Which is worse fear or shame

Review too Shame (PDF e-book)

Psychology Today June 2015

Review by Uwe Britten

"You can also be ashamed of yourself"

For some people, shame experiences amount to a psychosocial catastrophe. They then quickly devalue themselves as a whole person. That is why we need more gentleness towards ourselves, says psychotherapist Jens Tiedemann.

Mr. Tiedemann, if I said now that you had a noodle on your chin, would you be embarrassed?
Probably. However, whether we are embarrassed or not always depends on the context. If someone in authority were standing next to us now, I would be embarrassed.

Why actually?
Embarrassment always has something to do with non-compliance with social norms or clumsiness. We then stand with both feet in the grease bowl. Who would like to appear in front of others with a noodle on their chin?

But if we stand alone in front of the mirror at home and see the noodle on our chin, then aren't we ashamed?
Yes, you can also be ashamed of yourself. We carry the internalized shame within us. So I can be ashamed of my own reflection in the mirror and wonder if I want to be seen that way. I can only be ashamed of the noodle on my chin afterwards in my quiet room. Part of the essence of shame is that I experience a discrepancy between how I would like to be there and how I am specifically or how I experience myself.

We then have a strange look within us.
We have a strange look inside us, with which we look at ourselves from the outside. The shame life begins at around two and a half to three years of age, i.e. from the age at which we can already see ourselves in the mirror. Tests have been carried out on mirror images to prove this. You could say that when we stand in front of the mirror it is an "objective self-reflection": I can observe myself from the outside. This enables us to look at someone else's gaze, so we can ask ourselves the question: Am I embarrassed right now?

Who is watching us the most?
We ourselves. We have this inner observer running with us all the time. In the best case, this is a positive self-examination, which we use to orient ourselves to certain conventions, for example, and mostly unconsciously. In extremely negative cases, however, this can also result in constant self-judgment or self-denigration.
Otherwise, of course, we were constantly watched in childhood, especially by our parents. This can also be seen in the explicit educational saying: "Shame on you!" That means: "I don't want to see you like that!" Over the years we learn to internalize this view from the outside. We begin to observe ourselves more closely and thus also to evaluate ourselves.

What are we ashamed of?
There are cross-cultural themes and scenes of shame. For example, people around the world feel ashamed when they accidentally open a toilet door that someone is already sitting behind.
Otherwise, the shame is very individual. The content can be very specific and has always arisen in the course of a person's life. In the case of personal flaws, weaknesses, deficits, we work with an ideal of ourselves, which in psychology is called the "I ideal". Basically, it is important how strong such an ideal is. Perfectionists, for example, have a strong ego ideal. Even shy, introverted people are quickly ashamed, which in the extreme can mean that even tiny weaknesses have to be used for self-devaluation. An extrovert person may deal with a supposed flaw more aggressively and make a joke of it. So it is important how I deal with feelings of shame in general - do I deny them or do I even use them for a punchline? There are people with flaws who go on television with them and stage themselves.

We already know that everyone has mistakes.
Perfectionism and self-optimization are of enormous importance in our time. Our own inner demands are what often torment us. 60 percent of all parents today feel overwhelmed, not because they are really overwhelmed by everyday upbringing, but by their own demands. The corresponding feeling of failure then causes shame. I am never as good as I want to be.

What do we fear when looking from outside?
Feelings of shame and guilt ensure that we adhere to social norms. Thousands of years ago, an expulsion from the tribal community would have been our death sentence. In the Middle Ages, people still came to the pillory, the place of public shame and humiliation. The media shitstorm is practically a modern counterpart to the pillory. Shame is essentially the fear of rejection. Shame is therefore perceived by many as a psychosocial catastrophe. We fear the contemptuous gaze of the other or the imagined contempt in the other's gaze. In the positive sense, shame protects our privacy and intimacy and thus ensures the smoothest possible cooperation. That is why I also refer to shame as “social glue”.

In some social conflicts, how aware are we that we are actually guided by shame?
The fascinating thing about shame is that it has both a covert and a concealing quality. We experience many feelings openly and also very consciously. But we prefer to cover up feelings of shame quickly or change them into something else, we turn them into aggression, for example, directed at ourselves in the form of depression or against others. This means that there is a "bypassed" shame in which we do not perceive the shame directly as a painful feeling, but rather cover it up with more bearable feelings. However, the shame itself also covers up other feelings, for example blocking access to pride, joy, liveliness and wanting to show oneself.
Shame is also a common source of violence. Shame is often the germ of acts of violence, which can be demonstrated even in armed conflicts between states and their populations. As a result of the shame, hatred and feelings of revenge result. We are also currently experiencing that even caricatures can deeply shame other people. Subjectively felt disrespect and the loss of honor only appear to be answerable with violence. The person concerned is often not even aware that he is ashamed. The shame is covered up. For some, shame is the most uncomfortable feeling they can imagine. Shame can completely overwhelm us.
If I'm ashamed, it's because I've revealed something about myself. I call this the "hangover", the feeling afterwards. If the shame experience is overly concealed, veiled, then in the worst case it breaks out again in psychological symptoms, for example in a social phobia in which I am overly afraid of being judged by others and in extreme cases hardly dare to leave the house. These people are usually not even aware that the focus of their feelings is a fear of shame, i.e. the fear of being able to get into a shameful situation. It is not about individual deficits at all, but rather they are ashamed of themselves as a person and have great problems even getting into contact with other people.

