A psychotherapist says that there are four types of shame - here's what they are and how they affect us

'Shame influences so many of our defences, so many of our character traits' 

Lindsay Dodgson
Wednesday 04 April 2018 12:26
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When Joseph Burgo first proposed the idea of writing about shame, he found that people were afraid.

"My agent, when we went out with the proposal for this book, was very afraid it was too dark and people were going to be scared off," he said. "I was told by agents and editors everywhere that nobody wanted to read about shame. It was a downer subject."

However, according to Mr Burgo, "Now, I think people are ready to hear about it."

We feel shame for many different reasons, in a variety of ways. In Mr Burgo's new book "Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem," which is set to be released in November, he approaches the topic of shame through four different lenses, called shame paradigms.

"I think shame is everything," he said. "I think it influences so many of our defences, so many of our character traits. I think coping with shame is a daily preoccupation, not shame in the big toxic sense, but in a kind of everyday way."

There are four distinct types of shame

The first subset of shame is unrequited love. Anybody who's ever loved someone and been rejected, or realised their love wasn't reciprocated, knows how shaming and humiliating that can be, Mr Burgo said.

But this type of shame can develop early on in life. For example, there is something called the "Still Face Experiment," where mothers are asked to interact with their babies by smiling and talking to them.

Then, after a while, they are told not to react for a couple of minutes, and ignore the baby's actions by just staring blankly. The baby tries smiling, pointing, and shrieking to get the mother to play with them again, and eventually the stress becomes too much and they start to cry.

The mother's lack of empathy leads the baby to feel something like shame. Mr Burgo says this can happen in real life if a mother is unable to mirror their baby's emotions because of depression, or being overwhelmed by what's going on in their own life.

"If that baby's experience were to be repeated, if the attachment relationship failed to develop normally and the mother consistently fell short on an empathic level, it would deform the baby's developing self and lead to a kind of structural affliction I refer to as basic shame," Mr Burgo explained in a detailed post about unrequited love.

The second type of shame is unwanted exposure. For example, if you are called out for a mistake in public, or humiliated by someone walking in on you naked. This is typically what many people think of when you mention shame.

Disappointed expectation is the third type, which is when you set out to do something and you fail. This could be at work, such as not getting that promotion you were going for, or it could be something in your personal life, like a relationship that doesn't work out the way you hoped, or a friendship that turns sour.

The fourth type is exclusion, or being left out. Sometimes we just want to fit in and feel like we belong. This happens in all walks of life, at work, in friendships, and in romantic relationships. We place a lot of value on being liked and not feeling like an outsider, so when something threatens that, we can take it pretty hard.

"In every day of our life, we feel some member of the shame family of emotions," Mr Burgo said. "It might be a little thing, like we're a little disappointed about the B we got on the report when we thought we were getting an A, there's a little bit of shame there. Or it could be big, like if you get fired.

"Wondering whether or not we belong, or whether or not we're liked, or loved, or whether or not we're successful — I think these are our daily preoccupations and they all contain the risk of shame."

Shame may have evolved to be beneficial

Shame can be excruciating, and can be one reason behind why people grow up with destructive personality traits such as narcissism. But shame is also beneficial to our survival in some ways.

For instance, children are curious and want to explore. While this is educational, it can also be dangerous to be too interested in unfamiliar places and people.

Saying "no" is a mild form of shame, and most parents use it a lot while their children are young. It interrupts the positive feeling of exploration the child is feeling, but the shame doesn't last long, and causes no long-term damage.

Nobody's childhood is perfect, and people often develop pockets of shame where our parents let us down in important ways. But the biggest problems with shame arise when someone's childhood is plagued by abuse, neglect, or trauma, Mr Burgo said.

For those who have been severely impacted, psychologists have to tread carefully.

"If you probe too quickly, you'll stir up people's defences against their shame," Mr Burgo said. "So you have to very slowly peel back the defences gently, and help them to get in touch with the feelings of defence."

It takes a while to build trust, as people with intense feelings of shame are often concerned about being judged by others, including their therapists.

"I've found in my later years of practise that I have a much less psycho-analytic stance, and it's really helpful for clients to understand, without disclosing too much about yourself, that you know what shame is too," Mr Burgo said.

"You're not this idealised, shame-free analyst who doesn't have to deal with what they have to deal with. I think it's important for them to know you have got it too."

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