Chances are, there’s something in your life that you’re ashamed of and that you try to hide from the rest of the world. According to Dr. Anne Gross, shame-driven behavior is more common—and more harmful—than you may realize. She offers some proactive steps you can take to confront your shame and clear it out of your life once and for all.
Your face burns. Your stomach twists. You look at the ground, unable to meet the eyes of those around you. All the while, hurtful, half-formed thoughts swirl through your mind: I’m different…I’m not good enough…They’ll never, ever accept me for who I am. Whether it’s connected to your appearance, your race, your culture, your sexual orientation, or an illness or disability, you’re experiencing shame—and it doesn’t feel good.
If you’ve never been able to pin down such feelings before, there’s a reason: Shame, by its very nature, is tied to secrecy. And author and clinical psychologist Dr. Anne Gross wants to bring the subject of shame out of the closet.
“Walk into any bookstore and peruse the psychology section, and you’ll see topics ranging from anxiety to depression to ADHD, yet very little about shame,” points out Dr. Gross, author of the new book The Polio Journals: Lessons from My Mother . “That absence is a problem, because this emotion, born out of cultural attitudes that define some groups of people as less than others, is too destructive and too prevalent in our society to ignore.”
According to Dr. Gross, shame is a debilitating, toxic feeling that is often hard to identify, despite the fact that most of us are familiar with the definition of the word.
“Most emotions we feel are specific: worry, sweaty palms, racing heart when we feel anxious; unhappiness and lack of energy when we feel depressed,” says Dr. Gross. “In contrast, shame is a general feeling of being bad, flawed, and deficient that permeates the very core of how we feel about ourselves.
“Shame is also a social emotion: It causes us to live in fear that others will find us unlovable if they know us for who we really are,” she adds. “It’s that fear that prompts us to avert our gazes and fuels our silence and need to withdraw. Some people may respond to shame with anger. In extreme cases, shame can even have tragic consequences—the suicide of Bernie Madoff’s son late in 2010 comes to mind.”
Dr. Gross doesn’t just speak about shame from a therapist’s perspective—she has plenty of firsthand experience with it. In fact, The Polio Journals chronicles her mother’s—and indeed her entire family’s—story of living with a disability at a time when disabled individuals were treated as outcasts.
“When my mother contracted polio in 1927 at the age of two, society viewed polio as a shameful reflection of the dirty lifestyle of its victims,” explains Dr. Gross. “This led my grandparents to feel that they were somehow flawed or deficient. As a result, they silenced all issues related to my mother’s paralysis. The silence impacted generations of my family, wrapping a cloak of shame around us all.”
While many Americans don’t have firsthand experience with disability, a person doesn’t need to be confined to a wheelchair—or have a disabled family member—in order to feel shame.
“Shame touches us all, to varying extents and for a variety of reasons,” Dr. Gross states. “But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless, or that we have to just grit our teeth and bear it.”
Read on to gain an enhanced understanding of how shame manifests itself and what you can do to combat its debilitating presence in your own life.
Understanding Why Shame Is So Destructive
Shame causes you to live a double life. Think about it: The very definition of shame implies that what you’re ashamed of is too painful to talk about. Thus, you seek to hide that quality as much as possible so that others don’t identify it and use it to judge, ridicule, or otherwise mistreat you. And just as importantly, most of us also deny that quality to ourselves as well. Living a lie in this manner can cause you to portray the exact opposite of what you don’t like about yourself as being true. For example, there are numerous incidences of gay politicians speaking out strongly against gay rights. Similarly, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer zealously prosecuted members of a prostitution ring, likely as a reaction to his own shame for patronizing them.
“The problem with living a double life is that no matter how many people are fooled by your façade, you are not spared the pain of feeling flawed and defective,” points out Dr. Gross. “Growing up, my family succeeded in making most people think my mother’s paralysis was only a minor impediment. This impression was reinforced by the presence of a handsome husband, two children, and her successful career as a harpsichordist. Yet in the privacy of our own home, my mother was prone to frequent outbursts of anger and debilitating anxiety whenever she was left alone. And in her journals, she recorded just how much her feelings of self-hatred and humiliation surrounding her disability consumed her thoughts and life.
“Her example proves that the natural inclination to silence that which causes shame doesn’t ultimately take away one ounce of shame, or lessen its effects,” she adds. “Moreover, as we shall see later, just the opposite occurs: Silencing shame increases one’s sense of isolation and self-blame.”
