Neil A. Fiore, PhD
As a clinical psychologist I see too many people whose sense of worth has been lowered by shame, bullying, and abuse. Guilt—as Brene Brown and John Bradshaw have said—comes from the sense that I’ve done something wrong; while shame follows from a sense that I am something wrong, I’m a mistake, I don’t fit in.
From my non-research, clinical perspective, I see shaming as a lowering (surrendering, yielding, head-down-tail-between-the-legs) mammal brain survival reaction to inescapable attack from the pack or society when we break a social taboo or are out of line. This survival response lowers aggression in a situation where it would be dangerous and foolish to fight back. The lowering of aggression and testosterone feels bad to the point that males especially feel the need to take revenge against the attacker or bully. Shaming, therefore, can lead to the victim seeking revenge through violence toward anyone seen as privileged or in authority. [See Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good for the reports of how mass murderers were abused as children. Miller says that wars will end when we stop abusing our children.]
When this lowering is experienced repeatedly by a child (or anyone dependent on the abuser) it is internalized as an identity—I am lower and inferior to those who are superior, have more power, and are in control of my food and shelter. Eleanor Roosevelt has said: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. But most young children do not have the power to consent or resist. They, like young animals, are learning their place in the family and the society and are looking for approval and trying to avoid abandonment. In order to survive in a repressive, punishing environment, they have to sacrifice a part of their spirit and worthiness. It would be too dangerous to rebel or resist so they remind themselves that they must stay low.
Regardless of the initial cause of the lowering of worth, it is the ongoing “beating myself up” that maintains the low sense of self and low expectations for a meaningful life. The same brain that absorbed the language and beliefs of your parents also learned that is necessary to hide your spirited self to fit in at school, get gold stars, and avoid embarrassment, shaming, and being ostracized.
While Freudians and developmental psychologist call this internal voice the “superego” I call it the six-year-old who knows that unconditional love is over and that he or she must learn the rules. The next time you see a six-year-old waving his finger at an adult for cursing or littering or hear him shouting that you’re not being fair, consider how well he’s learned the society has rules. By the age of six, he or she, also learns that disobeying the rules has consequences that can result in being shamed, lowered, put down, and told “you’re out of line.”
In an attempt to avoid the pain of feeling guilty and shamed, some try to be perfect. But this is futile and a waste of valuable time. Humans are not perfect and cannot avoid being vulnerable to criticism, loss, illness, and death. Accepting your imperfection and vulnerability is just acknowledging: “I am a mortal human and therefore vulnerable to loss, criticism from society, abandonment, death, and amazing feats of courage and joy.” It’s tremendously liberating to simply state: “So I’m not perfect. So What? I’m only human. But I’m still here and worthy of life.”
There’s no shame in admitting our human vulnerability and imperfection. Quit the opposite. The awareness of our mammal brain lowering reaction awakens us to hold our human heads up high and say, “Yes, I’m human and imperfect. I give myself worthiness. What’s your point?” It’s the denial of humanness and vulnerability and the attempt to be perfect that causes us pain and self-induced shame. I’d like to speak up for letting go of trying to be perfect and invulnerable and to compassionate embracing our human imperfection. How liberating, human, and courageous!