Fundamentals #6: Shame & the Shadow
We are at the point now where we as child have begun to see a differentiation or contrast in the responses we receive from our family circle, close friends and the outside world. This contrast is not only just between family, friends and the world but is even made up of different responses to the same labels. This in itself is enough to be confusing to a newly developing mind struggling to achieve a sense of consistency and continuity in how to comprehend and deal with the world. Remember, the animal part of us wants to make things easy and automatic. Contrasting experiences don’t allow us to do that and keeps us working toward perceiving a consistent familiarity. This develops mental flexibility. Flexibility is one of the “self’s” or ego’s best tools for survival. This will become evident later on.
Some of the responses we receive will be pleasing in that they lead toward answering our needs and wants. Others won’t be. Obviously, the behaviors that lead to the ones that do we’ll utilize much more frequently. The ones that fall flat or are “off” will produce a dilemma. The dilemma will be that there is a disconnect between the same behaviors used to obtain the same objectives but they receive contrasting responses from different people. In order for us to have a concept of “self” that is consistent and understandable, these “off” responses must be “put” somewhere in our memory of experiences. The fact they don’t feel good is distressing and our natural response to things that are distressing is to simply push them away. This initial pushing away will be a denial. But that denial will not change the labels or responses that we receive from those others and they will remain active in our frame of reference comprising our perception of “self” unless we can, somehow, “deactivate” their “validity” in being applied to us. The labels I refer to are those applied by others to us that call us “smart, lazy, stupid, tubby, good, bad, disobedient” and a whole host of other qualities that someone may see us as.
As we receive these unpleasant responses from others our natural inclination moves us toward seeing them as unpleasant or distressing and to label them with the unwanted quality they’ve applied to us. This way we can handle them being in our world but they no longer have a bearing on how we perceive ourselves. Since we, as children, are still almost totally dependent on the external world for labels and material that will help us define how we perceive our “self,” the contrasting label we received still has tremendous power and validity. What we accept about ourselves as “true” is and has been defined by the external world. This is so because as children we are still predominantly subject to an external locus of control (L.O.C.). In this perspective the contrasting label which has been applied to us must be accepted as a part of us even if it is distressing. This part of us which we accept as “true” and don’t want to accept about ourselves is called our shadow. The mechanism which we have instinctively used to apply the label to someone else is called projection. Projection is one of our most prominent and prolific defense mechanisms used to keep our perception of our “self” acceptable to us and the world so we can continue to receive what we need and want from others. What we need and want are not only the physical requirements of food, shelter and safety but also love and approval. Approval is what we, as children, would explain as getting pleasing responses to our behavior from others. This “approval” is how we discriminate which labels we openly accept about ourselves. The ones which we don’t accept openly are sent to the “projection mill” for “disposal.” This feeling we might call being “unapproved of” we can call shame. Shame and shadow are both co-conspirators in that they have the same dampening effect on our motivation.
At this point it’s important to establish some clarity about shame and the fact that there is a distinction between two different types. The first type is healthy shame. When we commit to an action that oversteps our abilities and the results do the same we are embarrassed and we become aware of our limits. For example, if we commit to doing some physical task which might be beyond us, we’ll fall short, recognize our misjudgment and set our intentions closer to our abilities for future endeavors. We might say that healthy shame is a mechanism that reminds us how to stay safe; physically and “egotistically.” The embarrassment serves as an aid and reinforcement toward more conservative future intentions. Unhealthy shame or toxic shame, as coined by John Bradshaw, primarily comes from repetitive and personal diminishing childhood experiences.
