“You Learn to Hate Yourself.” Shame Doesn’t Compel People to Change—It Keeps Them Stuck in the Past
“Fat-shaming … needs to make a comeback,” HBO talk show host Bill Maher said in a recent monologue. After pointing out that obesity is a leading cause of death, he argued: “We shamed people out of smoking and into wearing seat belts. We shamed them out of littering and most of them out of racism. Shame is the first step in reform.”
Late Late Show host James Corden was quick to respond. Maher may have thought he was offering “tough love,” Corden said, but added, “Let’s be honest — fat-shaming is just bullying. And bullying only makes the problem worse.”
Corden is right. Maher’s take on shame is flatly, dangerously wrong.
Though they’re sometimes conflated, shame is very different from guilt (and from coercion, which is what Maher was really calling for). Guilt is related to expectations and plans, which are inherently word-based (“I did something wrong”). Shame is more implicit, or instinctive. It can be related to expectations, but it’s rooted in our relationships with others and how they see us. Shame is also a deeper emotion than guilt, so deep that we can feel it in our bodies. We feel worthless; not just unloved, but unlovable.
Shame is a major theme of comedian Hannah Gadsby’s groundbreaking, riveting, and at times grueling stand-up performance titled Nanette, which aired on Netflix. In it, she talks about growing up in Tasmania’s “Bible belt” during a “toxic” national debate on legalizing homosexuality:
Seventy percent of the people who raised me, who loved me, who I trusted, believed that homosexuality was a sin, that homosexuals were heinous, sub-human pedophiles. Seventy percent. By the time I identified as being gay, it was too late. I was already homophobic, and you do not get to just flick a switch on that. No, what you do is you internalize that homophobia and you learn to hate yourself. Hate yourself to the core. I sat soaking in shame, in the closet, for ten years. Because the closet can only stop you from being seen. It is not shame-proof. When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thoughts of self-worth. They can’t do that. Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in. But when you do that to a child, it becomes a weed so thick, and it grows so fast, the child doesn’t know any different. It becomes as natural as gravity.
So why does shame exist? For all the havoc it can wreak, shame serves a vital developmental purpose. Like joy, it plays an important role in our relationships throughout our lives. Because we feel shame, we learn the boundaries of relationships and figure out the rules that make relationships safe. We loathe the feeling of shame, so we learn to avoid actions that might lead to it and long for forgiveness when we’ve failed.
To understand how shame affects development, think about the differences between babies and toddlers. Babies are fun! Yes, they require a great deal of care, but their smiles are like gifts from heaven. Milestones like sitting up and taking a first step are joyous occasions.
Then, around eighteen months and into the so-called “terrible twos,” everything changes. This is when most babies are exploring and experimenting relentlessly, often breaking things, putting themselves in danger, and making a general nuisance of themselves. Parents suddenly find themselves constantly saying “No!” and steering their toddler away from enticements such as stairs, power cords and the dog’s tail. This is how shame processes are formed, slowly, one small interaction at a time.
Shame drives the “tear-and-repair” process that is vital to relationships (and that’s tear as in rip, not crying). A toddler wants to stick her fingers in an electrical outlet to see what’s inside. The tear happens when an adult says “no” and picks her up or steers her away, ruining the fun. The repair comes when the adult soothes the child and distracts her with something equally appealing, but safe. Repeated thousands of times, this is how the brain learns to inhibit impulses. (A smack on the hand or the bottom is not a repair; all a child learns from that is to fear the assailant.)
But when a child is rejected by primary caregivers — experiencing many relational tears but few or no repairs — he internalizes that as shame, the feeling that “something is wrong with me.” Children who are chronically shamed by their parents are more anxious, afraid, and prone to depression. They experience the same stress response as if they were abandoned. This can also be true of children experiencing the loss of a parent through divorce, incarceration, addiction, or death. In their natural egocentrism, these children may believe they caused the separation.
And they will remember this feeling for a long time. Shame resides in the right hemisphere of the brain, where durable, implicit memories of emotional states are formed, even before the age of three, when the ability to recall experiences begins to come online. As these children grow up, they may struggle to regulate their emotional states and withdraw from others because they cannot tolerate the tear-and-repair process. Even learning may be difficult. Excessive shame can also lead to narcissism, perfectionism, a lack of empathy, and an attraction to people who confirm self-expectations.
“The emotion of shame essentially is literally to hide,” says Dr. Allan Schore, a leader in the study of emotions and social development. “It’s to hide not only from others but even to hide from one’s own self.”
When trying to bring hope to someone who’s wracked with shame, OhioGuidestone clinicians use an imaginary “helper” in a process called Story Building Therapy. This involves introducing a “Helper,” a fictional but supportive change agent, into personal narratives around particularly shameful experiences. The Helper equips the client to confront shame by imagining that someone is there to offer guidance and support in the same way that a parent or partner would be in a healthy relationship. By creating a new experience of the self and increasing emotional self-regulation, the SBT process ultimately inspires hope.