Lesson 1 of 7  - free your true Self to guide you

Reduce Excessive Shame
to Normal

Perspective, Symptoms,
and Recovery Options

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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  The Web address of this two-page article is http://sfhelp.org/gwc/wounds/shame.htm

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      This YouTube video provides perspective on what you're about to read here:

      This is one of a series of Lesson-1 articles in this Web site - free your true Self to guide you in calm and conflictual times, and reduce significant false-self wounds  This two-page article offers...

  • Perspective on the crippling wound of excessive shame ("low self esteem"), and how it compares to excessive guilt;

  • "Shame 101": how excessive shame relates to pride, self respect, humility, egotism, embarrassment, assertiveness, and wound-recovery;

  • Typical behavioral symptoms of excessive shame, and...

  • Practical suggestions on how to shift excessive shame toward healthy self-respect and self-love as part of reducing false-self dominance.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

          This two-part video provides an overview of key points below. The video mentions 8 self-improvement lessons in this Web site. I've since reduced that to 7.

    Perspective: Excessive Shame and Guilts

      To reduce excessive guilt and shame to "moderate" (healthy), you need to know how they differ.

      Shame is a set of related thoughts, feelings, and a belief: "I’m a worthless, defective, unlovable person, no matter what anyone says!"

      Guilt is a primal reaction to believing or being told "I broke an important rule - a should (not), ought (not), cannot, or must (not). I made a mistake / screwed up / blew it - I did something wrong" (in someone's opinion).

Guilt is the mental + emotional response
to believing  "I MADE a mistake."

Shame is the mental + emotional response to believing  "I AM a mistake (worthless, unlovable, disgusting)."

      Because guilts and shame often occur together and feel the same, they're combined here into one of six psychological wounds Converting excessive shame into genuine self respect and self-love is a very different process than reducing excessive guilts to normal. For the latter, see these articles on reducing excessive guilts and effective forgiveness. The rest of this article focuses on exploring shame "basics," and shifting excessive shame toward non-egotistical self-respect and self-love.

    Shame 101

          Let's explore these questions:

  • Where does shame come from?

  • What happens to early shame as we grow up?

  • When does shame become excessive?

  • How does excessive shame relate to...

    • humiliation and embarrassment?

    • pride and humility?

    • submission and assertion (communication effectiveness)?

    • addictions (toxic compulsions) and addiction-recovery? and...

    • psychological-wound reduction?

  • What's the opposite of excessive shame?; and finally...

  • What are common symptoms of excessive shame and guilts?

      Option - pause, reflect, and try answering each of these questions out loud now as though to an average pre-teen. Then compare your answers to what follows...

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  Where does shame come from?

       Before we infants evolved a vocabulary and learn to "think," we often experienced powerful "good me" and "bad me" senses or feelings. These came from decoding our caregivers' voice tones, facial expressions, and behaviors; and the tranquility or stress in our environment. Excessive shame is often the most denied psychological wound and can take the longest to heal because its roots may be pre-verbal.

      Repeatedly experiencing caregiver smiles, friendly-faces, loving eye contact, tenderness, soothing, gentle touchings and voice-sounds, and relaxed breast feeding build core security and "good me" feelings. Chronic absence of those experiences promotes anxiety and a primal "bad me" attitude. This can happen when a primary caregiver - usually female - is overwhelmed and/or wounded and unable to bond. It may also happen if an infant wasn't a mutually-wanted conception.

       Inadequate nurturance promotes the early formation of one or more young personality subselves who believe and feel intensely "I'm bad - not OK." If we get more "bad you" than "good you" signals from our primary caregivers, or if they're inconsistent (mixed messages) then "bad me" feelings often grow. "Inadequate nurturance" can include...

Emotionally or physically absent parents. Research suggests that being raised by a nanny, day-care staff, and multiple sitters risks impaired development. Some grandparents may supply great love and nurturance, but still the primal feeling of not being valued and wanted by the people who gave us their genes and name can cause great shame and pain.

Our caregivers ignoring us. Getting little or no attention, pre-vocal infants and young kids may feel "I don't matter - I'm worthless." Without other consistent "good me" messages, "I don't matter" becomes as matter-of-fact as fingers and toes, which has nothing to do with logic or reality.

Lack of genuine affection and affirmations. Our early smallness, weakness, lack of coordination, and ignorance are daily opportunities to compare ourselves to the awesome "giants" that tend us, and to repeatedly conclude "(compared to them) I'm so bad / stupid / clumsy / weak / ...";

      And "inadequate nurturance" includes...

Our caregivers often name-calling, swearing, jeering, belittling, degrading, scorning, and being sarcastic, impatient, frustrated, giving the "you-disgust-me" look, lack of friendly eye contact, and rough or painful physical contacts all nourish a "bad me / I'm worthless" belief (low self esteem) in our powerful Shamed Inner Child; and...

Caregivers not teaching us the difference between doing wrong and being wrong (bad). e.g. "Max, lying is really bad. You lied to me." (so you're a really bad person). And...

