Dear Neil: You’ve recently written about shame. Can you address why some of us feel an inner sense of shame no matter what we say or do? I’m not talking about feeling ashamed when I do something I know to be wrong. That’s having a conscience. I’m talking about feeling unworthy, inadequate, unlovable or not good enough—even when I have not done anything wrong at all. Also, I can’t seem to have a good intimate relationship no matter what I do. Why?
Not Measuring Up
Dear Not Measuring Up: The core of feeling shamed as a human being comes down to my sense of inadequacy. Feeling inadequate, in turn, makes me afraid nobody will actually want me, and that I will be rejected, abandoned or discovered to not be good enough. I am essentially a mistake, flawed and defective, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I began these feelings of inadequacy or unlovableness when I was growing up.
My family—especially my parents—gave me messages that I didn’t measure up and that I wasn’t likable, lovable, desirable or good enough as a person.
These rules are the operative principles that govern shame-based families:
- Control. One must be in control of all interactions, feelings and personal behaviors at all times. Control is the major defense against shame-based feelings.
- Perfectionism. Always be right in everything you do. Avoidance of negative judgment or criticism—or any suggestion that you’re less than perfect—is the organizing principle of life.
- Blame. Whenever things don’t turn out as planned, blame others and self-righteously defend yourself at all costs, although occasionally you can blame and denigrate yourself as well.
- Denial of the five freedoms. The five freedoms, first enunciated by Virginia Satir, describe a fully functional person: the power to perceive; to think and interpret; to feel; to want and choose; and the power to imagine. In shame-based families, the perfectionist rule says you shouldn’t perceive, think, feel, desire or imagine the way you do. You should do these the way the perfectionist ideal demands.
- The no-talk rule. This rule prohibits the full expression of any feeling, need or want. So no one speaks of his/her loneliness, sense of self-rupture or feelings of not measuring up.
- Don’t make mistakes. Mistakes reveal the flawed, vulnerable self. To acknowledge a mistake is to open one’s self up to judgment, criticism and the implication that you’re not good enough. So cover up your own mistakes, and if someone else makes a mistake, shame him.
- Low trust. Don’t trust anyone and you’ll never be disappointed. If I can’t trust my parents to show me how valued I am, I can’t trust anyone.
So how am I going to trust others—or let another get really close to me? I fear that if I let you get close, you’ll find out I’m not good enough and reject me. Perhaps the greatest wound a shame-based person carries is the inability to be intimate in a relationship, argues John Bradshaw in “Healing The Shame That Binds You” (Health Communications, Inc.).
People who grow up in shame-based families are very sensitive to criticism. The slightest criticism sets off feelings of inner shame. They feel worthless, not good enough, broken, unlovable. So, they cover up their shame by blaming, criticizing, getting angry, being defensive or keeping themselves emotionally removed from their lover or spouse. They then end up attacking the very people they love and care about.