Shame squelches intimacy. To put it bluntly, shame and intimacy cannot co-exist. Because of its very nature, shame prompts you to keep others—even those you’d like to be close to—at a distance so that they won’t discover or delve into your secret. This defense mechanism might manifest itself through aloofness, a judgmental nature, or having a perpetual chip on your shoulder. It also explains why dysfunctional dynamics are especially common in families that work hard to silence any defining aspects of themselves such as mental illness, alcoholism, or other addictions. The fact is, though, that we all have areas of vulnerability, and intimacy derives from our ability to share both our strengths and our weaknesses.
“As a child, I was keenly aware of my mother’s suffering, and as far back as I can recall I yearned, more than anything else, to empathize with her struggles,” Dr. Gross recalls. “However, on the few occasions I mentioned her paralysis, she would turn the other way, a look of anger on her face. I soon stopped asking. As a result, my mother and I were robbed of an opportunity to show compassion for each other.
“However, the damage to our family life went deeper than that,” she continues. “Although we were not allowed to acknowledge my mother’s disability, we were all enlisted to help minimize its impact, resulting in a destructive double message that permeated our family life. My mother would often tell me she needed me to be home, as she didn’t want to be left alone. And my father continually reminded me of all the things I needed to do to help ease my mother’s struggles. Although these messages were undoubtedly meant to turn me into a more sensitive person, they led only to resentment on my part, as they stood in such stark contrast to my mother’s message that any feelings that I had toward her disability were to be silenced.”
“Second-hand shame” harms others. The fact that shame isn’t tangible in the same way that smoking is doesn’t mean that it still can’t affect others. In fact, according to Dr. Gross, another defining feature of shame is that it often begets so-called “second-hand shame.” When we are around others who feel shame, we often experience their shame as if it were our own.
“I remember a specific instance of feeling the sting of second-hand shame when I was around thirteen,” Dr. Gross recalls. “While my mother and I were out shopping, a little girl came over and stared at my mother, who was sitting in her wheelchair. I felt overwhelmed with feelings of humiliation, and I wanted to leave the store. It wasn’t until after my mother died and I read her journals that I realized that the shame I felt that afternoon was similar to how my mother felt every day: deficient and flawed.
“While feeling another’s shame isn’t inherently a good thing, it can prompt increased understanding that can lead to a change in one’s attitude or behavior,” she adds. “Having a better grasp of what my mother was up against every day has certainly increased my empathy for all those whom society marginalizes.”
Combating Shame: How to Lessen Its Impact
Learn what triggers your shame. It’s entirely possible to be affected by shame (which, again, might manifest itself through feelings of inadequacy, defectiveness, low self-esteem, etc.) you may not even be consciously aware of. One of the best ways to determine what might be causing this is to know your family history. Think about possible secrets your family may have kept, such as members who suffered from alcoholism, mental illness, or experienced divorce. Then ask yourself whether these issues were discussed, and, if so, what your family’s reactions were.
“If your family, like mine, tried to hide an issue, experience, or condition, this way of life might be making you feel deficient or flawed in general,” Dr. Gross explains. “But the good news is, you can often pinpoint the source of these feelings by putting your family’s secrets in the context of the societal messages of the time.
“For example, if you had an uncle who was gay and your grandparents silenced all issues related to his sexual identity, try to assess what homosexuality meant to your family,” she suggests. “Ask your grandparents, if you can, why they kept their son’s orientation a secret. What were they afraid would happen if others knew? How did society respond to homosexuals at that time? Knowing why this secret was kept is the first step in diffusing your shame.”
Confront the personal meaning you attach to your shame. It’s true that most shame is rooted in cultural context, but that’s only half of the equation. It’s also inevitable that you will have attached personal meaning to your shame-causing situation. Therefore, in order to begin melting your negative feelings, you must face the (sometimes painful) process of determining why, exactly, you’re trying to hide something.
“Think of times when you have difficulty tolerating vulnerabilities—either in yourself, your children, or your friends,” Dr. Gross advises. “In such instances, do you respond with anger or do you want to hide? These are two hallmark signs of shame. For example, I had an acquaintance whose daughter gained weight, and, as a result, this woman avoided being seen with her child around her friends. I would advise this woman to think back to the particular messages about food she received from her own family, because it’s likely that her embarrassment is related to how her own parents dealt with weight issues. Chances are, they became angry because of overeating, made shaming statements, or perhaps withdrew their affection. And that is unconsciously dictating this woman’s behavior toward her own daughter.”
