Many of us have grown to adulthood with child-based shame thoughts. Our self confidence can be readily undermined when these “little boy” or “little girl” thoughts creep in. These thoughts seem to have a life of their own and frequently are negative or critical.
Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning in, Self Esteem, mention that these negative thoughts originate from an internal “pathological critic”. They go on to discuss a number of categories of “cognitive distortions” or exaggerated thoughts.
These “tools of the pathological critic” include: overgeneralization, global labelling, filtering, polarized thinking, self blame, personalization, mind reading, control fallacies and emotional reasoning.
There are other considerations, however, to help in the battle against self shame and some of them come from the book The Culture of Shame by Andrew Morrison. He makes the point that in order to alleviate shame, “we must be in relationship with a person(or persons) whom we perceive as accepting, attuned and responsive.”(italics added)
The affirmation that at least one living person cared (or cares) can make all the difference. When shame feelings loom large, it can be helpful to reconnect with such a person or memories of them.
Morrison goes on to state that the essential quality in the healing of shame is “self acceptance” which needs to be internalized as an antidote to the child-based internalized feelings of shame. Sometimes it takes time to replace the shameful thoughts with self accepting ones.
“We fear rejection and abandonment by others only when we believe we are incompetent and unworthy. As we begin to tolerate our own imperfections and failures, this fear and the secretiveness it spawns both diminish.” “An important sign of the alleviation of shame is a greater openness, a new willingness to be observed as we are instead of as we would like to be.” (italics added)
Shame appears behind masks such as rage or depression. Rage can be a spontaneous response to the sudden appearance of shame; in an attempt to rid ourselves of shame, we attack someone in our environment as its imagined instigator. We expect negativity from others because we project our own negative judgments about our shortcomings onto others. We attribute to others the feelings of self-scorn that were in fact initiated from within.
Morrison states that there is a conundrum or dilemma with regard to self shame: “we seek to deny or dispel shame; yet ultimately the only way to resolve it is to acknowledge and confront the distress and the doubts underlying it.” We must risk “self-exposure”. This involves taking the chance of revealing feelings, thoughts, needs, fears, and self-doubts to another person, who accepts rather than ridicules these “soft spots.”
Overcoming shame is hard work. We need to challenge and expose shame thoughts and accept, nurture and help the self to develop beyond its role as harsh critic. Self-reflection can distinguish now from then, me from other and inner from outer. We need to examine our perfectionistic ideals and modify them to something more realistic.
The challenge is to disengage judgments about performance from judgments about one’s self value. The major step in alleviating shame is to achieve flexibility and thus ease or abandon the quest for perfection. To have a need must not, in and of itself, be cause for shame.
Adler summed it up years ago when he stated that the challenge is to have “courage to be imperfect”.