What do you see when you look in the mirror? When you strip away the physical features looking back at you that you readily recognize and have been long familiar with a layer is revealed that engages our emotions and judgments about what we see. In Greek mythology, narcissus was the son of the river god who fell in love with his image reflected in a pond. Some days and in some ways most of us are like narcissus. When we look at our accomplishments, our feats, or even our endowments, we swell with pride. Other days, in other ways, we might feel otherwise.
Shame and pride are opposite sides of the same coin. When we look at ourselves in the mirror we see ourselves not only through our own eyes but more importantly perhaps through the eyes of everyone else. Self-consciousness is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. It means we have a sense of self, a capacity to reflect, to introspect, and ultimately use this knowledge to better ourselves in this life. This sense for who we are largely originates and continually derives from our awareness of the impressions others have of us. It is through our ability to see ourselves through the eyes of others that when those impressions are unfavorable we feel a sense of shame.
Is shame a “bad” emotion? Is it an emotion we would best be without?
Shame is a reminder that we live in a world with fellow creatures toward whom we have responsibility and from whom we judge ourselves. It is founded within deep psychological mechanisms known as projection, identification, and empathy. So when we find ourselves falling short of what is expected of us whether it be acting in an irresponsible way or failing to give our best efforts toward those endeavors deemed important in life we feel shame. In our minds these matters reflect who we are in relation to others, our status, social identity. These concerns reflect the fact we are social creatures. Shame incentivizes us to become responsible to ourselves and others with whom we identify.
When is shame problematic? Richard Grannon, Life Coach, has identified “toxic shame” as an irrational feeling of worthlessness and susceptibility to humiliation that usually originates from childhood experiences often associated with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. As adults, as one might expect, those who suffer from toxic shame often avoid intimacy, withdraw from social life, or become guarded and distrustful, hidden behind a mask of pleasantness and eagerness to please others.
Freud - Secondary Narcissism
One might also suffer from an apparent lack of sufficient shame. Here we would find the classic antisocial personality, the person who lacks sufficient conscience to care enough about how others feel or think. The narcissistic personality, on the other hand, presents a more complex issue. What Sigmund Freud called “secondary narcissism,” a withdrawal of investment in others for the sake of investment in one’s self or ego presumably serves the function of protecting oneself from feeling shame. In narcissistic personality, therefore, what appears to be a fundamental conceit belies a deeper unconscious defense against self-loathing and feelings of unworthiness. As the psychoanalyst, Benjamin Kilborne, points out because he is fixated on himself narcissus cannot distinguish between himself and his image and thus lacks insight or the capacity for corrective self-reflection. For Freud this is a defensive reaction against feeling intense shame. Thus, when confronted a narcissist typically will deflect responsibility or become antagonistic.
Finally, shame becomes problematic when we feel ashamed by association such as when we belong to a group, family, or are in relationship with someone deemed shameful, reviled, or ostracized by others. These are the sources of prejudice and discrimination, the infamous scarlet letter, used to defile, scapegoat, or marginalize those deemed inferior or in some way inimical to the values of the majority or of those in power. It is incumbent on all of us to raise awareness to these prejudices, identify their sources, and at a personal level speak out and collective level volunteer our efforts to help remedy these problems as they arise and presently exist.
Shame is two-faced. It serves a useful function to bring to awareness our identity which is embedded in our social structure and relationships. Thus, it can help us know ourselves better and motivate us to be responsible and take of ourselves and others properly. It becomes problematic, however, when it becomes internalized and thereby poisons our capacity to love ourselves and trust others, or in order to avoid its toxicity evade responsibility, assume an attitude of entitlement, superiority, and vindictiveness. Shame can also be used as a weapon to marginalize or scapegoat individuals and groups unfairly.
Posted by Robert Hamm, Ph.D.
Robert Hamm Ph.D