In childhood experiences that evoke healthy shame we are reminded of our “normal” limits. They do not have long term deteriorating effects. They simply remind us of reasonable limits to our human abilities. In childhood experiences that evoke toxic shame there are long term deteriorating effects. The best example for the distinction between the two types of shame is where and how it is applied. In healthy shame we, as a child, are told that the action we do is considered bad or inappropriate. In this way we have no lasting effects from parental admonition except to understand where our limits lie and to be cautious in future endeavors. In toxic shame we are told that we are bad or inappropriate because of performing the action. This causes irreparable damage to our perception of our “self.” This application of toxic shame also has a resonance with the unwanted labels we receive from others that we discussed previously. A “negative” label applied by others and its acceptance by us is one of the most potent Assassins of Motivation. It essentially deflates our willingness to risk ourselves in the future with the desire of not wishing to expose our believed inadequacy or inferiority. In other words, to ingest a belief that we are unworthy or inadequate will radically inhibit, if not eliminate, any willingness we have to risk ourselves when there is a possibility of failure. In short; it sabotages our motivation.
I have waited until this point to bring up the word shame because we, as a culture, seem to have an intense and irrational aversion to using the word when it is applied to ourselves. Thus far I have counted over sixty words which most of us choose to use in its place. When it is applied to us we have the tendency to shut down completely and hear nothing else. This is probably just an emotionally protective reaction. To prevent you, the reader from likewise shutting down on first mention of it is why I’ve waited until now to use the term. Now that we have an understanding of where it comes from and how we process it we can be more accepting of its application to us because we realize that it is not only us who feel its potent effects. Virtually every child who has a family has felt its effects.
In this day and age we feel so powerless that anything that reminds us of that powerlessness (an assumed state of inadequacy) is either ignored, deflated, projected or transmuted to a more nebulous or benign word through our use of euphemisms. Fat becomes “heavy set,” nasty become “impolite,” stupid becomes “not the sharpest tack in the box,” etc. The important point to be made here is that the shadow and shame are sisters of the same self-deprecating feelings. Whether they are, in actuality, validated or not is not as important as the fact that we, as children, believe that we possess qualities that are considered by others to be unsavory, inappropriate, undesirable and shame inducing and wish them not to be exposed for fear of losing the support and approval of those whom we love, need and have invested our time in. We tend to submerge these feelings where they then become incorporated into our shadow.
The mechanisms used to defend our “self” from the exposure of our accepted labels of inadequacy, as explained above, stay with us throughout adulthood. They just become more sophisticated in where they are applied and compound our feelings of diminishment every time they are activated and defended against. These then feel like a verification of inadequacy. Everyone has some degree of shame relegated to shadow whether for acts completed or indoctrination throughout childhood. The fact remains that if we believe that we are inadequate or “bad,” and to whatever degree, we will act that way and become a self fulfilling prophesy through our subsequent actions. The feeling of being inadequate completely sabotages our Self-Trust and Confidence and in turn sabotages our ability to motivate ourselves into participating in challenging endeavors due to our fear of failure and exposure of perceived inadequacy being translated into toxic shame.
The most difficult experiences to move past the effects of, when we are attempting to motivate ourselves, are the ones that occurred pre-verbally and still operate from the deepest part of our unconscious. They arise within us as non-descript and indescribable doubt as to our ability. They originated from the experiences we felt as neglect through not having our needs and wants addressed as “requested” from our parents and caretakers and became “submerged” when our mental and verbal skills started to dominate our growing rational “landscape.”
Our inability to maintain a momentum for keeping our motivation ongoing is a universal difficulty that almost everyone shares, regardless of race, culture or family factors. It is natural for parents and caretakers to become absorbed with maintaining a safe and healthy living at the expense of their children’s best and most needed support. This series of articles is not intended to allow us to utilize another defense mechanism in blaming our parents for our perceived conditions. I have presented this progression of events and developments in an effort to show that even with the best of parental attentions and efforts we all still develop components of shame, shadow and diminished motivation in at least some facet(s) of our lives. The articles following this section are intended to show the mechanisms in play, the methods of how they sabotage us and ways to move around them like a stream moves over and around the stones in its path. We can’t “un-experience” what we have experienced but we can redirect our energies to where they will render them to a harmless passage in our history.