Quickly jumping to express shame can be a defense against real shame
“I screwed up.” “I’m so awful.” “I’m terrible. I feel bad about everything.” These statements, at a basic level, convey shame. However, in our struggle to tolerate having committed real harm to someone around us, they can also be used as a defense against, quite ironically, real shame. They can be tools to hurry these feelings along and get them as quickly out of the way as possible without having to be confronted with the full force of shame.
In some ways, this is understandable. We want to be relieved of the discomfort of sitting with the hurt we caused. When faced with this deep discomfort, a kind of performatory shame can take hold: Look at how much I’ve punished myself! Yet, this is an attempt at cutting off someone we’ve harmed from presenting that experience to us. What we are pretending to offer with this defensive shame is that they needn’t be burdened to tell us what we’ve done and that we shouldn’t be punished because we’ve already punished ourselves.
Defensive shame can also be an avoidance of reexperiencing past historical shame
Facing the shame of having harmed someone, like many painful experiences, is always two things at once. There is the harm we’ve done and must face, as well as a reexperiencing of past shames. We endure feeling the pain of shame again.
A function, then, of defensive shame is to avoid this historical feeling. It’s an attempt at staying with the feeling of the present tense because the historical shame—typically the shame of childhood—is too much. For some people in particular, the defensive shame emerged because they grew up in an environment of danger. When they made mistakes, the consequences were awful so they were—and still are—defending against pretty serious fears.
Shame is an important source of moral learning and building trust
When we take a moral shortcut and harm someone who we care about, it’s worthwhile to feel some shame and, when that harm is significant, we should feel a good deal of shame. While shame can be a source of intense emotional suffering, it shouldn’t be rendered out of the experience of living a whole life. Shame becomes problematic when it persists beyond reason—when it lingers and no longer serves the function of development and contrition, as well as when it takes on a life beyond reparation with one who is harmed.
Yet, like many painful experiences such as sadness and grief, shame is a crucial part of moral learning and building trust with others. Shame should feel bad—and the bad feeling is one we should want to avoid in the future. On the most basic level, this is a kind of aversive conditioning: If we want to avoid that feeling in the future, we need to make better moral choices.
Shame is also meaningful for the person harmed. They want to feel that the other person has learned something. It’s a way of acknowledging that we care about what happened—that the hurt it causes matters. Shame is a way of having some skin in the game and demonstrating care for the other person.
What should we do instead of rushing to use shame as a defense?
Beyond sitting with and feeling the shame, there is a lot to be said about what it means to make amends. We have to stop doing the harmful thing and show that. We need to be curious about the other person’s experience. We need to self-examine how we got there. We need to make a commitment to the self-work of not committing that harm again—and we need to show all of this to the other person. Most importantly, we need to be patient while the other person works through their experience and receives these offers from us.
It’s worth noting that for some people, shame as a defense against shame can become automatic. They may actually be unable to tell the difference between real shame and preemptive, defensive shame. In this case, a therapist is needed to help them examine the origins of this defense. A good therapist will have the instincts to feel the difference and put the pieces together from either their understanding of a patient’s history or an issue that may emerge in the work itself.