Understand that shame begets shame. (Don’t silence “shameful” subjects.) The desire to be accepted is perhaps the most universal of all emotions, leading all of us to struggle with wanting to belong, yet on the other hand, wanting to develop an authentic self. On this quest, we hide or downplay parts of ourselves that we believe are flawed. However, this “out of sight, out of mind” approach to your defining qualities doesn’t ultimately protect you from pain. Rather, it paradoxically increases the very isolation and shame you wanted to avoid.
Dr. Gross reports that growing up, her grandmother repeatedly told her mother that except for her inability to play tennis or dance, she was just like every other child. However, such a denial of her condition only increased her sense of self-blame and isolation. Whenever Dr. Gross’s mother did have any feelings related to her disability—such as her guilt over her dependency on others—she then blamed these feelings on her inability to see her impairment as others did.
“This is not an easy piece of advice to act on, but I can’t stress it enough: As difficult as it may be, try not to silence what you are ashamed about,” Dr. Gross emphasizes. “Find a trusted friend or relative with whom you can talk about your feelings. You’ll probably find that although you think you are the only one to feel shame regarding a specific experience, the source of that shame is most likely shared by others close to you. For example, if you’re ashamed that your child is flunking a class, rather than keeping it to yourself, talk to a friend about it. You may be surprised to learn that your friend feels similarly when her child’s academic performance is not up to expectations.
“Also, remember that communication goes both ways,” she continues. “You can be proactive in helping others feel less shame by opening up the lines of communication with honesty, respect, and genuine curiosity. Try to approach others who are having a difficult time, or whose ‘differentness’ leads others to avoid them. For example, if you’re casually acquainted with a person who has AIDS, don’t go out of your way to avoid the subject. When it seems appropriate, ask, ‘How are you feeling? Would you like to talk about it?’ Most people will be grateful for the chance to open up about their feelings and will appreciate your ‘realness.’ Most importantly, by reaching out, you are helping them melt their own shame.”
Don’t let positivity eclipse honesty. As a society, we’ve adopted the collective philosophy that a positive attitude and a smile is the best way to meet challenges. We assume that if we can gloss over difficult experiences, they won’t be as painful or as prominent in our lives. It’s true that a hopeful outlook can help—but when shame is involved, too much positivity can actually hold you back.
“Be careful that you’re not using a positive attitude as an excuse to not confront feelings of shame,” Dr. Gross warns. “You aren’t doing yourself or anyone else in your life any favors by pretending that a painful subject doesn’t exist. As I’ve shared, this is the strategy my own family employed—and it caused us to be bound by secrets and unable to express pain. It’s much better to open your eyes and truly understand what’s making you feel ‘less than.’ In fact, it’s only by acknowledging shame that we can begin to combat the societal attitudes that create it.”
Try to spend time around other people like you… It’s a self-evident fact: When you are around others like yourself, you don’t feel different. And that type of inclusion is what everyone needs. For example, being around others who are struggling with the same challenge is one of the key reasons why twelve-step programs for alcoholics, gamblers, and those with other addictions are so successful.
“Interacting with others who are and have been in your situation is invaluable,” Dr. Gross confirms. “They offer acceptance and perspective that can be impossible to find elsewhere. For that reason, I advise you to seek out others who are affected by shame that is similar to yours. If possible, join groups with people like you. Sometimes this can be hard to do, because seeing in others what you don’t like about yourself makes you reluctant to participate. In this case, use the Internet, where you can join chat groups and ease into conversations at a pace that makes you feel more comfortable.”
…But also get to know people who are different from you! Although all of us are different, deep down we all share the same dreams, fears, and goals. By getting to know others who, for example, have a different religious orientation, socio-economic status, or political orientation than yourself, you’ll begin to see these commonalities more clearly. Plus, your example will help to counteract society’s messages that some groups of people are less than others. It’s true: If we lived in a society where there was more co-mingling, there would be less shame.
“Yes, get to know people whose opinions, lifestyles, and backgrounds differ from yours,” Dr. Gross confirms. “But don’t stop there! Draw on these experiences to educate other people. Talk to your children about insensitive portrayals when you see them in the media or from other people. For example, stress that individuals with disabilities are just like us in that they want to fit in and be accepted for who they are. Ask your children how they would feel if they were the butt of jokes or cruel behavior. In this way, you may be able to start a dialogue that shapes a young person’s lifelong attitude toward people whom society views as ‘different.’”
The bottom line is, everybody feels shame for some reason and to some degree,” Dr. Gross concludes. “And experience has shown us that ignoring those feelings doesn’t help at all. If you feel inadequate, flawed, different, or less than, please take a hard look at why this is the case. It won’t be easy…but facing your shame will help you to grow closer to your authentic self, and to the rest of the world.”