This then becomes blatant in sexual situations.
Shame is a feeling that is very close to the body, for example when it comes to nudity. We already learn that from the Bible: "They recognized their nakedness and were ashamed." So the incarnation in general is connected here with the feeling of shame.
From a psychological point of view, our sexuality is always conflicting, even if today we are extremely liberal about sexual preferences and practices. The psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy has suggested that this bias is related to the fact that sexual feelings are the only ones that are not empathically returned and reflected by our parents in our childhood. In today's sexuality there is also an enormous pressure of self-portrayal with regard to physical attractiveness, sexual knowledge - this is fed from the porn offers on the Internet - sexual performance, in short: an ideal of perfection. This increases the risk of shame in sexuality. What about my erectile function? Am i seductive enough Even before the actual sexual contact, there is an intimacy shame when I have to show myself and my body as it is naked. If you then have sex, if you add the fear of losing control, then the question always arises: How far do I want to show myself with it? Let's just think of the "derailments" of our face during orgasm.

You also speak of an addiction shame. So our closeness can also be embarrassing for us?
Yes, that is strange with us humans: When we become aware of our feelings of dependency, we are often ashamed of them. The dependency is perhaps shameful because it tends to contradict our ideal of maturity: an adult must be independent - incidentally also independent of the recognition of others. Nevertheless, we are always dependent, that is just part of being human. And as addicts, we are always vulnerable too.

We often blush when we are ashamed and want to sink into the ground at the same time. How is it that we make ourselves conspicuous like a toadstool in the snow, but at the same time prefer not to be in this place at this time?
Turning red is paradoxical: On the one hand, red is of course a signal color that signals to the other person: "Look here, look at me!" On the other hand, the accompanying facial expression, as if we would like to disappear, is a "Leave me alone!" . This is paradoxical because shame is a temporary retreat in the service of maintaining relationships. So there is something ambivalent about it. In shame, for example, I avoid eye contact, but at the same time I seek contact because I hope to make amends.

Can the blushing also have a signal character: Yes, you caught me, but now please take care of me?
That too can play a role. In contrast to the guilty experience, in which we tend to turn pale, turning red does have an appeal character, perhaps even a gesture of submission, especially since it often takes place in constellations with unequal social roles. It is especially those in authority who can shame us. Then we show our request by turning red: "Give me a sign that what I just did wasn't so bad!"

If we ourselves now realize that we have shamed someone - how should we react in order to exonerate them?
Sometimes laughing helps. But that's risky because we can laugh with someone and at them. The embarrassed person quickly feels laughed at. We can also try to overlook the shame, but then this small break that occurs through the shame in the social relationship can still remain in the room - which is also not our intention. It is also double-edged when we openly address shame, because that can even intensify it. We are going one step further, so to speak. That is the secondary shame where the other is ashamed because he is ashamed. It's not that easy. It is important to continue and cultivate the relationship in order to signal: It wasn't all that bad, that is, the shame-induced break in the relationship can be repaired.

If it had been me who had a noodle on my face at the beginning of our conversation, would you have told me?
Yes, I would have told you. It's not that bad with the noodle. It is usually much more difficult for us with the »classic«, the open trousers. For example: How do I tell my boss that his pants are open? For women who have just come from the toilet, this can also be the skirt trapped in the tights. It depends a lot on the type of relationship. The difficulty here is that we want to spare someone from being ashamed, but: by addressing the open pants, we ourselves are embarrassing them. The other is ashamed that anyone even noticed. This is why some people are so ashamed of others that they cannot actually take the step of making the other person aware.
Shame is also an infectious feeling. If I experience a person who is deeply ashamed, it infects me, I experience it too. The shame has therefore also been described as a border affect between me and the other. Witnessing a shameful situation makes me feel ashamed. The situations in which we are ashamed, however, has to do with ourselves and our own processing of shame.

As a psychotherapist, you often have to address something that puts the patient ashamed.
That's true. That's not always easy. One often comes across the primal shame that the other experiences himself as a despicable person. But when such people then open up and express this shame - this does not necessarily have to be in front of psychotherapists - then there is something deeply connecting human beings that can be very moving emotionally. Chronically embarrassed and perhaps always laughed at as a child - if someone expresses that in front of us, then it is very touching between people, also because of all the horror that lies behind it. That doesn't leave me indifferent when a person has had such a story and opens up to me with it.


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