As I hurried away from him, I noticed those familiar sensations and feelings coming back again. I felt red in the face and my heart was beating loudly. I was unable to look anyone in the face. I noticed a huge inner pain - a sort of constriction around my stomach, or a shriveling up. I had a strong sense of my stupidity and unworthiness. I knew that I had to hide away; others must not see how I was feeling."
Shame - let's come out now with the feeling that we dare not name - was what I was experiencing then after that encounter. It is difficult to acknowledge to oneself and to admit to to another because to do so in itself creates a sense of shame. Though often fleeting, it can be intensely uncomfortable, and one, Dear Reader, that we are all familiar with, but which we often keep from others knowing. Sylvan Tomkins describes it as "an inner torment, a sickness of the soul." Shaming is an attack on our sense of who we are by people who we are involved with.
So, how does this shame arise? How can we be free from it? It may be surprising, but shame can be seen as a good thing. It arises when people attempt to influence others' behaviour. We all need to have a sense of belonging with others - friends, family lovers - and to find a way of being ourselves and expressing our wishes with them. Others, in their reactions to us, give us a sense of who we are and how we matter to them. Their reactions matter to us, and their disapproval of something we do can be experienced as a rejection. For groups and relationships to continue, it is important that we create agreement about how we should behave. For instance, when we were small children, a gaze from an adult that conveys disappointment or disgust provokes shame in us, which we can only be rid of if we conform to what they expect of us. When it is experienced infrequently and lightly, this "normal" experience of shame can help us in our bonding with others. It can help us develop empathy and compassion for others.
When we are subject to shaming on a frequently, and it is not used to shape our responses for the benefit of the whole group, but rather to humiliate and degrade us, shame becomes harmful to us. We become much more sensitive to episodes which we take as shaming, learning from past experience that others are likely to shame us again. This shame based reaction to life becomes part of our personality.
We have several options that we could use to protect ourselves against what we can call this chronic shame. We can withdraw, become invisible in social groups, so as to be unnoticed. We might be in company with others, but cut ourselves off from our own feelings and so eventually not know who we are. These avoidance strategies can be supplemented by aggressive ones - against the self, through relentless self criticism or self blame, or against others, by feeling a rage and humiliated fury.
These ways of responding have their drawbacks, of course and do not resolve the effects of being shamed. These defenses inhibit the easy flow of friendly and constructive relationships with others that we desire so deeply. However, there are other ways of managing shaming situations. We need to know that we are all right as a person, with some faults maybe, but basically OK. We accept ourselves, for a start. This means we need relationships where we are accepted as ourselves. We need a clear and relaxed state of mind so as to be aware of what is going on, that we can be our own judge as to our behaviour. That calmness can help us to decide who we want to be rather than let others decide for us. To help us regain our emotional balance, we need someone to talk with about shaming events. We need to feel unafraid in their company, knowing that they will not shame us, to whom we can admit these shame feelings. This support our sense of self-worth and reduces our feelings of isolation that shame induces in us.