There is a trend in the spiritual, self-help and personal development fields for people to get very confused about the difference between being shamed and feeling shame in response to something.
Instead of beating around the bush, let’s just jump right to it. Shame is a biological affective reaction that happens when we fear that there will be a social consequence (such as separation or punishment) for something about us. When I say “about us”, I mean something that we think, something that we feel, something that we want, something that we like, something that we don’t like or something that we do or don’t do etc. Perceiving social consequence is a very serious deal for us, because as people, we are relationally dependent as children and need relationships with other people to thrive as adults.
When we perceive that there will be a social consequence for something about us, we unconsciously separate ourselves from that thing about us. We create an internal triangulation dynamic against ourselves, so as to establish closeness with whomever we want closeness with socially. That internal fragmentation that is occurring (or that occurred long ago) is felt as the “emotion” that we call shame. This is happening even if (and we might even say especially if) we become defensive of whatever it is we feel shame about.
Being a social species, feeling shame is a natural biological affective reaction. In some cases, we could even say that it is a pro-social response, which lent itself to our survival. When we feel shame, we feel as if something about us is not good and is not in the right and because of that, we fear we might experience some social consequence. If we want our needs to be met, survive in society and have a chance at feeling things like love and belonging and contribution and safety, we have one option… To adopt the values and standards of the society we are born into (or that we want to be a part of) and hold ourselves to them. Therefore, it can also be said that when we feel shame, we are comparing ourself to our adopted standards and we are falling short. And we feel bad about ourselves because of it.
The thing is, we can experience shame in response to all kinds of situations. For example, we can experience it when we see someone else experience a social consequence for something about them that we identify with. We can feel it in response to realizing that we have done something to harm someone else. We can feel it when someone does better at something than we did. We can feel it when we aren’t included in something we want to be included in. We can feel it when we don’t act according to our values. We can feel it when someone reacts negatively emotionally. We can feel it when someone sets a boundary for themselves and their own life. We can feel it when someone directly verbally communicates with us about a problem. We can feel it when someone gives us a reality check. We can feel it when someone is trying to help us by showing us what we are doing that isn’t in alignment and what we can do better. We can feel it when we learn information that causes us to realize we have done something wrong or have made a mistake. We can feel it when someone reflects something about us that they don’t like. We can feel it when we see something about ourselves that we don’t like. We can feel it when someone expresses disapproval for anything we identify with etc. And we can also experience it in response to being shamed.
To shame someone is to use the natural biological affective reaction of shame as a tool for manipulating and controlling them to suit your interests. For example, let’s say that a parent believes that masturbation is a sin. And let’s say that they catch their child doing it. That parent wants to control the child’s behavior and so, they may immediately act in a way so as to suggest that if the child does not stop masturbating and ever does it again, the parent’s love will be withdrawn and the child faces damnation. The child immediately triangulates against the part of themselves that has the desire to masturbate and does not do it again. Their behavior is officially controlled. Much about the process of socialization that took place in the past and that takes place today, is a process of shaming so as to create the desired behavior that we want. So again, shaming is a control tactic.
Where we need to split hairs is here: When you enter into relationships, you will run into the experience where something about the other person, causes a problem for you. And because there are always consequences, both positive and negative for anything that a person does or does not do, there will be consequences for the person being or not being a certain way. Doing or not doing a certain thing. The same is true in reverse. For example, if you are a politician and the press and public judges you by the conduct of the people that you associate with, you may need to have the personal boundary that your partner does not go out to night clubs and get drunk. If your spouse does this, you will react negatively. And if they don’t stop doing this, the consequence will be that you can’t be in that relationship anymore. The politician’s partner may feel shame in response to this. But it is not fair to say that they are being shamed because they met with a social consequence for doing a certain thing or being a certain way. The politician may want his or her partner to behave in a certain way, but we cannot say that the politician is controlling their partner. The politician is simply asserting his or her personal truth and boundaries. The partner then is in a position to consider that and come back with their truth and their boundaries. If we consider it controlling for there to be any social consequence for our actions, and expect to be positively reacted to, no matter what we do or don’t do, we open the door wide for us to abuse other people in relationships. In the same way that using shame as a control tactic in relationships can be abuse in a relationship. If you want to learn more about this, you can watch my video titled: The “No Matter What Pattern” in Relationships.
Feedback in a relationship is essential to a healthy relationship. It is not accurate to say that this is shaming, even if it causes you or the other person to feel shame. There is a difference between someone trying to manipulate you/control you and someone who is communicating that they need you to choose to make a change or to stand by something, so that they can make a change.
