Within each of the systems of our lives, whether it be family, education, social, professional, faith-based etc, we may find that we are both accepted and rejected, as we experience acceptance as conditional. We may have experienced total rejection within our most intimate systems, and this from a very young age. Whatever the level if rejection we feel, we all live with a sense that we are, in our whole or our parts, not truly acceptable.
These internal sensations plants the seed of shame, which is added on by the countless life experiences which we may have, which deepen and intensify our sense of shame. Each embarrassment, each failure, each moment of loneliness, where we feel that we are alone because of who we are, elaborates on our shame, and it flourishes.
This is a toxic shame, and it draws away from our being able to hold a realistic impression of ourselves. As a result, our capacity to be internally compassionate dwindles.
How do we live with shame?
Well, one of the greatest challenges in personal therapy is to discern our defence-based responses; to recognize and come to understand those cognitive, emotional and behavioural reactions which are designed to protect us from feeling our feelings. Working with defences is the sine qua non of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
Our defences show up everywhere, and we have to come to know them. When it concerns the management of toxic shame, we often use what is called the narcissistic defence. And so, instead of holding our shame in mind in a reflective and internally accepting manner, we seal it off from our awareness by being defensiveness proud, boastful, self-righteous or judgemental.
The narcissistic defence can also have a strong manic edge. An example of this is conspicuous consumption. When we find ourselves caught up in a compulsive pattern of spending on the delicious frivolities of life, when we reflect on this, we often find that it is a mechanism for coping with shame.
Tolerating shame means tolerating feelings of self-loathing, internal embarrassment, and the belief that our shamefulness alienates us from this world. Defending against shame means denying this awareness for the sake of feeling better, but simultaneously leaves us living inauthentically, and living under conditions of immense internal pressure.
All defense creates internal pressure because at some level we always know what we don’t know. In the next blog, I will think a bit about working shame, as I believe this to be one of the key elements to living a fuller, freer, and more comfortable life.