How Do You Handle Shame?
Real Emotional Responses to Real-Life Experiences
Rather than blame fabricated “mental illnesses” for moods, reactions, and worries, it makes much more sense to acknowledge that they are rooted in real emotional responses to real-life experiences.
The vast majority of people who struggle with issues labeled “depression” and “anxiety” have been adversely affected by Five Causative Factors:
- Factor 1. The Primal Threat Response or “Fight-or-Flight”
- Factor 2. Fear of Social Exclusion
- Factor 3. Shame as an Attempt to Prevent Social Exclusion
- Factor 4. Trauma
- Factor 5: Attachment Status
In some people, the experience of shame triggers a fearful response, overwhelming the cognitive functioning of the brain, leading to fear-based behaviors of reacting rather than responding thoughtfully.
They are highly motivated to manage their shame and fear and respond with three predictable and easily identified behavioral responses called Counterproductive Shame Management Strategies:
- Blame Avoiding
The simple key to understanding the three Shame Management Strategies is the answer to this question: How does the person handle criticism?
When held accountable for a behavior, what does the person do?
- blame others
- blame themselves, or
- preemptively try to avoid blame
All three behaviors have self-blaming or low self-worth as a root cause. Individuals may use all three behaviors, but often have one predominating behavior. The behaviors occur on a continuum from minimal to high levels.
In contrast, healthy self-acceptance helps a person manage shame in appropriate ways. Those who have achieved self-acceptance have a healthy, balanced ability to hear and tolerate messages of shame from others and from self. They have low levels of self-shaming, accurate perceptions of the critical messages from others, and appropriate emotional and behavioral reactions to feelings of shame or low self-worth. This improves the relationship with others and with oneself, and reduces anxiety and other symptoms commonly labeled as “mental disorders.”
Admittedly, there are other motivators and predictors of human behavior. But Shame Management Strategies identify exactly the dysfunctional behavior that causes difficulties in human relationships with self and other. These three strategies can be used to explain most emotional and behavioral difficulties that are called “diagnoses” in the DSM.
Rather than considered as pejorative labels for personality or traits, Shame Management Strategies should be considered from a compassionate framework: These behaviors are learned, self-protective, adaptive traits that arose out of a person’s exposure to the Five Causative Factors, especially trauma and insecure attachment patterns.
These strategies are not based on any biomedical genesis. As such, in contrast to the disease model, they should not be considered intransigent “disorders” that cannot be unlearned and reshaped or that need medication to “treat.”
In the following explanation of the three Shame Management Strategies consider these general principals:
- An individuals may use all three behaviors at different times, but often have one predominating behavior.
- The specific behaviors listed below do not occur in all individuals with these tendencies. For example, not all Other-Blamers are aggressive or violent or not all Self-Blamers are perfectionistic.
- The behaviors occur on a continuum from minimal to extreme levels of frequency and intensity. Some individuals, such as Donald Trump, are extreme Other-Blamers who show nearly all the character traits listed in extremes. Some Self-Blamers are severely depressed and suicidal; other Self-Blamers function very well and seem quite confident.
- Many people have different blaming behaviors with family or primary partners than in their work or social relationships. For example, they may be highly Other-Blaming toward a spouse, but quite tolerant of co-workers or friends.
Other-Blamers manage the feeling of shame with a lack of accountability. The key behavioral sign is hyper-vigilance to and over-reactivity to criticism. Other-Blamers tend to argue or attack to keep any taint of blame from landing close.
While these strategies provide comfort to the individual, they are counterproductive in relationships. Other-Blaming is often at the root of relationship problems, because of the reluctance to admit fault.
Ironically, Other-Blamers are so busy managing shame in counterproductive ways that they act in shameful ways, such as insisting they are right at all costs. Their fear state makes it difficult for them to see that they are behaving in very unlovable ways.
Other-Blaming is at its core a lie on several fronts. It is a self-deception with the goal of avoiding feelings of shame. To inappropriately blame others for problems is a lie told directly to others and indirectly to oneself. How can a relationship withstand a constant barrage of lies, excuses, denials, and attacks?
In relationships, Other-Blamers try to control, manipulate, threaten, or intimidate to set up relationships with people who will be submissive and will not challenge them, correct them, or blame them.
Their life experiences often include experiences such as being raised with shame-based parenting, parents who model Other-Blaming behaviors, permissive parenting that did not hold the child accountable, lack of secure attachment, or other developmental trauma that fostered feelings of unworthiness.
Other-Blamers may at times lack compassion or empathy for others, often expressing direct criticism of others and impatience with inferiority. They lack compassion for others because they lack tolerance for their own failures and inferiority. They judge others just as they judge themselves.
