My earliest memory of feeling shame was when I wet my pants at the library. I was four years old, and my mom left me in the children’s section (back when it was okay to do that). I had to pee and I couldn’t find anyone to show me to the bathroom. The memory still makes me a bit uncomfortable all these years later. Now that I have a greater understanding of feelings in general, and my own in particular, I realize that what I felt was guilt, not shame.
The difference, according to psychologists, is that guilt is what we feel when we do something wrong, and shame is what we feel when we think there’s something intrinsically wrong within ourselves.
Shame is also the flawed belief that we are bad, inadequate, and not enough. This belief is generally planted in our early childhood, often times by parents who have neither the tools nor the understanding to consider the long-term effects.
The feeling of shame in adults is often tied to control. My clients, “Dominic” and “Angel,” decided to end their 10-year marriage ostensibly due to Angel’s infidelity. What was revealed in their mediation was that Dominic was working a ton of overtime, and Angel felt out of control in the relationship. Instead of trying to understand that Dominic was feeling overworked and out of touch, Angel escaped by having an affair. She was ashamed of her role in ending the marriage, and stated over and over again that she was a bad person.
Another example of the shame/control connection had to do with my clients, “Alexis” and “Cory,” who came to me with a very different scenario. Alexis has multiple sclerosis, and told me that she was literally months away from being confined to a wheelchair. Cory could not handle the fact that his wife had such a debilitating disease, and his way of coping was to spend hours in the casino. Their savings account disintegrated and so did their relationship. Cory repeatedly expressed shame in being an addict, telling me that both his parents were addicted to gambling, so he was doomed by his own genetics.
What both Angel and Cory had in common was the feeling that each had lost control of what was going on in their marriages, and that they were inadequate partners. Those feelings resulted in shame. As with the breaking of any habit, substituting something in place of the need to control is a good starting point in getting rid of the shame. I think compassion is an excellent replacement for control.
Perhaps Angel could have understood that Dominic’s work schedule was unavoidable and maybe Cory could have been kinder to himself by realizing that Alexis’s illness wasn’t anyone’s fault. Escaping from their difficult situations didn’t help Cory or Angel heal their shame.
Compassion, not only for others, but for ourselves, and letting go of our need to control things beyond our control, may help us to heal our own shame.