Healthy and Unhealthy Shame
How to free yourself from excess shame.
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One sign of maturity is the ability to distinguish between healthy shame and unhealthy shame. Excess shame is at the root of most anxiety and depression. But lack of shame is the basis of all immoral and criminal behavior. Like a powerful medication, you do not want to overdose. Healthy shame is appropriate if you have been deliberately irresponsible, cruel or done something illegal. It is not appropriate if you made an innocent mistake, were unable to fulfill others’ impossible dreams or failed to live up to your own unreasonable expectations. If you go through the day with a lot of emotional turmoil, you will find that by recognizing and eliminating your self-shaming beliefs, you automatically begin to feel calmer and happier.
“Shame is the greatest pain” (Tosafos Shabbos 50b).
Shame is the first emotion mentioned in Torah, i.e., Adam and Eve felt healthy shame for disobeying God’s commandment. After Cain killed Abel, Cain’s initial lack of shame was so problematic that he had to go through a long cleansing period to awaken him. Josef’s brothers were lacking shame until they got a huge dose of it 22 years later, when Josef revealed himself to them. And Josef, himself, had to endure many shameful experiences for his own growth.
Because children cannot distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate shame, they are notoriously easy to shame. Most adults use shaming tactics, such as criticism, hitting and screaming, to “educate” and motivate. They shame them for poor grades, their looks or for being messy, clumsy, immature or moody. Children shame each other for any minor “abnormality” in looks, speech, clothing or behavior. Children feel ashamed if their parents fight, if their homes are messy or if they need tutoring. Even at the age of three, if a peer laughs at them for bringing a whole-wheat sandwich, they are likely to insist on only eating white bread from then on. If they do not have the same shirt or shoes that others are wearing, they would rather stay home than endure the ridicule which is sure to be forthcoming. If a teacher shames them for not knowing the answer or for not sitting quietly, they are profoundly ashamed and may come home and shame their siblings or wet the bed at night as a result.
A child who is frequently shamed may become “shame-resistant,” acting as if he doesn’t care about the criticism. Others become shame-bound, feeling “I’m-not good-enough” attitude, sure that their feeling of inferiority is based on Absolute Truth. The shame-bound are highly anxious in social interactions and think they are failures no matter what they achieve.
Yet far worse than excess shame is the lack of it. People who lack the ability to feel shame are sociopaths. Cunning and arrogant, they take pleasure in bullying and exploiting others. They don’t care if they are liked or hated; all that is important is money, power and prestige. They believe that their feeling of superiority also reflects Absolute Truth. Whether well-dressed charmers with impeccable manners or low-class thugs, they have no conscience, no compassion for those they harm and no remorse for the damage they cause. In fact, they mock those who express pain and despise those who rebuke them. These types seem unperturbed and “cool” as they cruise through life without the fear, grief or doubts which afflict normal people. The shameless can’t improve because they are not ashamed of their behavior. They viciously attack anyone who sees the truth and points out how nasty, unscrupulous or cruel they are.
Getting rid of excess shame is a like losing weight – it takes awareness and discipline.
So, feel blessed if you are shame-bound rather than shameless! For you, the outlook is positive. Getting rid of excess shame is a like losing weight – it takes awareness and discipline. Go slowly, as this is a difficult “addiction,” probably the mother of all addictions. Notice how you might try to compensate for feelings of inferiority, such as by seeking others’ approval, buying name-tag items or being overly accommodating, bending over backwards to please people who do not really care about you. You may feel unusually anxious before guests arrive, ashamed of your clothes, the food you serve or the mess in the kitchen. Whether you want to or not, you inevitably turn your shame outward, criticizing others for failing to meet impossible standards or for failing to make you feel loved or happy. Just be aware of the cause – excess shame.