Remember that anytime we are manipulating, we feel that a need cannot be met in a direct way. As a result, we are going through the back-door by doing something in-direct to bring about what we want.
It is common for people with high degrees of fragmentation due to being shamed in the past (and therefore a poor self-concept) to feel shame in response to almost everything. They then mistake that feeling of shame that arises within them for being shamed and thus, they feel manipulated or attacked even when they are not being shamed, they are not being manipulated and they are not being attacked. The problem is, because of this perception, they can’t take reflection and feedback. They accuse other people of shaming them when all they are doing is sharing a truth. And they cause other people to feel like they are walking on broken glass. All of which are a contradictory force to truth, to functional relationships and to personal growth.
People with this kind of trauma around shame, are essentially walking around the world believing that no one should ever feel shame and therefore, anything that causes someone to feel shame is bad and wrong. They tend to say things like “stop shaming me”, or “that is shaming” every time they feel an emotion that is painful. Remember that things that may cause then to feel shame include things like direct verbal communication about a problem, honesty, a negative emotional reaction, a reality check, someone trying to help them by showing them what they are doing that isn’t in working and what they need to do differently or better to make it work, someone setting a boundary for themselves and their own life, learning information that causes them to realize they have done something wrong or have made a mistake. And any feedback that is not positive etc.
When we confuse feeling shame with being shamed, we become the kind of person who requires that all people around us never do or say anything that causes us to feel shame. Or else we will put them in the role of the bad guy and us, their victim. And the reality is, that is not possible. It is not possible for anyone to never say or never do anything that causes the sensation of shame to arise within us.
Therefore, when we feel shame, we need to own it immediately as a reaction that is occurring within us, in response to someone or something else. We then need to do the personal work regarding that shame. And this is true no matter whether we are simply feeling shame or are in fact being shamed. If you want to learn more about this, you can watch my video titled: How to Overcome Shame. There is also an entire section of my book, The Anatomy of Loneliness about shame and what to do about it.
Once we have done the personal work regarding our shame and the unhealed pain and personal beliefs it points to within us, we need to work out (not just assume) what motive the other person has for saying what they said or doing what they did. It may be that they said what they said or did what they did FOR our benefit. It may be that what they said or did is for themselves, in that it is a personal plea regarding something they need from us or something they are desperate to avoid. But let’s say that a person is using shame as a control tactic. It means they want you to do or not do something. Be or not be some way. The question is why? And once you have that answer, what is your truth about that? That is the origin of genuine relationship. So, address that desire of theirs as well as your truth about it, in a direct way with them. If someone is completely closed minded about something on account of them thinking that no matter what, something is bad and wrong, there is pain motivating that closed mindedness. There is something they are very afraid of and/or were very hurt by. Addressing and caretaking that hurt will go much further than getting into a war regarding the rightness or wrongness, ok-ness or badness of something.
In an ideal world, a person who sees that they are shaming someone else, would consciously see what they are desperate for the other person to be/not be or do/not do. They would inquire internally as to why. They would go about having the relationship with the other person in a more direct instead of manipulative way. They would face the threat behind their closed mindedness about certain things being bad/wrong or good/right. Essentially, they would do their own internal work as well regarding their shaming behavior in the same way that someone who feels shame would do their own internal work.
Mutual consideration is an essential element of any relationship. Therefore, a person should care how what they are doing and saying makes you feel. If you are with someone who demonstrates that they do not care how you feel, they simply want you to be how they want you to be and do what they want you to do, then you are not in a healthy relationship because you are not being considered.
Mutual consideration is an essential part of a healthy relationship… But not to the degree that someone can’t be real in the relationship with us. Not to the degree that they can’t be honest. Not to the degree that they can’t have a negative emotional reaction. Not to the degree that they can’t directly communicate with us about a problem. Not to the degree that they can’t show us what we are doing that isn’t in working and what we need to do differently or better to make it work. Not to the degree that they can’t set a boundary for themselves and for their own life. Not to the degree that they can’t share information that causes us to realize that we have done something wrong or have made a mistake. Not to the degree that they are walking on eggshells so that you never feel the sensation of shame. And certainly not to the degree that the only feedback or reflection we can take is positive feedback/a positive reflection.
So again, to reiterate… the feeling we call shame is a natural biological affective reaction that is occurring when we fear social consequence. To shame someone is to use the natural biological affective reaction of shame as a tool for manipulating and controlling someone to suit your own interests. There is a big difference between feeling shame and being shamed.