The Language of Shame

Of all our human emotions, the most painful, the hardest to tolerate, is shame. Shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with us, that we are not only inadequate but are basically flawed. Shame can assume different intensities from embarrassment to complete humiliation.

Shame results when we break a bond with ourselves by not living up to an ideal, when we betray a personal value and feel exposed, vulnerable, or judged by others. Then, everything that self comes in front of, from worth and esteem to value and confidence, becomes decimated in the face of shame. Various experiences that we often attach to shame include feeling criticized, pathetic, mortified, disgraced, and ridiculous. We feel shame at times as humiliation and embarrassment in judging ourselves negatively, or when we rupture a connection with someone important.

The feeling that there is something wrong with us usually manifests as some variation of feeling “less than.” Money often becomes a focal point for shame. Shame most often occurs with having too little money, and especially with debt. At times, feeling shame of having too much money occurs with exposure to those who have very little, and who have significant need. Shame about a significant difference of financial resources between people can be a threat to a relationship. The shame of not having enough money to sustain a social relationship can seem unbearable.

Shame preserves the barrier of silence to not talk about money. We do not break that taboo to expose ourselves for fear of shame. One of the hallmark reactions of shame is wanting to hide, to feel invisible. We hide our relationship to money, to speaking about it, in order to carefully create a certain image. When talking to a group of unemployed workers, Mitt Romney attempted a bridge by stating, “Well, I’m unemployed too.” Never mind that he has a personal wealth of a quarter of a billion dollars.

Although people may hide an amount of income or wealth to not call attention to themselves, often the shadow story of the desire for admiration creeps in. While attempting to appeal to middle America, Romney casually mentioned his close friends who own professional sports teams, and the car elevator in his new beach house.

See my earlier blog, The Psychology of Shame and Your Money Story for views on the gender specificity of shame.

The Self-Regulation of Shame

Shame can be used in a positive way, to connect us to our humanity and to the humanity of others. If we listen to the whispers of shame to learn from it, we benefit significantly. Shame may mean that we need to rein in our self-aggrandizement. It may be a sign to become more empathically attuned to others to recognize the impact of our actions on the relationships with others.

The evolution of shames is to have a healthy pride. When we have attainable internal ideals and live up to them, self esteem is the result. Shame, the antithesis of self-esteem, results from failure to live up to our values. This internal gyroscope of the shame-esteem axis can use the essential tools of introspection and insight. Healthy pride—including inherent worth and humility—results from accepting who we are when we are all of who we are.