Specifics of Other-Blamer Behavior
Other-Blamers exhibit a range of behaviors centered on defending against the experience of shame, including:
Blaming And Lack Of Accountability
Behaviors include lashing out to forestall, deny, defend against, or attack against criticism.
- difficulty accepting accountability, blame, or responsibility
- makes excuses
- difficulty admitting fault, apologizing, or being wrong
- lacks self-awareness or self-reflection
- opinionated, stubborn, and reluctant to change opinions once set
- but can also be very changeable in opinions if they are caught in a lie or if it suits them
- fails to conform to social norms and violates laws
- lacks pro-social skills, such as empathy, compassion, tolerance, generosity, etc.
- lacks a sense of remorse
- arrogant, haughty, and entitled
- self-centered and self-absorbed
- feels superiority, feels they have special talents
- lacks gratitude
- irresponsible or lazy, under-functions, unwilling to work or do chores
- plays the “victim” as a way to elicit pity, shift the blame, and avoid accountability (“Everyone always picks on me!”)
- poor sense of humor: cannot take a joke due to poor shame tolerance and may lack the ability to be light, spontaneous, or joyful due to high levels of hyper-vigilance to threat, but also when held accountable for behaviors makes an excuse that his behavior was “just a joke.”
- may like to work alone to avoid criticism, but may also like to be the center of attention if the need for attention outweighs the fear of criticism
- has difficulty taking advice
Prefers A Dominance Response
- is hostile, bullies, demeans, or criticizes others to keep criticism at bay and forestall feelings of inadequacy
- violent, angry, and aggressive
- intimidates and uses emotional or physical threats
- reckless, impulsive, irritable
- poor frustration tolerance
- short attention span
Other-Blamers use many forms of dominance to gain control. By feeling in control of others they attempt to minimize criticism and shame and seek to gain a steady stream of attention and a feeling of acceptance.
- uses conflict or the threat of physical or emotional conflict to keep others from blaming or shaming
- in relationships may be overly jealous and controlling to forestall public shame if rejected by a partner (attachment distress)
- in contrast, may withdraws affection (“freezes out”) to control, avoid criticism and provoke guilt in another
- manipulates or exploits others
- deceives and lies excessively,
- uses vague or indirect communication to issue threats, such as euphemisms and coded language to obscure their intentions
- uses “gas lighting,” lying to purposely create mental confusion in another, to destablize a partner and cause her to question her reality
- dramatic, emotional behaviors
- may lie or exaggerate achievements to seek approval
- loud, opinionated, bossy
- monopolizes conversations, rarely asks questions of others in conversation
- interpersonal interactions often involve the Other-Blamer pontificating on facts as a way to showcase their intelligence and maintain an emotional distance in the relationship
- falsifies or exaggerates physical health symptoms to gain attention and sympathy
- uses emotional threats, such as suicide gestures or false moodiness to gain attention
- can act as “star” or “victim,” but the goal is to get attention
- lacks empathy and rarely attunes to the needs of others
- rarely engages in emotionally honest or vulnerable conversations
- has a pattern of ending relationships abruptly and for little reason
- has few long-term relationships
- has few close, emotionally connected relationships
- if they are in a long-term relationship the partner may describe it as having limited warmth or affection
Disorders in the DSM Indicating Predominantly Other-Blamer Behavior:
- Antisocial Personality Disorder
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Conduct Disorder
- Delusional Disorder
- Factitious Disorder
- Histrionic Personality Disorder
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder
People who favor Self-Blaming tend to internalize messages of self-criticism and self-correction rather than blame others.
Self-Blamers are on alert for clues that others do not approve of them and are then ready to respond. Self-Blamers believe if they conduct a constant crusade of self-recrimination they will improve themselves and then present themselves well to others. From an attachment perspective, Self-Blamers are constantly trying to fix themselves to regain connection to parents and others.
Self-Blamers want others to like them, so they feel the need to please. They are generally conflict averse, unassertive, and hesitant to express their needs or wants.
Self-Blamers often have an exaggerated sense of responsibility. They frequently ruminate and re-examine the past, re-living former embarrassments or failures. They worry about the future, imagining situations where they might fail, might disappoint others, or might be shamed. All of this time and energy spent not living in the moment means they may have attentional issues, such as distractibility, difficulty focusing, and poor memory.
Many with Self-Blamer tendencies are self-described as “perfectionists.” An examination of this behavior can show the intersection of the Five Causative Factors. Most perfectionists behave as they do to:
- Forestall or calm fears of failure: “If my house isn’t clean, I feel anxious and believe I am a bad mother. I can relax and feel calm only when my house is clean.”
- Fit in with others: “Everyone else in the neighborhood has a clean house, so I have to be fastidious, too.”
- To gain approval or avoid disapproval: “What would everyone think if they came in right now and saw how messy my house was?”
- To avoid the shaming experience that criticism from others would bring: “I would be mortified if someone teased me about my messy house.”
