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If I had to pick one psychological issue to crown as the most toxic and dangerous issue on both the individual and societal level, I would easily pick shame. While at first glance, it may not seem as terrible as depression, but its deadly power lies in its ability to provide the ideal conditions for depression and many other conditions. In fact, research has shown that shame is strongly linked to depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide. Kids who are more prone to internalize shame were found to be more likely to procrastinate, drop out of school, use drugs, stay in abusive relationships, become abusive themselves, and attempt suicide. In our societies, not only are many of us vulnerable to the toxicity of shame, but we also often unknowingly shame others and use shame in parenting and in our relationships, reinforcing its power over our society.

Shame is defined by some researchers, including Dr. Brené Brown- who is currently the most publicly known shame researcher, as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, connection, and belonging”. It can be a short-lived, temporary, emotion (for example, a person does something or has an experience that makes them feel unworthy for a short period of time), or it could be a constant state of being – a deep-seated belief in one’s own unworthiness.

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Shame evolved with humanity as an ancient mechanism for self-preservation. For example, we are all born with an intense desire for love and belonging, which keeps us attached to our parents and stops us from displeasing them so that they keep caring for us, which, in turn, allows us to survive. As adults living in ancient hunter-gatherer tribes, whether or not a person was valued determined whether or not they and their families received food and other resources. Thus, having a strong deterrent in the form of shame served to motivate people to behave well and avoid actions that may cause them to be less valued by their tribe members.

This is why shame is a universal emotion that everyone experiences at least occasionally if not often. However, some people may experience intense shame episodes differently in their bodies. For example, some people describe their feelings of shame as hot flushes in their cheeks, around their ears and neck, sweats, tingling in the armpits, constriction in the chest, light-headedness, shortness of breath, or a combination of these physical symptoms. This is why shame is often confused with other emotions that are similar but much less dangerous; such as guilt, embarrassment, or humiliation. The main difference between shame and these other emotions is that shame arises from the belief that one’s flaws, mistakes, failures, and imperfections are proof of them being unworthy of love and connection. This is why, if not handled properly and promptly, a shame episode can spiral into more bad behavior and “lashing out” or into illnesses such as anxiety, depression, etc… Guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation, on the other hand, are the healthier cousins of shame. When a person feels guilty, they believe that they <em>did</em> something bad, as opposed to that they themselves <em>are</em> bad and therefore unworthy of love. Similarly, when a person feels embarrassed, they remain aware that the embarrassing situation is not a reflection on their own personal worthiness, but simply something that can happen to anyone. Finally, a person is capable of feeling humiliated only if they already have the fundamental belief that they are valuable and worthy, and so, do not “deserve” the humiliation they received. Guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation, therefore, are more likely to lead to a person apologizing, taking responsibility for their actions, or, in the case of humiliation, standing up for themselves.

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We may sometimes hear the phrase “shame on you” or “you should be ashamed of yourself” used in various contexts. There is in fact considerable doubt amongst present day researchers as to whether there is such a thing as “appropriate” or “useful” shame. Many researchers now believe that shame is almost never useful in modern society, even with serious offenders such as domestic abusers, rapists, or murderers. Their argument is that, in the presence of shame, healing and reform are impossible; an offender who fundamentally believes he or she is unworthy of love and connection (and whose beliefs are being reinforced by society) is much more likely to repeat their offense and less likely to respond to any rehabilitation efforts. However, this remains a somewhat controversial issue.

Aside from the context of grave offenses, shame is present in our daily lives in ways that create a lot of unnecessary suffering and, just like mental illnesses, may severely hinder people from reaching their full potential and contributing to society in positive ways. Most shaming happens silently and indirectly, some of it happens accidentally or without awareness, and some of it is direct and deliberate. For example, we directly shame men or women – even openly use the words “’aib عيب” or “’aar عار” – for failing to conform with social norms, even when this is out of their control. We use shame to police people’s behavior (and often their bodies) and maintain a specific social structure that resists change. We openly shame women for dressing less conservatively or less femininely, for being assertive, for being sex-positive, or for pursuing careers that are traditionally pursued by men. Similarly, we may shame a man for not being “strong” enough, “manly” enough, or for failing to impose his control on women in his care. Another example is shaming people for belonging to certain ethnic tribes and not others by making it clear in various ways that they are somehow less valuable simply because of their ethnicity.

Less directly, we create shame in women over their bodies and skin color by consistently favoring the beauty of lighter-skinned women and skinnier (or fuller) women and by prioritizing physical beauty over character. This kind of shame accumulates as a young girl grows into womanhood, developing into a deep-seated belief that, because she is darker than other women, she is less valuable, and therefore should settle for less in her relationships and even her career. Similarly, a man may develop deep shame if he finds himself unable to start a family or provide for one (even if due to circumstances outside of his control), or if he happens to have a somewhat more sensitive or “feminine” demeanor than what society deems appropriate for a man.

