Shame has the power to shape our lives when we allow it to. We may not be fully aware of it but there are many instances that “we do” or “not do” things because of the fear of shame. We experience shame when we fail to live up to some ideals or standards that are most often dictated by society. It is such an intense, painful emotion that we try our best to avoid it, even conceal the truth. Shame makes us feel small, humiliated, and exposed.
The feeling of shame focuses inward, leading us to see our entire self in a negative light. It also makes us feel uncomfortable in the presence of other people. But where does shame really come from? Does it only come from violating social norms? No. A circumstance or another individual can also cause shame in us. Considering how shame can make us feel flawed, exposed, or subject to exclusion, it is not surprising why people hide or do things, even go an extra mile, just to save face. The more we hide and or lie, the more layers of shame we pile onto ourselves.
Shame is also embedded in cultures across the world. In Asia, we often find it hard to seek help even from a family when we’re in deep trouble because we fear how they’ll react. We fear that something we do can tarnish the name of the entire family so instead of seeking help we try our best to hide it or deal with it on our own. For example, seeking help for addictions is commendable and encouraged in mainstream American society but to an Asian individual, family, and community, it may be taken as a major offense. We don’t want people to know that someone close to us is an addict or has done something terrible. Even the idea of going to therapy is still somewhat taboo, as it implies someone is “crazy” or “unstable” and the person going to therapy could become the latest gossip in town. Although the idea of going to therapy has made significant strides over the last five to ten years due to great mental health awareness campaigns. But as much as possible, at least generally in Asia, many families still do their best not to air out their dirty laundry. Just watch any K-drama for reference. It may be a little overdramatized, but it all still rings true.
As another example, I learned while talking to a good friend who is a mental health expert, born and raised in the Philippines, that once there was a male celebrity who was caught doing something dishonorable, and the whole family, not just the immediate family members of that celebrity, but every living person in the entire family line and their images, his grandparents, cousins, nieces, nephews, you name it, all went downhill and each person had to go on a low profile to not generate more news to the family name. That doesn’t happen in the Western world. When Angelina Jolie took Brad Pitt from Jennifer Aniston, you don’t see the members of the Jolie family tree dragged through the mud. You didn’t see it when Bill Clinton cheated on Hilary, no one put blame on Chelsea. Or when Bill Gates was unfaithful to Melinda. From what my good friend shared, there is a whole other level of weight and responsibility to uphold with each family’s name as the level of shame comes down even harder in her culture.
In Western culture, shame also plays a significant role in people’s lives. Name-calling, bullying, or maybe even rightfully calling someone out on to question their morality, ethics, simply if something just isn’t right. How they do it is another matter. People are more open to portraying their lives and feelings differently on social media too so as to appear they belong to a happy marriage or enjoying a successful career. For example, the famous and tragic cases of Shannan Watts who seemingly had a perfect marriage as seen in her social media posts, and of Dr. Elana Fric Samji whose social media account was filled with family trips and date nights but behind closed doors she was a battered wife.
Having an abusive partner or an unfaithful one should not cause someone to feel shameful, but sometimes people mask the truth because they want to be just like everybody else and feel ashamed of telling the truth (this is not surprising since it is often shame that causes even a victim of sexual abuse to be silent). Both cases ended tragically and took many by surprise because both women seemed to be very happy on the outside. It causes you to wonder if only they were able to show what was really going on, would they still be alive? They both painted the picture of a perfect family who was far from any troubles. While these examples are extreme and are not as common, shame when kept silent, regardless of what triggers it, can have devastating results.
By not addressing our feelings of shame mindfully, the levels of shame could multiply from there. This way of being can be so second nature in us that we don’t even realize that we have these layers of shame and are building more to them the more day-to-day. It can then create and fuel fear-based thoughts, making poor decisions, negative changes in behavior, and lead to mental health issues such as chronic anxiety.
To elaborate, aside from the usual emotions that come with shame like anger, envy, vulnerability, the emotional build-up could lead to feelings of anxiety, sadness, depression, and emptiness which can also be consequences of shame. When someone reaches this point, shame has the potential to become a dangerous emotion. Shame can cause low self-esteem and can cause you to self-sabotage, creating another cycle of messy events and deeper emotional wounds. Shame can also hinder us from seeking help we desperately need, and may even lead us to protect those who are causing us harm. The good thing is, people, do recover from experiencing shame and learn a lot about themselves if they can step back and reflect on what is going on within them.
As we identified what causes us to experience shame and address it, we will be able to prioritize taking care of ourselves rather than being concerned with the image we project to others or how others see us. The most important thing is to get real open and honest with ourselves to address the shame we feel so that we can start taking real steps towards healing around it, and that can truly be life-changing. Look out for our upcoming article next week on exploring the feelings of shame further and how we can work on releasing it in a healthy way.