If caregivers allow siblings, relatives, teachers, or friends to hurt and humiliate us (i.e. if they minimize or neglect our dignity, comfort, and security), our shame and anxieties relentlessly increase; and...

If our caregivers use us to satisfy their own needs without caring or understanding how that affects us, we learn that our needs and feelings are unimportant or don't exist; and...

If the people around us young kids seldom listen to what we're trying to say, or if they interrupt or laugh at us for trying to express ourselves, we're apt to learn "I'm not worth listening to."

If our main adults want to do the reverse of these things and lovingly fill our early developmental needs (nurture) well, our young subselves come to feel "I'm good / lovable / OK / worthy" over time. This is a primal source of self-respect, self-trust (confidence), and self love.

      Notice that these causes focuses on the infant-toddler phase of early childhood. Other factors can ingrain and amplify early shame as we grow through adolescence, if our caregivers don't guard us from them.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  What happens to early shame as we grow?

      As we develop our knowledge and vocabulary, our evolving personality subselves generate constant "inner voices" or thought streams. Most (all?) of us who were neglected and shamed too often in our early years automatically develop an "inner voice" which can be called our Inner Critic, Critical or Mean Parent, or Shamer.

      When our original shamers aren't around, this well-intentioned subself diligently carries on their work. S/He fills our heads with harsh criticisms and comments like "Your socks don't match (you're so stupid)," and "How could you possibly forget Alex's birthday?" A common companion "voice" comes from our Perfectionist subself. S/He relentlessly lets us know of our endless (shameful) failures. Do you have these inner voices?

      Some young kids also evolve a judgmental Preacher/Moralizer subself. It ceaselessly augments the Critic by pronouncing rigid right/wrong, good/bad judgments about us and other people. These tireless subselves also nourish the impressionable Guilty Child  in us. They mean well, just as your shaming, blaming (wounded, overwhelmed) caregivers (and their ancestors) did.

      Shame has been called wryly "the gift that goes on giving," because shamed-based (wounded) parents often unintentionally pass it on to their kids. Overly-shamed kids and adults can feel ashamed of their shame, and other wounds.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  How does shame relate to humiliation and embarrassment?

      Shameful thoughts and feelings are a private experience. We feel embarrassed when our shameful traits and behaviors are exposed publicly - specially to people who's admiration, acceptance, and respect matters most to us. Our critical subselves can embarrass us, and/or other people may ridicule and humiliate us publically if we're not clear on our personal identity and rights.

      A universal "shame gauntlet" kids must navigate is the merciless criticisms of middle-school and high school classmates (and some adults) - specially as puberty and early sexuality lends angst and exciting confusion to our journey toward young adulthood.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  When does normal (healthy) shame become excessive?

      All emotions range from faint to extreme - e.g. "unease" to panic, and annoyance (irritation) to rage. Moderate (normal) shame is helpful - it alerts us to adjust our attitudes and behaviors to avoid significant discomforts.

      For example, feeling "I'm ashamed (and guilty) because I'm often late to school or work," can motivate learning why and how to be more prompt. When normal shame is balanced by a steady, positive self-perception, it does not seriously degrade our overall self-respect or relationships or cause "too many" of the symptoms on page 2. 

      Note that you can feel "global" self respect ("I'm a good person..."), and still feel "local" shame and guilts about one or more social roles (responsibilities) - e.g. "...but I'm ashamed and guilty that I'm not a better parent / sibling / neighbor / spouse / Baptist / citizen / bus driver / pianist / tennis player / voter...").

      Well-intentioned Guardian subselves will try to distort reality to protect against the pain of admitting excessive shame. If your resident true Self is free to guide your other subselves, s/he will (a) admit shame without undue guilt or self-scorn, and (b) evolve an effective plan to reduce it and other significant psychological wounds over time.

      Healthy shame becomes excessive when it chronically inhibits our wholistic health, relationships, productivity, hopes, dreams, integrity, and enjoyment of ourselves and our life. That can manifest in many ways, including self-disgust, self-hatred, self-abuse, and self-mutilation.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  How does excessive shame relate to pride and humility?

      Were you taught that pride is a "sin" and/or a sign of self-centeredness, a swelled head, and/or egotism? Typical shame-based survivors of childhood neglect are often taught shaming beliefs like these.

      Premise: healthy pride is a feeling of non-egotistical approval, respect, admiration, and appreciation for a person's or a group's traits, talents, goals, and achievements. Excessive pride ("I am / we are / they are / better than others") is called egotism, elitism, racism, prejudice, and/or bigotry. These always foster hurt, resentment, antagonism, conflict, anxiety, distrust, and low-nurturance relationships and families.

      Humility is minimizing your personal traits, talents, assets, status, and achievements. It can range from healthy ("I see me or us as being of equal dignity and worth to other persons") to toxic ("I/we are inferior to other persons or groups, and don't merit special praise or rewards.") Humility can be genuine or pretended, and moderate to excessive. When denied and/or justified ("It's God's commandment"), excessive humility promotes...

