Wish that we were. No, shame is for "something bad," at least in the eyes of the giving other. It is "I." Shame on me! I feel the shame. I did it or am told I did. What differentiates a healthy outcome of shame from one that is unhealthy is the exclusive focus on the person rather than the act.
Developmentally, if all goes well as we grow up, we learn to become the gift we are meant to be. Yes, at times we learn through the experience of shame. Each of us needs to know "right from wrong" or else our life would be without boundaries or without a healthy regard for others or life. As much as we may desire freedom and independence, the paradox is that there must be guidelines and limits for this desirable goal. Yes, there is a normal shame we experience. When shame is normal, when we do wrong or what isn't good to be done, we are still told we are good. This is what should happen normally. Doing wrong, the thing we do, the message reads, is the problem. We are still a unique and gifted self. It is "what" we did that is the problem. It's the problem or behavior that is focused on, not the worth or value of the person. Developmentally, one may say, we learn from our mistakes. Harder to learn, however, when we are made to be the mistake, when shame isn't a normal experience.
"You'll never amount to anything" is something that some hear repeatedly. The shame I see in therapy is not of the normal variety. If it were, I suspect I'd be out of a job. No, the shame I see is of the variety you may see in the artwork that precedes this text. It is a confinement of self to the nth degree. It is or feels like abject loneliness and isolation. Better put, it's imprisonment, feeling as if one is "bricked-in." This experience follows our being taught or told that we, in our heart and soul, are bad, no good, evil, ugly, not belonging, smelly, rotten to the core, etc. Pick the descriptor! Shame, for some, actually becomes a way of life. When we over and over experience shame, we begin to wear shame, show it in our body, think it in our mind, feel it in our moods, act in its ways. Through therapy, one works to break the chains of shame and break out and learn how to live as the gift of self we truly are meant to be. It's not easy, but well worth it when we succeed. Sadly, some never succeed. Happily, many now do. Shame doesn't have to be on you or me.
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Bob Fournier Ph.D.