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Why We’re Ashamed of Ourselves

A hundred thousand years ago or more, on a chilly April evening in Portland, Oregon (I know — it wasn’t called Portland or Oregon then) (or April), two cavemen sat together near a fire.

Gak made a pithy but insulting remark, and Trog got angry. So Trog killed Gak. Later Trog was sorry because there was nobody around to play cards with. Or sing sea chanties. Or whatever our ancestors did to pass the time in the Stone Age.

Maybe they played Bridge with “found objects” rather than cards — clubs being the ultimate trump — , and probably mostly hummed land chanties because they hated water like cats.

I might take some liberties with prehistory in this post, just FYI.

Acting On Feelings

Trog killed Gak because our early ancestors did whatever they felt like doing. There were no laws to protect anyone, and self-control was considered overrated.

The strong preyed on the weak and there were no lawyers to sue them for damages. There might have been remorse and regret, but there was no shame.

In those very early days before civilization and morality, anger led to violence more often than not. Lust was enough to justify rape; for smaller folks, having a choice about sex meant being able to run fast.

To want something that someone else had was to take it and either run away or beat them up.

Feelings were behavior. There was no distinction. If Trog felt something, Trog acted on it. Trog got angry at Gak — angry enough to kill. So he killed Gak.

That’s how things worked in the Bad Old Days.

Clan of the Cave Kid

Cut to the present. We can still see this lack of distinction between emotions and action in very young children. The toddler’s credo is “As I feel, so shall I do.” So: I want, so I take; I’m upset, so I cry; etc.

Until they learn otherwise.

We teach our children how to behave by teaching them not to act on their feelings.

This is important, obviously. Children need to know how to behave in society, so controlling behavior is a must. Here’s where shame gets set up, though.

We teach our children not to slap other kids around, but we don’t teach them what to do with anger. Or other difficult feelings.

Inadvertently we end up convincing them through social training that they are wrong as people.

Young children can’t distinguish between their behavior and themselves. So when Lily climbs a tree and gets her new clothes dirty and Mommy gets mad, Lily sees herself as bad. Not her actions, not the dirt on the clothes, but herself. She is the badness that made Mommy angry.

Children do hundreds if not thousands of exasperating things during the course of a normal childhood. They’re going to get the stink eye sooner or later from someone who’s important to them, and they’re going to internalize it.

We all experienced disapproval as kids, if anyone was paying attention. We internalized that disapproval. That’s shame.

Origins of Shame

Did Trog feel shame for killing Gak? Not unless his parents taught him right from wrong. Which apparently they didn’t. But if *you* were taught right from wrong, then you have shame.

As a child, you simply didn’t get that it was your behavior, not yourself, that was wrong sometimes. You internalized every disapproval that came at you, like the good little kid you were. You took it on.

And there it remains.

Don’t believe that childhood shame disappears magically when you become an adult. It doesn’t.

At some level, this isn’t news to you, right? Adult shame is just a side-effect of having been raised in a moral society that, on the whole, is still confused about whether emotions and behavior are the same. (They’re not.)

There’s no shame in feeling ashamed of yourself. However, as I’ve said elsewhere, shame is a useless emotion.

You’re all grown up now, and shame doesn’t have to be a part of your daily existence. You know how to behave. You know how NOT to act on hurtful impulses.

If you’re ashamed of yourself, it’s not because you have so much to be ashamed of. It’s only because you learned shame like the rest of us.

The more you pay attention to any shame you feel, the less it will control you. And don’t worry; thanks to your upbringing, you’ll never be like Trog.

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado.
She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations.
The author of “Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them” and the “Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children,” Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships.
Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called “Constructive Wallowing.”

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0 Responses to "Why We’re Ashamed of Ourselves"

  • Rosie
    November 3, 2012 - 10:27 am Reply

    Great article Tina. Right and wrong, black and white, are things that have caused me very much shame in my my life. I am working on that. I have also found out that not only did I internalize my behavior as me being bad, but I have internalized my parents’ opinions of other people’s behavior as making them bad. I have spent my life trying not to be the person that was seen as being bad because of their behavior. Lots of responsibility for a little kid.
    I am a teacher of young children and I spend a lot of time teaching them that emotions are ok, but you need to learn what to do with those emotions. There are many children’s books now that address this. I agree with you that shame is a useless emotion, but it is also a very painful one that is so hard to work through.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      November 3, 2012 - 12:53 pm Reply

      Rosie, I couldn’t agree with you more about the difficulty of working through shame. It sort of gets poured in with the foundation as we’re building our identity.

      There’s no easy solution to this problem, but I think if everyone learned the art of validation either at home or in school, we could all dig out together from under the weight of unnecessary shame.

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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