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Perhaps one of the most dangerous ways in which we use shame is when we use it on children. Parents and teachers often shame children believing it to be the necessary thing to do when a child misbehaves or to get them to perform better. When correcting or redirecting a child, they fail to distinguish between whether the child is bad or did something bad. Children who are naturally more prone to shame can be profoundly impacted by any signals that suggest that they may lose the love and protection provided by those around them if they fail to please them. This could seriously hinder the development of a child’s self-esteem and confidence. A child who believes she is bad may not, for example, inform their parents if a teacher humiliates them in class. As far as the child was concerned, the teacher simply gave her or him the treatment he or she believes they deserve. By extension, this child may also never try harder at school because they believe that someone like themselves cannot possibly be capable of being a good student. Alternatively, a child with a different personality may respond to such experiences by becoming an overachiever who engages with education from a place of fear rather than a place of curiosity and wonder – an anxious perfectionist rather than a happy, well-adjusted, creative student. Such a child may in turn grow up to become a boss who shames their subordinates or peers, or a person who seems successful on the outside but constantly lives with anxiety and has poor relationships.

In fact, the kind of silence mentioned in the example above is precisely what makes shame toxic, contagious, and difficult to get rid of. Most people do not even recognize when they are experiencing shame. They feel the discomfort in their bodies when certain situations trigger their shame, but they might never know what this pain represents or why it is triggered by particular events or words. Unable to identify and name it, they cannot tackle it. Instead, they cover it up or develop behaviors and traits to shield themselves from it. Such behaviors and traits may include aggressiveness, submissiveness, obsessiveness, withdrawal, or, as mentioned above, perfectionism. After all, if someone could be perfect and irreproachable, they could never be unworthy!

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This is why learning to recognize and name shame is the first critical step in fighting it. The second step is to expose it by taking away the silence that allows it to fester. If a person who has just been triggered into a shame spiral (and recognizes it) connects with a trusted friend or family member – a person who is empathetic and knows not to respond by intensifying the shame – and tells them about their experience, it is the equivalent of pouring water over a fire. Speaking our shame in the presence of empathy reminds us that we are not alone and that everybody experiences these emotions from time to time. It also reminds us that we do not need to believe these feelings or identify with them.

Another critical ingredient in beating shame is to have a proper understanding of worthiness. More specifically we need to remember that worthiness has no prerequisites. In other words, we need to remember and believe that love, connection, and belonging are a birth right of every human being, and that no one should have to prove their worthiness to the world. This step can be particularly difficult to achieve in modern society, because our societies have become obsessed with performance and productivity, to the extent that a person’s value has become almost entirely attached to their productivity, and to the extent that constant exhaustion has become an indicator of a person’s value. These are ideals that heavily promote a culture of shame, especially in the workplace and in academic institutions.

We, as individuals and societies, need to start learning how to swap shame for accountability. Instead of beating ourselves and each other up for our flaws and mistakes, we need to learn how to separate them from our sense of self-worth and, instead, take responsibility for them and hold ourselves and each other accountable for our actions not for who we are. This is part of developing the skill of self-compassion, which is the ability to be kind to ourselves when we mess up, remembering that everybody makes mistakes and that this is simply human nature. Then, and only then, when our worthiness is no longer on the line, we can move on to accountability and self-improvement. We will find it easier to apologize, make up for our mistakes, and do better next time, if we are not stressed out of our minds about maintaining or proving our worthiness.

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Last but not least, as individuals and societies, we seriously need to rethink our values, traditions, and social norms. We must identify those beliefs, values, and traditions that create unnecessary shame and misery for people, and we should evaluate whether we really need to hold on to them or police people who wish not to hold on to them. We may discover that many of them bring us too much harm and no benefit, and that letting go of them may help to create a more shame-free, and thus happier and more successful, society.

Sources:

Brown, B (2007). I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame. Gotham, USA.

Brown, B (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing, USA.

Gilligan, J (2003). Shame, Guilt, and Violence. Social Research</em>, 70(4), 1149-1180. Retreived from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40971965&gt;

Neff, K (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. HarperCollins, New York, USA.

O'Connor, LE; Berry, JW; Inaba, D; Weiss, J; Morrison, A (1994). Shame, Guilt, and Depression in Men and Women in Recovery from Addiction. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 11:503-510.


Maha Khalil

Maha received her PhD in Marine Science from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia in 2015. She specializes in coral reef ecology and conservation. She currently teaches a course on climate change at the American University in Cairo. She is also an avid reader with interests in many other disciplines in the sciences and humanities.