Shame is a very old coping strategy, usually developed in childhood. When children don't feel safe expressing their angry feelings, they will try to manage these big emotions alone by turning the anger back inside and by being cruel with themselves. Shame is anger turned inward toward the self, and it is the most toxic of all the emotions.
Almost every other emotion serves a useful purpose. Guilt means, "I did something wrong." Guilt surfaces when our morality is at odds with our behavior. If I steal a candy bar, I leave the store feeling guilty about my actions. I know I have done something wrong. Appropiate guilt is useful because it helps us improve our behavior: appropiate guilt helps us navigate between right and wrong. Shame serves no purpose, because it puts us at war with ourselves. When we feel shame, we feel like a fraud no matter how successful we are.
When shame blinds us, we can see nothing good about ourselves. Shame tells us, "I am something wrong." Shame tells us, "I am not good enough." When we struggle with shame, we are convonced that we are defective and undeserving of love. Shame creates a force field around us that obsesses over our faults and dismisses our positive qualities. Shame is anger turned inward.
When we are so obsessed with our own darkness, we feel incapable of tolerating other people's attention. Shame isolates us and tells us that we are unworthy of affection. We feel exposed. Rather than struggling in isolation, I invite you to reach out for help. I would like to alleviate some of the intensity so you don't have to suffer alone.
Self destructive behaviors are rigid, unhealthy patterns of responding to feelings of shame and powerlessness. Addictions, compulsions, all the forms of self-destructive behavior have the perverse function to numb shame. When we are caught in self destructive tangles, we forget to feel badly about ourselves -- for the moment.
If you are struggling with self-destructive patterns, you might tell yourself:
- "I'm not good enough."
- "I'm permanently damaged."
- "Who could love me, I'm so awful?"
- "No one cares about me."
- "I'm stupid."
- "I'm worthless."
- "If you really knew how bad I am, you would go away."
Change away from self-destructive behavior proceeds by gaining insight and then practicing more effective coping strategies. If you find yourself caught in the tangle of self-destructive behaviors, there are many avenues to recovery and growth. The goal is to eliminate these harmful coping strategies by finding new ways to be kinder and gentler with yourself