On Healing 6/26/2006: Exposure causes shame but heals it, too

I recently made an error at one of my consulting jobs. Mistakes happen. My supervisor picked up the error and I got criticized. Action followed by reaction. A pretty typical exchange for people who are imperfect and have supervisors.

If only it were that simple.

My first reaction was anxiety, the sudden shock of a harsh reprimand. Fear is a natural reaction to a threat, and I felt my job was being threatened. But then the anxiety quickly morphed into shame, one of the most painful and potentially destructive of all human emotions. That’s because I experienced the criticism as an accusation.

In short, the criticism felt as if it was about who I am rather than simply what I did. Shame is about exposure, and it feels isolating.

Philadelphia psychiatrist Donald Nathanson, author of Shame and Pride, says shame is also about helplessness and powerlessness. These emotions are so powerful that they feel unbearable.

So what do we humans do in the face of shame? One option is to simply acknowledge the situation. We could just say that we feel misunderstood, exposed and ashamed and that we are powerless. I don’t know about you, but I would need at least another lifetime to achieve that level of clarity and dispassion.

Nathanson thinks most people fall into what he calls the “compass of shame.” Because shame is so painful, there are four ways of defending against the pain. We could withdraw and shut down, attack ourselves, attack the other person, or act impulsively to banish the feeling with alcohol or drugs.

In my case, I wrapped myself in righteous indignation, which is thinly veiled aggression: “How dare they! After all of the years of devotion! My mistake was small and they overreacted. What’s wrong with them?”

Then righteous indignation turned to murderous rage: “Oh yeah, they can take this job and…” I soon began writing War and Peace in my head, skipping the peace part, enduring several sleepless nights. A mind is not always a gift!

All of us have felt the overwhelming pain that goes with shame, and have landed somewhere on that compass. Several years ago, a young friend of mine asked a boy she had her eye on to go to her junior prom. When he said no, I watched helplessly as she called herself stupid for even thinking she was good enough for him. She went on to say he rejected her because she was ugly, and that no one likes her anyway. Of course, my reassurance didn’t make either one of us feel better.

As adults, shame happens when we are publicly reprimanded, rejected for a job, or turned down by our partner to make love. Sometimes the pain of shame is so unbearable that we don’t even know we feel it.

Many couples fall into a pattern. Men feel unfairly criticized by their wives and withdraw. This inevitably makes the criticism worse and the men withdraw further. Like my problem at work, the criticism feels like harsh judgment for who they are. But the withdrawal happens so quickly, many of these men are not even aware that they feel shame.

That emotion can be deadly. In street parlance, when someone feels they have been “dissed” – disrespected – the reaction can be violent. Young people feel they must physically attack the other person to reclaim their respect. But what is feeling disrespected other than feeling shame?

Shame also has its positive sides. If it weren’t for shame, we would see more people pick their nose in public. We would likely see more of other people’s body parts than we would like. And my shame from work will make me more diligent about my performance.

So what’s the cure for this unbearable emotion? Love cures shame, Nathanson says. But that’s not easy advice. We can’t feel loved unless we feel understood. And we can’t feel understood when we are withdrawn, attacking another person or ourselves, or acting out.

Shame is caused by exposure, and it is healed by exposure. The only way to find understanding and compassion is to take the risk of exposing the fact that we feel shame in the first place.

So how did I deal with my shame at work? I wrote a column about it!

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