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)!
It gets tricky though, because people from different cultural backgrounds have different relationship to shame, not to mention it’s different from family to family. I learned it the hard way: I took me some time to realize that I must live in harmony with my own shame and not necessarily do things that other people from a different cultural background do, just to be cool. Shame is also about boundaries, respecting your own boundaries as well as another’s boundary. Healthy shame gives a person etiquette, culture & class (i.e. manners). I think most television shows lack a healthy dose of shame. Ay Ay Ay! ;-(
Shame is a socially-based emotion as opposed to guilt, which can come over you without any social entity necessarily involved. Tiger Woods probably thought he was doing just fine, maybe a bit of guilt here and there whenever he even thought about it violating his own code of ethics regarding his wife and family, all the way up to the point he was found out. Now with the world’s eyes upon him in judgment, it is shame that roils within him for failing the greater world’s ethical standards. No shame without a society. It’s how children learn to feel shame – we shake our fingers at them.
It’s also true that different cultures have different relationships to shame and guilt. Japanese society is primarily shame-based, where the social fabric of life is extremely significant. My mother used to use the word “haji” (shame) as if nothing worse could befall a person…all those Japanese movies about shame! And while I don’t really know, my Catholic and Jewish friends tell me it’s (internally-generated) guilt that is constantly working them, not shame (externally-generated) so much…!
Ooh! I realize that I should have been more circumspect in talking about shame. In my book, I make an argument for shame as the emotional content for what we call guilt. In a dictionary definition, guilt isn’t an emotion, but rather a legal term. You’re guilty if you did something wrong, and not guilty if you’re innocent. But the feeling you have is shame.
Now as we all know, shame can be applied to you from the outside. We can be shamed in many ways, and that can really short-circuit our natural, internal, healthy shame, which moderates our behavior. When a person has a short-circuit in their shame, they tend to be shameless and/or self-abusive. They just can’t get their behavior on track. But a part of individuation is clearing out the shaming messages from other people or from society, and coming to a better and more loving place with your own authentic shame.
So when you and your shame are friends, and you’ve removed the toxic nonsense from it, it will make you a really honorable, open, trustworthy, and cool person to be around. And if “guilty” feelings arise, you’ll understand them as shame and ask the questions: Who (or what) has been hurt? and What must be made right?
I’ll do a post on shame today and see if I can’t be more clear. I’ve been absorbed in the book for so long that I forget I’m doing something unique with emotions. I just go, “Oh, that’s shame,” but forget that shame is a minefield. Doh!
Why are so many television shows so shame-less?!