Shame, Guilt and other self put-downs
Without even realizing it, we sometimes attack ourselves. We put ourselves down, humiliate ourselves, and sabotage our own accomplishments. We may even consider killing ourselves. Self attacks, extraordinarily common considering how much they cost us, bring us down emotionally, drain our energy and rob us of satisfaction. When we are in the habit of ripping ourselves apart, we are likely to project our negative attitude on the people around us, holding them accountable to the same harsh judgments as we hold ourselves. Habitual judgments against others make us feel and appear arrogant and angry, stifling our relationships and making us appear less attractive.
These habits may be lurking under the surface, knotted so tightly into our routine we don’t even realize they’re there. To get more out of life, we need to learn about these draining, self-destructive mental habits and learn how to become more supportive towards ourselves.
We all have beliefs about what we are supposed to do. And when we don’t meet our own expectations we commonly use our shoulds as the basis for self-attacks. We build up a case against ourselves based on our ideas of what we “should have done” and stir up feelings of guilt and regret. “Shoulds” also make us miserable about the future. Demanding endless performance from ourselves, we put ourselves under intolerable pressures, and then become overwhelmed by fear of failure.
Even when we accomplish our task we allow ourselves little credit. Instead of enjoying and praising our success, we pass it off as no more than what we were supposed to do anyway.
Using guilty thoughts, we attack ourselves for past failures. Attacking ourselves with guilty thinking can be so familiar we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We may have started feeling guilty as children, when our parents taught us to focus on regrets and self doubt. Perhaps they thought they were helping to train us by harshly criticizing our faults, or perhaps they inappropriately vented their own frustrations. As little children, we take these complaints to heart, and build them into our patterns of self-talk.
Many of us use guilt in the mistaken belief it will improve our behavior. When we slip off our diet and eat ice cream, or procrastinate and miss a deadline we ruthlessly berate ourselves. Like abusive coaches we use force and anger to prod ourselves into shape. The truth is that guilt is a poor agent of change, tying us in knots and keeping us trapped in the very pattern that we are trying to escape.
As time marches on, we leave behind us the litter of all the things we could have done. By wisely exploring those missed opportunities we may be able to learn lessons, but much more frequently, we dwell on these frustrations and bring ourselves down. Mulling over old situations wears down our poise and steals energy that we could put to better use by focusing on new situations and new successes. Letting go of the past is critical for living effectively in the present.
When our parents used harsh methods to control our behavior, hurling insults at us, and convincing us that we should feel bad for every fault, we learned early on to be hard on ourselves, calling ourselves bad names, and angrily accusing ourselves of laziness, stupidity and other self put-downs. Our self-talk routinely includes demoralizing statements such as, “I’m no good.” “I’m a slob.” “I’m ugly.” “No one likes me.” Such sweeping attacks take their toll on our mood. We feel unworthy around others, or feel that on the outside we are faking good behavior while inside we are rotten to the core. Because we have to hide so much of ourselves, we may appear shy and withdrawn. Or if we are outgoing, we may feel that no one can see us as we truly are, and despite our outer connections we feel invisible and alone. We focus so much attention on our own special inadequacies, we feel different from others, misunderstood and separated by our unworthiness.
With these relentless negative attitudes towards ourselves, we find it difficult to do things that please us. We are hypercritical of ourselves, tending to dismiss our own accomplishments, and even dismiss our right to be happy and healthy.
While we use guilt to attack our actions, we use shame to attack our very existence. As little babies, when our parents changed our diapers, they may have felt a wave of disgust with our bodily functions. Depending on how deeply and how long they felt this disgust and how much they expressed it, we may have picked up the impression that there was something terribly wrong with us. Such deep emotional communications between parent and child can have a profound effect on our developing psyche, and leave us with the unsettling sense that there is something about ourselves we must hide.
Even though we were innocent babies, our parents faced a whole spectrum of adult feelings about our sexuality. They may have been awkward or edgy with regard to our genitals, in infancy and later. These intense reactions to our body usually fade when we start to take care of ourselves, and may start up again when we develop in puberty. The feelings that were communicated to us linger under the surface.
