Previously, I discussed the role anger and fear play, respectively, in fueling lust and other addictive, impulsive, and otherwise toxic behaviors. In this article, I want to address the third primal human emotion–shame–that figures large in the same process. It is common to distinguish between shame and guilt. Shame and guilt are both painful emotions. While guilt results from the belief that we have done something wrong, shame results from the belief that we ourselves are inadequate or unworthy of love. One author exemplified the difference as follows:
The Difference Between Shame And Guilt
If a person lied to a loved one or forgot their birthday, guilt would be a typical response. Alternatively, shame is an unwanted sensation caused when people view themselves as flawed, dysfunctional, or dishonorable.
While guilt is confined to a single action, thought, or event, shame spreads out to cover the very foundation of who the person is. Rather than being a good person who made a mistake, people with shame believe they are a bad person who is incapable of doing good.Eric Patterson, LPC (Shame Versus Guilt)
The world’s most famous shame researcher, Brené Brown, who penned best-sellers The Gifts Of Imperfection and Atlas Of The Heart (the former of which I read and can recommend), had this to say:
I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful—it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.Brené Brown (Difference Between Shame And Guilt)
The Relationship Between Shame And Addiction
The association between shame and addiction is both intuitive and well-attested. For example, according to one study of participants receiving treatment for alcoholism, “Participants spoke about an inherent deep-rooted negative view about themselves, which was present long before alcohol dependence developed. Alcohol served as a means of connection to others and a way of artificially relieving feelings of worthlessness. Recovery was about finding somewhere safe to talk about feelings of shame and make sense of these experiences.”
Where does shame come from, and what about it drives us to make bad choices?
Ego and self-consciousness are two qualities that distinguish humans from animals. Whether some animals possess these traits or not, humans do so at a much more advanced level. As people, we are acutely aware of where we stand with respect to others. The organization of people in social hierarchies, for better or worse, has been a longstanding feature of human interactions.
People are highly dependent on their parents or guardians during their formative years. As a result, shame is often the result of dysfunction in those first relationships. Parents who do a poor job damage their children’s psychology in profound ways. Another source of shame is trauma in the form of abuse, abandonment, rejection or bullying. Receiving ill treatment from a parent or authority figure, an absentee father, a painful breakup, and bullying can all leave an individual with an identity rooted in the belief that “I am not good enough.”
Shame, like anger and fear, is painful. Our minds are wired to escape painful emotions, hence why many people who experience these emotions on a regular basis resort to various addictions that supply instant gratification. The link between negative emotions and unhelpful coping mechanisms and bad behavior is not inevitable. It is possible to suffer without harming self or others. In fact, how we suffer says a lot about our character. (Jesus Christ modeled the perfect response to evil and suffering.) However, as imperfect human beings, we all have a breaking point. By reducing our experience of anger, fear, and shame, we reduce the impulse we may feel to self-medicate with drugs, sex, pornography, gambling, gluttony, or any number of vices.
Take sexuality as a case in point. The allure of sexual gratification is more or less universal. However, someone with an identity rooted in shame may feel particularly attracted to pornography, even when they know it is wrong and soul-damaging. Pornography offers an escape, albeit a short-lived one, from emotional discomfort and suffering. Pornography makes you feel good. It makes you feel powerful. It makes you feel connected–for a very short period of time, before things quickly level off and you return to a baseline reality. The new baseline reality after each indulgence, however, is even lower than it was before. Pornography, in a word, makes it harder to create the love and connection we need to move forward in life. It fuels “a vicious cycle” of 1-) negative emotion –> 2-) toxic coping behavior –> 3-) more negative emotion –> 4-) more toxic coping behavior –> 5-) repeat.
How To Heal Shame
To be sure, we all have to experience some negative emotion every day. It is an inescapable part of living. While some negative emotion is unavoidable in life, a shame-based, or anger-based, or fear-based identity does not have to be. Anyone struggling with a bad habit or addiction today must ask themselves, What purpose is my addiction or bad habit serving? What emotions are driving me to engage in this behavior, even when I know it is not good for me? In the mean time, we should do no harm. A wise man once said, “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging.” When we self-medicate our pain in unhealthy ways, we become disconnected from its source and increasingly unable to cope.
Typically, anger, fear, and shame negatively correlate with the the level of loving connection we experience with other human beings. As our connections with others grow, our experience of these emotions decreases. Many of us can do better simply by prioritizing time spent with friends and loved ones.
As I mentioned in the other articles on anger and fear, exercise, art, nutritious food, sleep, prayer, meditation, fasting, etc., are examples of healthy activities that help a large number of people process negative emotions on a regular basis. What are your processes? Do they need revised or upgraded?
Having a spiritual anchor, in particular, can help insulate us from some of the traumas and tribulations of the natural world.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.Psalm 34:4-5
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. .John 1:12
All of us can identify activities we regularly choose to engage in that make us feel more or less anger, fear, and shame. Exercising a little more each day, spending more time with friends and family, eating healthy food, doing a hobby, fasting or praying, can add up to a big difference over time. As can reducing or cutting out activities that we identify with negative emotions, like keeping bad company, social media, and so on.
If you have a shame problem, this article is not meant to solve it for you. It’s been a long-time coming to get here, and it may take some creativity and discipline on your part with whatever means you have available. This article, however, is meant to get us thinking about the role our emotions are playing in the decisions we make and the trajectory our life is taking. Compassionate self-awareness is step one in the healing process.
If you liked this article, you may want to read more about “shame resilience theory” by Brené Brown. You can also check out the complete archive of articles on integrity.