Busted! The Deep Roots of Shame

I had a terrifying dream a week or so ago, which I ended up taking to my therapist. I’d been selected to play a couple exceedingly difficult classical piano pieces. The problem is that I don’t play the piano. There is an audience of 200 colleagues who are eagerly waiting from my virtuoso display of talent. I look at the music and realize that the jig is up. I step away from the keyboard and in a poor attempt to diffuse the humiliation with humour, I tell them that I am about to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. I guess that’s the simplest, most elementary piece that my unconscious could toss up for the occasion. When that fails, I offer some bullshit, therapeze speak about it being good for the soul to recognize one’s limits. Then I see my therapist in the audience. He is crying. He went to bat for me with his colleagues, assuring me that I should be the one selected to do the performance—over others. I am devastated and wake up.

Sheesh…It’s one thing to humiliate myself. It’s another to humiliate the man who I regard as my mentor. In the dream I let him down. By misrepresenting myself, I misrepresented and brought shame to his lineage. Shame, shame, shame…piled high. I’ve seen this in clients who manage to interpret everything they say and do as a personal humiliation. It’s a tyranny. Dreams dramatize life. They amplify situations in order to get our attention. Apparently, it was time to look at the pervasive impact of shame in my life.

Shame is learned early in childhood. When we are expected to perform tasks that are developmentally beyond the capacity of an infant or toddler shame kicks in. We feel from within a level of responsibility for life that becomes unbearable. It can and often does last a lifetime, this background sense the “life is just too much”. It feels like that because at one point it was too much, and we developed this unconscious belief that we carry with us into adulthood.

Shame causes us to lose our bearings. When it’s unconscious we end up making decisions to avoid shame, rather than because they are deeply felt and grounded in reality. We lose our boundaries with others because shame causes us to feel that we don’t have the right to take up space. We withhold our opinion, we subtract ourselves from the equation of relationship, we are hyper-vigilant to avoid making fools of ourselves…We stop trusting our impulses and intuitions. They might be wrong after all, and we learned that there are devastating implications for being wrong. In truth, the core unconscious belief is that we are fundamentally wrong, a mistake, a waste of space.

The roots run so deep that we don’t believe we have a right to exist. In the throes of shame, we want to disappear. It’s helpful to think about it by taking the word and bracketing the “e” at the end: sham(e). Shame makes us feel like we are a sham.

The list of possible developmental tasks that are beyond us is legion: there’s the Freudian classic of potty training; walking before we’re ready; containing our own feelings (repressing) that should have rightly been contained by the parent; being socialized to be a “good” boy or girl (signaling that one’s feelings, desires, impulses are bad); being rejected when a toddler reaches out for touch. There is also the outright humiliation of verbal, physical or sexual abuse. All of which tell us in no uncertain terms that we do not have a right to “be”. So, we pull in

As we age, and remain unconscious of shame, we set ourselves tasks which are, guess what, beyond our capacity. We may pretend to be somebody we’re not or to have skills and competencies that we do not. (Fake it till you make it). Or, even if we have the skills and competencies, we chronically feel as though we don’t, just waiting to be exposed as a fraud.

We re-enact the early trauma partly because it is our default setting—it’s how we know ourselves— and partly because we hope that we’ll get it right this time and be rewarded with love/approval/respect/celebration.

In the process, we establish an ideal self that we tell ourselves should be able to handle the unrealistic tasks we set for ourselves, and then we perform accordingly. It’s this performative presentation of the self that gets us into trouble. This is why many of us suffer from the fear that sooner or later someone is going to find out that we’re a fraud. Even if we have developed the capacities, been professionally accredited, and proven ourselves in real life situations, this feeling that we’re in over our head persists until we consciously deal with the underlying shame and the core belief that we don’t have a right to exist.  We have been effectively set up to sabotage our success because of an underlying belief that “life is too much”. Sooner or later we will buckle under the weight of living up to an ideal self that is set in place by shame (i.e. not wanting to re-experience the feeling).

The surest sign that we’re functioning from this shamed self is fatigue. Life has become “too trying”, i.e. the energy that it takes us to consciously prop ourselves up to perform according to an ideal self is exhausting. We’ve been trying too hard. We may have burned ourselves out at the office, because no matter how successful we are, the catastrophic consequences of failing to live up to an ideal are always stalking us. The way back to health is to allow the fatigue to have its way with us, to drop and drop and drop, until we truly “get it” that life is not a performance—one that either we have set up for ourselves, or a performance in someone else’s drama.

In my dream, I set myself up for humiliation by pretending to have a skill that I didn’t actually possess. Then I tried to cover it up with humour and false humility. But I was exposed. Or rather, I exposed myself. My failure is absolute. I got myself in trouble in the dream because I presented an ideal self that wasn’t based in reality. It was based in the need to compensate. Maybe secretly, we all want to expose the whole bloody thing as untenable, and by “thing” I mean the life we’ve constructed to avoid shame—by performing well enough to finally get the love we want—but paradoxically it is this performance itself that ultimately brings the shame upon ourselves. The collapse is both inevitable and, if we understand what’s going on, welcome.

The goal of much of therapy is to recognize the impact of shame on our life, and to re-imagine and re-embody a life without shame, where our true, beautiful nature is expressed.

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3 Comments on “Busted! The Deep Roots of Shame

  1. Wise words….I really appreciate them! One of my shame triggers is a perception of injustice — which I believe is accurate in that I am perceiving the injustice correctly — but then my reaction of anger is exaggerated in intensity related to the infraction of the other. The injustice has too much effect on my self-esteem, suggesting shame underneath still needing to be healed.

    1. Thanks for sharing Durwin. Yeah, shame can kick in when we take a stand for ourselves. The tricky part is not defaulting to shame even when we’ve “over-reacted”.

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