We may also be ashamed of our family’s social status or their ability to fit into a wider community into which we so desperately want to be accepted. If we felt outcast in any way from the dominant race or religion, we may have felt ourselves of less value than other people. We might also have experienced shame around violence in the home, alcoholism or other deformity of body or spirit that caused us to feel that our family had a terrible “secret.” These shameful impressions continue to pervade our feelings.
Shame may be instilled in us through the tragedy of child molestation. When a young child is violated and then instructed not to tell, intimacy becomes heavy laden with confusing memories, creating powerful conflicts around our attempts to open up to others. Intimacy becomes a dangerous act. Other horrors may also load us up with doubts about our existence, such as the deep wounds of war and crime that no amount of forgetting can wash away.
When we feel shame, we are split between our natural desire to be seen and loved by others, and our need to keep part of ourselves hidden. We may withdraw into a shell or we may run away, afraid to slow down long enough for our shame to catch up with us.
Creating more positive mental approaches
While our deep habits are built up over years, they need not remain with us forever. When we feel trapped by our old patterns it’s time to spread our wings and find new ways to approach our lives. Through counseling, self-help, networking with mentors and clergy and joining Twelve Step programs, we can arrive at a deeper understanding of our beliefs and the methods we’ve been using, and learn new and more effective methods.
To counteract negative thinking, we can learn to dispute our own thoughts. By applying reasonable counter-statements, we interfere with our inner line of self-attack and bring these unconscious habits under control. Instead of calling ourselves bad names and focusing on our faults, we can learn to say kind things to ourselves and remember virtues as well as vices. Of course, this takes persistent effort to replace old, familiar habits. With training and practice, our positive beliefs and thoughts can compel us just as surely as our negative ones.
Our emotions in the present are built upon the legacy of our past. While we went through the long process of growing up, we didn’t do a perfect job, and some of our emotions were left frustrated, raw and needy. While we can never turn the clock back and regain a different childhood that would fill these gaps, we can learn about them and learn to satisfy them in our adult life.
Occasionally, as we explore our past we find ourselves dragged down by anger against those who could have treated us better. These regrets and anger about the past can be an obstacle in our enjoyment of the present. We can speed up our healing process by forgiving ourselves and our caregivers. Forgiveness is the antidote to regret, and letting go of old wounds can dramatically improve our feelings in the present.
Living up to expectations
As we struggle to find a niche for ourselves, a place in life that is satisfying and fulfilling, we may find our parents’ “shoulds” are built so deeply into our psyche we can’t take a step without feeling a twinge of fear that we may not be perfectly obeying them. Our parents are so much a part of us, we may fear that if we don’t live up to their expectations we would feel unloved, or criticized or feel like failures. Our child-mind may even have built up myths of disastrous consequence, for example, imagining we could be destroyed by defying our parents’ wishes.
Trying to live up to their expectations may be making us miserable, or pressuring us to live in a direction that we would rather not be going. By trying to live up to their dreams and ignoring our own, we are locked out of our own heart, and unable to fulfill our own identity.
If our parents’ shoulds wreak havoc with our mental process, we need to step back from their dreams and try to find our own. As children, our parents were our gods. Our lives depended on them, and we looked to them for direction in every aspect of life. Now we must make peace with the fact that they are mortals, and give ourselves permission to take the reins of our own life and identity, letting go of the fear of their criticism.
Some of our worst self put-downs come from the belief that we have fewer rights than others. When we believe happiness is only for other people, we justify and may even defend our miserable feelings about ourselves. Raising self-esteem starts by accepting that we have a legitimate right to happiness. Once we have accepted that we have the right to be happy, we need to unravel some of our habits of self put-down and develop those aspects of ourselves that we enjoy and about which we could be proud if only we would let ourselves.