  • self abuse and self neglect,

  • excessive personal and/or group shame, and...

  • psychological wounding in minor kids. 

What were you taught about "being humble" as a child? What are you teaching your kids about it? (e.g. "Don't brag!") See this for perspective on the pervasive Christian value of excessive humility and the "sin" of personal pride (superiority).

      Recall - we're exploring aspects of the common psychological wound of excessive shame.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  How does excessive shame relate to submission and assertion?

      Sometimes submitting (giving in) to others' needs, values, and opinions promotes social harmony and cooperation. Compulsive and/or fear-based submission suggests significant psychological wounding. Typical survivors of low-nurturance childhoods often unconsciously feel inferior, so they don't deserve or expect social respect, fairness, or equal consideration with others' needs and opinions. 

      Assertion is the vital relationship skill of knowing how and when to declare your needs, opinions, and limits. As kids, average Grown Nurtured Children (GNCs) are taught to respect their own rights, values, and needs as much as other people's, and to assert them with confidence.

      Typical Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) are not taught this, and may submit or assert with ambivalence, guilt, and anxiety. They grow used to enduring the uncomfortable results of sending chronic "I'm 1-down" (inferior) messages to other people, and not filling their needs.

       Intentionally empowering your true Self and reducing excessive shame and guilts over time causes genuine self-respect, "promoting yourself to equal," and calm, firm, respectful assertions.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  How does excessive shame relate to addictions?

       Premise - any true addiction (toxic compulsion) is...

  • a sure sign of a low-nurturance (dysfunctional) family;

  • a reliable sign of significant personal inner pain and psychological wounds, and...

  • a desperate strategy by protective Guardian subselves to self-medicate (reduce, numb, distract from) that pain - despite toxic results. True addictions always provide this local relief - and relentlessly increase the inner pain that promotes them.

      Believing "I am worthless, bad, and unlovable!" and its social results are painful! So excessive shame and guilts and other major factors (like a low-nurturance environment) promote addictions (self-medication) and are amplified by them over time. That's why true addictions are progressive, despite painful consequences.

      The self-destructive pain > addiction > more pain spiral continues until the person dies prematurely or hits true bottom and commits to true addiction recovery - i.e. to finding another way to reduce their inner pain. Stable addiction recovery ("sobriety") is required for effective wound-reduction and empowering the resident true Self to guide and harmonize the other personality subselves. See this series of articles for more perspective on addictions and maintaining true sobriety.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  How does excessive shame relate to psychological wound reduction?

      Premise - growing up in a low-nurturance childhood family promotes a fragmented personality, which causes up to six significant psychological wounds. One wound is excessive shame and guilt. Lesson 1 in this nonprofit Web site focuses on identifying and reducing these wounds. This article is an outline of how to (a) convert excessive shame to normal, and to (b) promote genuine self respect and self love.

      Most people who hit true bottom and commit to personal wound-reduction ("recovery") will have to break long-held protective denials to admit and reduce excessive shame and guilts. These wounds are usually caused by a powerful, reactive Shamed  Child, a Guilty Child, perhaps other Inner Kids, and their tireless narrowly-focused Guardian subselves.

      Subselves' core belief that "I'm not worthy or lovable" can block other subselves' seeking wound-recovery, and/or sabotage their efforts to empower the wise resident true Self to lead. This is specially likely when fearful, distrustful subselves perceive wound-recovery as unneeded, unsafe, hopeless, and/or "too hard."

      Because shame is so painful and has been disguised and denied for decades, establishing a trusting relationship between Self and a resident Shamed Child (and similar subselves) is often the last step in harmonizing personality subselves. It typically takes great patience, sensitivity, and compassion to accomplish in the host person and any professional recovery guide and supporters. This is most likely if the recovering person intentionally chooses a support network of people led by their true Selves.

q-mark.gif (70 bytes)  What's the opposite of excessive shame?

      It is non-egotistical pride,  self love, self respect, and self-nurturance (vs. self neglect). These come from key attitudes steadily held by your governing subselves in most or all situations and relationships. A key attitude is some version of this...

 "I am a good, valuable, useful, lovable child / adult / person no matter what anyone else says or implies. I have talents to develop (and non-shameful limitations) which empower me to bring unique value and worth to other living things and our world."

      Another set empowering attitudes and beliefs is in an authentic Bill of Personal Rights like this.

       Excessive shame and guilt (a) powerfully affect all life experiences, expectations, and relationships, and (b) amplify all other psychological wounds. Recovery authority John Bradshaw calls toxic shame "the gift that goes on giving," referring to parents' unintentionally passing on their own inherited ancestral shame to their kids.

      Without hitting bottom and patient wound-recovery, they're at major risk of growing up and doing the same. Has that invisible bequest affected anyone you know? For more perspective, see this succinct review of the power of positive self esteem by Dr. Nathaniel Branden. I also recommend Bradshaw's practical book Healing the Shame That Binds You.

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Continue with typical symptoms of excessive shame and a summary of typical shame-conversion options. Do you need a break first?