You know, I was mistaken yesterday in my post on Tiger Woods and his anger management. Because, I think what he’s got a problem with isn’t anger; it’s shame (which is anger at yourself).
From what I can tell, Tiger Woods explodes when he makes a mistake, which means he’s working with shame. And as we all know, shame can be a very tricky emotion. What I look for in a person’s relationship to shame is when the shame arises and how it’s handled.
For instance, if you’ve got a bad habit you’re trying to break (like poor eating or poor exercise habits, drinking, smoking, too much interwebs, etc.), and you just cannot break the pattern, you need to work with your shame. When it’s healthy, your shame will arise before you do something you shouldn’t. You’ll think of eating a candy bar, but you won’t because you know you won’t feel well if you do. You won’t feel ashamed of yourself; instead, your shame will move forward to question you before you do something that would break down your resolve or your self image.
When you have a healthy relationship to your shame, you may not even be able to identify it as shame. You’ll just live by an internal moral code, and you won’t be tormented by treats or naughty behaviors or seductions. You’ll just be a stable presence in the world, and you’ll feel proud of your resolve and your ethics.
But when your shame is out of balance, you’ll do something wrong, or something you know you shouldn’t (or you’ll make a mistake), and afterward, this hot, shameful, withering feeling will overtake you and make you feel like crap. You may berate yourself or call yourself names. You may throw a golf club or have a tantrum of self-hatred, and you may embarrass the people around you because you seem pretty unstable. And sadly, you won’t learn from your mistakes, because your shameful self-abuse won’t lead you to any useful awareness. Because when you tantrum, you’re essentially throwing the shame away.
When you express the heck out of an emotion, you lose its message in the rush, and you also lose your connection to the gifts it brings to you. This is a huge mistake in regard to shame, because its gifts are so important to your life.
The Gifts of Shame
Integrity ~ Atonement ~ Self-respect ~ The capacity to amend your behavior
So if you ignore your shame or throw it out of your psyche in order to avoid the discomfort of questioning your own behavior, you lose your integrity and self-respect, and your capacity to atone for and amend bad behaviors and mistakes. You might even start to jump into bad behaviors just to prove to your shame that you aren’t anybody’s puppet. You do what you want! Whatevs! Up yours!
If your shame torments you, it’s important to understand 1) that shame isn’t the problem, and 2) that trying to fight shame is a losing game. If you don’t create a healthy relationship with your shame, you’ll do shameful things over and over again, and you won’t learn your lessons. You’ll also become less socially viable, because you won’t be able to manage your behavior in healthy ways. And as the saga of Tiger Woods has shown us, if you don’t work with your shame in honorable ways within your own psyche, the world may intervene and shame you in excruciatingly painful ways.
I call shame one of the “rapids-level emotions” because it can be so overwhelming. The mantra for the rapids-level emotions is The only way out is through. I created the five empathic skills in The Language of Emotions not just to help people become more aware of their emotions, but also to help in situations where their emotions are intense. These skills help us approach, communicate with, and reclaim emotions that have gotten out of kilter.
So welcome your shame and treat it as an honored guest. It will help you become an honorable and ethical person who is relaxing to be around. Yay shame (more about the gifts of shame on Monday)!