We can begin this process by learning to appreciate small victories. Each victory contributes to new patterns and a healthier regard for ourselves. While victories can take place in any area of our lives where we feel inadequate, some self-esteem work transcends the limitations of any particular accomplishment. For example, we can tap deeper into ourselves when we learn how to express our own creativity. Through creative acts, we can give our soul a form of expression that lifts us and validates our spirit. And through spiritual exploration we discover the deepest aspects of ourselves, finding strength despite any outward circumstance. Through life-long learning and other means of self development we can build a stronger base for our self-esteem in the bedrock of personal experience.
More flexible approach to rules
We may have negative thoughts, pressured and harsh, that are based on rigid expectations of how we and others are supposed to behave. In real life, people behave in a variety of ways, and adhere to their own variation of “the rules.” Rigidity inevitably creates tension between what we expect and the way things really are. By forgiving people for their unique approach to life, even when it differs from ours, we create a more flexible space in which we and others can live in harmony. A harmonious mental approach reduces agitation and increases vitality and joy.
If we want to open ourselves up to a more compassionate, generous attitude, we need to learn to be more flexible and open. When we fill our mind with generous positive thoughts about the way other people behave, we will find that our generosity automatically extends to ourselves, and we will be set free from the burdens of rigid shoulds and their associated judgments and harsh put-downs.
Because we can’t read minds, we develop elaborate ideas of what other people might be thinking. When we experience shame and guilt we assume their minds are focused on us, loaded with accusations and criticisms. Often, our beliefs about how people view us are strongly fixed, and we don’t listen to the advice of friends and family who tell us we’re imagining things.
One way to test our fears and hopes about the way people view us is by working in a therapy group. Instead of imagining what they might be thinking about us, we directly learn how real people respond. By gaining insight into our process with others, we can become smarter about judging the way people relate to us, and break free from the painful fantasy that they are criticizing us. Therapy groups often provide profound revelations that help us improve our self-image and our relationships with others.
Openly facing our deepest secret
When we have something about which we are ashamed we bury it, protect it, keep it silent, and let it fester. Every time we push it down and block ourselves from feeling or expressing it, we are giving it attention and energy. The longer we push it away the more important this lurking thing becomes, until ultimately, we may believe this thing about which we are so ashamed is controlling our lives and tearing us apart. Yet, we are the one who gives it power by hiding it.
To heal we must face the thing openly. When we face it directly, we are able to discover new perspectives about it that take away its awful power. The events that brought us this shame are over, and now it’s time to put down this unnecessary burden. No matter how wrong it seems, we must let it go and move on. Blaming ourselves and others can’t change the past or heal our wound. Moving on from deep wounds may involve grief, in which we openly accept our lost innocence, our lost joy, our lost years, mourning rather than trying to block out the source of our shame. Acknowledging the painful and complex emotions of grief helps heal the wounds that hold us hostage.
At times, forgiveness may seem to be almost impossible, but ultimately this powerful tool can set us free from our misery. In addition to forgiving others, we need to forgive ourselves. Frequently, abused children form the idea that they themselves were the cause of the pain and shame. Finding and rooting out these buried ideas of self-blame will free us from a terrible source of pain. By becoming experts at forgiveness, forgiveness begins to permeate our soul, and we gradually let go of the guilt and shame.
As we try to move to more positive ground, we need to replace our self put-downs with appreciation for our place in life. We learn to focus on those parts of ourselves that transcend the flaws and faults that have preoccupied so much of our attention. Instead of placing so much energy on what we should have done, we allow ourselves to focus more on what we do, who we are, and who we will become.
Through counseling, journaling, meditating and religious and creative insights, we get in touch with an inner core. Moving beyond our own self-appreciation, we can learn to appreciate our service to others, and regard the contribution we make to the other people in our relationships and our community. As we feel better about ourselves, and put ourselves down less, others will feel our comfort and strength.
Breaking out of the negative space of self-put-downs gives us a new perspective on our role in life. We feel more energized, and less burdened by the obstacles we have been placing in our own path, and we have more to offer others.
See also: Child within, Cognitive therapy, Group therapy, Self-esteem, Self-talk, Story
Breaking the chain of low self-esteem by Marilyn Sorenson
Revolution from Within : A Book of Self-Esteem by Gloria Steinem
Six pillars of self-esteem by Nathaniel Branden