The Recklessness of Shame in Emotional Malfunction

Robert F. Mullen, PhD

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One of the more identifiable characteristics of social anxiety disorder is our overriding sense of shame. This is in response to both internal and external attributions. Outside forces over which we have little to no control – public opinion, the media, stigma, and the pathographic health industry contribute significantly to our negative self-evaluation if we allow it. Since our early behaviors are not a factor, nor are we accountable for SAD’s adolescent onset, it is unreasonable to feel shame for the origins of our condition – yet we continue to do so. This is because our symptoms reflect incompetency and inadequacy. SAD tells us we are helpless, hopeless, undesirable, and worthless so, what is the point? The shame we feel is not so much for having social anxiety but for our unwillingness or perceived inability to challenge it.

This is the thing. While we are not accountable for the hand we have been dealt, we are responsible for how we play the cards we have been given. Shame is controllable. We have the means and the wherewithal. Holding onto shame is irrational. What is irrational? Self-harm is irrational.

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Shame is painful and incapacitating. It is the stomach-churning feeling of humiliation and distress from knowing we are not in control of our emotional well-being – and yet we should be. Shame adversely impacts our psychological and physiological health, further eroding our negative self-image and our self-respect. Self-recrimination for not managing our life is far more destructive than the symptoms of our condition. The shame of self-disappointment – that felt moral emptiness that pervades when we abandon our inherent ability and potential – is soul-crushing. And it is unnecessary.

Holding onto shame is not only irrational; it is reckless. The three objectives of recovery are (1) To replace or overwhelm our negative thoughts and behaviors with healthy, productive ones, (2) to produce rapid, neurological stimulation to change the polarity of our neural network, and (3) to regenerate our self-esteem. Unresolved shame counters and impedes these objectives. Rather than moderating our fears and anxieties, it exacerbates them. When we feel shame, we want to hide, to become invisible. Shame compounds our anxiety and depression, causing us to withdraw from the world and avoid human connectedness. We feel powerless, acutely diminished, and worthless. Yet these are the symptoms we want to resolve!

In many instances, shame can be revealing, cathartic, and motivational, promoting emotional growth and broadened self-awareness. But the shame of knowing we have the capacity to recover from that which has made our lives unbearable yet refuse to take advantage of it – that is untenable. In the memorable words of John Greenleaf Whittier, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”

Adding insult to injury, the shame of denying ourselves our inherent ability and potential leads to self-blaming. Especially pervasive in social anxiety disorder, self-blaming is an extremely toxic form of emotional self-abuse. We blame ourselves for our shortcomings. We blame ourselves for our lack of commitment or, when we commit, for not following through. We blame ourselves for our inability to achieve our goals and objectives. 

Recovery and self-empowerment require letting go of our negative self-perspectives, expectations, and beliefs, and opening our minds to new ideas and concepts. When we hold onto shame, we remain imprisoned by our recklessness and immobility.

The good news is it is not difficult to relieve ourselves of shame. We simply commit ourselves to recovery.

I invite anyone desiring to probe deeper into the origins and consequences of shame to access the extensive writings of Claude-Hélène Mayer and Elisabeth Vanderheiden including The Bright Side of Shame (2019) and Shame 4.0 (2021) (Springer Nature).

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