Shame: why destructive shame makes our lives difficult

Woman hides from shame under the covers

And suddenly it came over me again. For days she had been waiting for the best moment to make my life hell. My old enemy the shame, it had made its way again.

For years now, I have been dealing with shame research, and although I now know almost all the background and all the tricks, it has come back to me with a vengeance. With phrases like:

  • You are not good enough
  • You are too fat
  • You will fail
  • You made mistakes

fires my brain in staccato like a broken jackhammer.

I’ve already forgotten again what caused this condition this time, but I know by now that I can beat it. For years shame had defined me – now I don’t let it do that anymore. Because by now I know very well what I am dealing with – and you should too!

But what is shame actually? Where does it come from, how and why does it flagellate us, and why is it one of the biggest taboos in our society?

What is shame and what types are there?

Shame is a painful, self-conscious emotion in which one feels the entire self is flawed. Since researching my book "No Shame," I’ve been asking the people I meet when they last felt shame. The answers, you can believe me, are really amazing! Nobody is free from this feeling, really nobody.

Who hasn’t slipped into the color of a sun-ripened tomato when an embarrassment has abruptly caught them off guard?? We blush when we are directly ashamed in front of others, but shame also sabotages us quite effortlessly without audience. But also through exposure or shaming by other people in the form of humiliation or offenses, feelings of shame can be triggered in us.

In general, the contents of shame can be listed as follows:

  • Inferiority shame (physical size& Attractiveness, strength, performance, skills)
  • Adaptation shame (dependence/independence)
  • Intimacy shame (shame from sexuality)
  • Body shame (excrement, period)
  • Group shame (foreign shame)
  • Traumatic shame (Traumatic boundary violations)
  • Moral shame (conscience shame)
  • Empathic shame (fear of loss of belonging)

This list could be continued endlessly, as there is virtually no area in life, whether feelings, thoughts or physical aspects, that cannot be shame-laden.

Why do we feel ashamed? How destructive shame arises

Shame develops, we know from research, as early as infancy. Babies already turn their heads away, and children and teenagers quickly blush when they feel caught. Destructive shame is formed mainly in children who too often receive the "wrong" feedback, where there is a clear mismatch between the child’s expectation and the caregiver’s response.

For Freud, too, shame arises in childhood primarily through susceptibility to parents’ moral punitive impulses. He describes this kind of shame, based on childlike dependence and helplessness, as social anxiety. From this fear of punishment, feelings of guilt can quickly mature into adulthood.

Personally, fate took me to India in my forties, where a Brahmin took me aside and said to me, "You know, Jessica, you Western women all have the same problem. You grow up believing you are not good enough. You have even grasped this intellectually. But you have not understood what follows. Because ‘I’m not good enough’ is followed by ‘I deserve punishment’. And this is your biggest problem."

I held my breath. This was the piece of the puzzle in all my madness that I had been missing! Finally I understood. I had punished myself. For decades. My shame for my inadequacy virtually forced me to punish myself constantly. But the good thing was: I finally held the end of an emotional tangle in my hand, which I could now untangle.

Toxic shame: why shame can make us sick

In adults, shame often manifests itself in the form of a lowered gaze, broad grin, embarrassed laughter, or stuttering. In addition to these seemingly harmless reflexes, however, shame can also have worse effects. Acute feelings of shame can also cause stress reactions, such as an increased pulse, shortness of breath, inner restlessness, sweating, dizziness and palpitations.

Scientists have even discovered that shame has an extremely negative effect on our immune system and can even make us ill.

This is how the American scientist Sally S. Dickerson that the psychological influences of shame can result in significant health impairment. She found that in the animal kingdom, the messenger cytokine, which promotes cell growth and inhibits the spread of viruses, increased sharply in submissive animals.

After this groundbreaking discovery, she designed another series of experiments that were conducted on humans. Subjects were asked to confront their mistakes on a daily basis and to get particularly shameful moments from their lives off their chest. The result of this study showed a significant increase in the cytokine TNF alpha and classic inflammatory symptoms, such as flushing, swelling, redness and shock symptoms.

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Dickerson also found other associations of shame and inflammatory symptoms in subjects who struggled with rejection, isolation, and depression – all circumstances closely related to feelings of shame.

Of course, the intensity of how we feel and deal with shame can vary greatly from person to person and from situation to situation. While one merely feels a sense of embarrassment, the other would prefer to sink into the ground or vanish into thin air.

Nonetheless, shame has become an unrecognized plague that infiltrates society, plunges individuals into misery, and affects our social lives immensely. And certainly not for the better.

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