- To avoid the shaming experience that self-criticism would bring: “If I constantly keep my house clean, I can avoid that horrible experience of looking around, seeing it dirty, and feeding myself messages of failure and shame.”
However, every self-critical thought triggers the threat response in the body and brain, leading to anxiety.
A Self-Blamer may have grown up around an Other-Blamer and may have learned to unquestioningly accept blame from others. As the scapegoat for a person or an entire family system, the Self-Blamer may not even realize the belief system they have unwittingly accepted — that they are unworthy and in need of fixing. They may not realize how reflexively or even proactively they react with internal messages of self-criticism. Because of this lack of awareness, they may not note the resentment and anger they have experienced for years due to feelings of inequity.
A Self-Blamer in relationship with an Other-Blamer also may try to help or fix the partner, feel pity, and assume accountability for the Other-Blamer’s behaviors. This suits the Other-Blamer who conveniently is enabled in continuing a lack of accountability.
Self-Blaming is a painful lie told over and over to yourself. The lack of self-trust implicit in self-loathing is a betrayal. While you may tell yourself that you are horrible person, you also know, at some level, that you are not. Over time this self-deception leads to a loss of trust in your own intuition.
Self-Blaming originates as self-protective and adaptive in an attempt to fit in and be loved. Sadly, a person ends up feeling unlovable to herself. She is then highly sensitive to any signs from a partner that confirm this belief. This may lead to submissiveness, neediness, and clinging in relationships. Self-Blaming behaviors indicate a fear of incoming criticism and attempts to forestall it, and include:
- self-critical, self-recriminating, self-deprecating
- hypersensitive to criticism, often over-reacting with tearfulness, blushing, “freezing”
- fearful of failure, perfectionism
- preoccupied with possibilities for or past experiences with embarrassment
- perceives criticism where there is none – shoulders too much accountability for problems
- worries excessively about the effects of behaviors on others
Prefers A Submissive Response
- prefers to be dependent on others socially, emotionally, financially, or physically
- fearful, helpless, weak
- afraid of being alone
- reluctant to make decisions
- unable to accept compliments gracefully, embarrassed at positive attention
- overly concerned about the opinions of others
- over-achiever, productive, hard-working, perfectionist
- may lie to exaggerate achievements
- eager for external praise and recognition
- helpful and loyal to a fault
- over-commits, has difficulty saying “no”
Placating Behaviors, Conflict Avoidance
- placating and pleasing behaviors, such as excessive apologizing, nervous laughter, smiling
- conforming, easily succumbs to peer pressure
- reluctant to express opinions or needs
- acts as a mediator or peacemaker
- “walks on eggshells” in relationships, deferring to the needs of others
- avoids negative emotions and conflict-laden situations
- enables behaviors of others by not being assertive or direct, usually as a way to avoid shaming of others
- uses submissive and placating behaviors to try to win approval and acceptance of others
- uses perfectionism and over-achieving to win approval and acceptance of others
As a result of chronic anxiety, Self-Blamers often report physical symptoms indicative of the threat response:
- insomnia and sleep disturbances
- panic attacks
- muscle tension
- fainting and dizziness
- GI disorders
- high blood pressure
- nervousness, tension
- sensory sensitivity
Disorders in the DSM-IV Indicating Self-Blamer Behavior:
- Body Dysmorphic Disorder
- Cyclothymic Disorder
- Dependent Personality Disorder
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Illness Anxiety Disorder (formerly Hypochondria)
- Major Depressive Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Persistent Depressive Disorder
Note: Bipolar Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorder appear to indicate alternating between Self-Blaming/Depression and Other-Blaming/ Manic behaviors.
3. Blame Avoiding
Blame Avoiding behaviors are an attempt to avoid closeness in relationships or avoid relationships entirely as a way to keep the threat of shame at bay. Blame Avoiding people steer clear of interactions with others to prevent the possibility of embarrassing faultfinding.
These personality types distance from relationships, choose solitary activities, get little pleasure from activities, and seem indifferent to praise or criticism. They are emotionally cold, detached, and show little emotional affect. They can be rigid, vague, and self-absorbed, with a tendency to be suspicious and paranoid, indicating a hyper-vigilance to perceived threats.
They may believe that others are talking about them or making judgments about them. They may use anger when threatened or cornered (a “fight” response), but generally avoidance is the preferred tactic.
They may have perfectionism, rigidity, and a preoccupation with rules, lists, and schedules. They may be inflexible about morality and ethics, adopting black-and-white thought patterns.
Disorders in the DSM-IV Indicating Blame Avoiding Behavior
- Schizoid Personality Disorder
- Schizotypal Personality Disorder
- Schizoaffective Disorder
- Avoidant Personality Disorder
- Paranoid Personality Disorder