Why We Shame Others
Someone recently shared their personal hurt over being shamed by others and I felt a pang of empathy at the injustice of what this person had to go through by people who should have wrapped their arms around her with encouragement and hope.
I recalled so many events in my own life that still conjured up shame within me; that feeling of loss of connection interwoven with low self-worth and negative thoughts about myself. I wondered why people have the need to commit these atrocities against each other and create additional wounding. Unfortunately, I can even recall moments that I have knowingly and unknowingly caused others to feel shame and have to live with the fact that this can never be undone. Words and actions cannot be erased. Even after genuine apologies and forgiveness the evidence of the hurt is outlined by the scarring.
Why after all these years can we feel the sting of those earlier moments of being shamed? It’s as though these feelings of shame are powerful entities that follow us silently, giving us the false illusion that we have battled and banished the monster. Then when we least expect it these feelings of shame jump out when we’re triggered and block our pathway and stunt our forward journey toward wholeness. These still powerful forces defeat us and remind us we are not worthy of love and acceptance.
What is shame and where does it come from? When I think of shame I think of Brene’ Brown, She is an author and professor and has become the defending voice for those of us who sometimes become immobilized by debilitating shame. She instructs us how to become brave and overcome through facing the unmentionable hurt inside us.
As I continued to think about this women’s experience with shaming, I was taken inside myself to my own moments of being shamed and shaming others and saw fear at the core. After defending myself once and trying to put myself in a better light someone said to me, “You always do that. You always throw in a plug and defend yourself as though you are guiltless, and you do this by pointing out the faults of others in a coy way to deflect.”
Though that was enormously hurtful and triggered more feelings of shame and self-loathing, it was defining moment where I began to recognize my own triggers as being shame based. Within my own shame I felt alienated and full of self-loathing that was so great that I felt the need to defend myself through shaming others in order to banish the feelings of being less-than. I wanted to control the situation, and control is always based in fear.
We give ourselves this false illusion that we are somehow in complete control of our lives and the world around us; that if we schedule our days just right and implement strict routines, as well as dictate the lives and thoughts of others, then nothing bad can happen to us or those we love.
Then life happens and we realize we had no control at all. They leave us through death or broken relationships, jobs are lost and all kinds of other things happen that we cannot control, and still we struggle with control because when we aren’t in control we feel anxious, distressed, unloved, lonely, and we feel so strongly that we might die if these feelings of helplessness goes on and on.
So, what do we do? Control everyone around us and point out their flaws and try to divert ourselves from our own fears in order to create some semblance of safety through an illusion of control. We shame others and ourselves in an effort to control what we cannot because we fear so deeply that if we don’t control everything then we are not safe.
When we think of safety, the images of a burglar breaking into our homes or someone attacking us in a public place might pop into our minds, but feelings of not being safe can be triggered in conversation with friends, family, bosses and co-workers or in any number of situations that cause our brains to recall times when we were not safe.
We become triggered by altering beliefs, political affiliations, and within encounters with people different from us. When we do not feel safe the stress response is activated and we begin to try to assert control over the situation and others in order to resume that feeling of safety.
Shaming others, our children, spouses, best friends, and anyone who may not agree with us can be a common reaction to restore this false illusion of control. The process behind the pointing finger is an amazing one and can be an insightful window into the true self if we are brave enough to look through the dirty glass and into our own pain.
Shame conjures up all those awful thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves and in an attempt to squash these feelings we may shame others. This might be a conscious or unconscious act on our part until we become self-aware of what is really happening inside of us.
Brene Brown Ph.D points to powerful strategies to overcome shame and self-loathing and stop the cycle of shaming ourselves and others through allowing ourselves to be brave through vulnerability. This is a journey of self-discovery and acceptance which allows us to be vulnerable with others.
Looking inward can be a difficult path but doing the work of letting go of control and facing our fears can be the most freeing experience we will ever have. Loving ourselves is hard. We oftentimes are our worst enemy as we listen to the voices in our head that should be long buried. I know this to be true for myself, but the travel is worth it and frees us up to accept and love others unconditionally without needing to control them and alienate them through shame.
Even as I write this blog and touch on my own feelings of shame, I feel the ache of unworthiness deep in my chest, but looking inward and feeling this shame and examining its origins and how it controls my own life through fear and control are what heals all of us and allows for acceptance of ourselves and others. It moves us through the forest of fear and doubt and brings us into the sunshine of love and joy.
Brene Brown states it best when she says, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”--Brene Brown
God bless you on your own journey through this dark forest. May you soon feel the warmth of the sunshine upon your skin and bask in pure joy, creativity, connection, and love.
Lori C. Helms, M.A. LMHC