Secondly, avoid shame for things over which you have no control. For example,
- SHAME OVER YOUR VERY ESSENCE: If you feel shame over your very essence, it may be that you were not wanted by your parents or that they were so overwhelmed or immature that you felt like a burdensome pest. Do not shame yourself for having been unwanted, rejected, neglected, abandoned or abused. Practice thinking, “I got exactly what I needed. I am not deprived of anything. I am perfect the way I am. I choose to love myself as I am now so that I can be more loving tomorrow. Even if I was abandoned or hurt by others, I will not abandon or hurt myself!”
- SHAME OVER NORMAL FEELINGS AND PASSIONS: Because our society is focused on perfectionist ideals, it is easy to feel ashamed of having normal ups and downs in our moods or having human passions. Instead of feeling ashamed, think, “Yes, I am part animal and must control my impulses and direct my impulses in a holy manner. But it’s not my fault that they exist. It’s normal to feel anxious and sad at times. If I do something positive, like a power walk, learning Torah or doing chesed, my mood will change.”
- SHAME OVER YOUR LOOKS: Certainly try to look your best and dress in a respectable manner. But don’t compare yourself to the gorgeous superstars. They have different trials in life. Practice thinking, “I deserve love as I am. I have the perfect body God wanted me to have for my journey this lifetime. Every person has imperfections and handicaps, some more obvious than others.”
- SHAME OVER SOCIAL AWKWARDNESS: Shame-bound people have social anxiety because they fear being rejected and judged as “not good enough.” They may blush easily or suffer all kinds of distressing physical sensations. Practice thinking, “There is nothing wrong with me. I am proud of the fact that I merely went to the event, stayed for as long as I could and refuse to shame myself for having unpleasant feelings and sensations. Even if others reject me, I will not reject myself.”
- SHAME OVER YOUR FAMILY: Perhaps your ancestors were not the kind of illustrious figures written about in frum magazines. Maybe some of your family members are emotionally disturbed or abusive. Maybe you are not surrounded by a warm and loving family. Practice thinking, “No matter what others think of me, I have great yichus as a Jew, for that means I am the King’s child, a super-star in His eyes.”
- SHAME OVER LACK OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS: You may feel ashamed that you have not done anything spectacular, that you are just average, that you haven’t done anything spectacular, don’t have a brilliant mind, millions in the bank or numerous academic degrees. Practice thinking, “I won’t compare, because it leads to despair. Comparison is self-abuse. I may not be a great success in society’s eyes, but I cheer myself for what I am able to do. My smallest acts of kindness and self-discipline impact profoundly on the entire world in a way I cannot see.”
- SHAME OVER YOUR LEVEL OF INTELLIGENCE: Many children are shamed for their lack of academic success and are told, “If you just try hard enough, you can be a genius.” This is nonsense. There are few child prodigies. I wasn’t one and you’re probably not one. God sprinkles them selectively in each population. Practice thinking, “I will do my best with the intelligence level given to me by God.”
Next, set a shame-free hour of the day during which you resist the urge to shame yourself unless you have transgressed one of the big three: murder, idol worship or immoral relations. That does not include misplacing your keys, leaving dishes in the sink, forgetting to buy milk, having a few extra pounds, or not liking certain people.
We may not be able to stop the violence in the world, but we can stop shooting at ourselves and each other with shaming messages. Shaming is like murder, according to our Sages. If you spill something, say, “I’ll just clean it up,” without the shaming messages like, “I’m such a clumsy idiot! Instead of shaming yourself for not being able to concentrate while praying, try to get one or two moments of real joy in your prayer. If someone shames you, firmly, “Say what you want to say in a respectful manner.”
Next, get in the habit of praising yourself and those around you every half hour for something – ANYTHING! Say, “Wow, I was so responsible. Even though I was tired, I did the laundry.” “Wow, I was so disciplined; I didn’t eat that delicious cake.” “Wow, how smart. You thought of a great solution.” “Thank you for being so considerate.” Look for the good. A little light will banish a great deal of darkness.
Discover how to master your emotional pain with Dr. Miriam Adahan in the free online training on Tuesday, December 17th. Click here to join.