Shame Identities – how you don’t want to be seen

Before you even get a chance to know who you are, you’ve been set up with a lot of “don’t be this – don’t do that” shame triggers. “Confident people are arrogant!” “Don’t talk!” “Relaxing is laziness!” Thanks again, childhood programming! I’ll share some examples of common shame-zoned traits.

The older I get, the more I realize that a lot of the traits in people that feel bad or uncomfortable in some way, are actually perfectly normal, reasonable, and often even healthy. I’ve just been negatively programmed somehow, and it takes a while to realize it.

Its a result of shame-zoning – where you’ve been taught that certain traits or urges are a shame identity. Normally because they make our shame-ridden parents feel uncomfortable and threatened.

For example, one of the most common shame-zoned traits that I notice in people is sadness (especially the stronger end of the spectrum, like grief). Very often, people hold deep down beliefs that showing grief, or any emotional vulnerability, is a sign of weakness. We imagine we’ll be thought of as “not able to hold it together”, “fragile”, and “handle with care”. People suddenly become uncomfortable, not knowing what to do or say, often projecting their own fear of weakness into the situation. “Don’t be upset! Don’t cry! It makes me feel uncomfortable!”

But of course, it actually takes great strength and courage to express emotional vulnerability, to remain true and authentic to your humanity. But that doesn’t stop that inner conflict of feeling like you’re not supposed to be vulnerable. Those lingering, residual feelings of shame.

Really, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “its weak to cry”. It all depends on the context I guess, but if a person feels like being sad or having an emotional purge, then why should we get in their way?

Its just an example.

That sensitive period of infancy is where most of the shame-zoning takes place, and it normally gets absorbed from your significant elders (parents, relatives, caregivers). Through repetition, observation, authoritarian teaching, emotional suggestion, plenty of aspects of normal human behaviour get shame-zoned. Associated with feelings of shame, not being good enough, and disappointing the people who’s approval your self-worth depends on.

It mostly begins there, but as an adult plenty of shame-zoning occurs too through culture, advertising and media. Its not as powerful as those formative years, but with enough repetition, emotion and/or sources of authority, the same strength can be achieved. Certainly enough to lead to inner conflicts and a loss of self-approval.

Common shame identities

Here are a few more things which can get shame-zoned from an early age. See how many you can relate to, and consider how it might hold you back. 

Expressing your feelings – which can be thought of as weak, pointless, overly sensitive. For a man, even more so – its  not masculine, not strong and tough enough. You should keep your feelings locked away inside, regardless of the consequences!

Expressing sexuality – its actually common for people to associate sexual feelings with guilt and shame. Parents of a certain era may have been brought up that way (the whole “masturbation is a sin” complex), which leads to great discomfort and awkwardness when it comes to those puberty years.

Being confident – this can be particularly well shame-zoned by fathers who themselves carry feelings of shame and inadequacy. Having learned to hide behind a humble facade, the idea of confidence feels threatening. Its gets unfairly associated with arrogance, which is not the same thing at all. Confidence is healthy belief in yourself, arrogance is a defensive facade for a fear of not being good enough, where people feel the constant need to prove themselves. When you’re young, if you express confidence, you might get yourself into that unfortunate situation where people enjoy seeing you trip or fail, so they can say things like “well that will teach you!”, “shouldn’t have been so cocky!” or “you needed bringing down a peg or two”. People who are brought up to feel threatened by confidence also tend to criticize people who express confidence, and love the news stories of celebrities downfalls – all part of the tendency to hate in others what you fear in yourself.

Being sick – which can be associated with weakness and attention seeking. People who exclaim “I never get sick!” with some kind of pride, as if circumventing the natural vulnerability that every immune system has, have likely shame-zoned the idea of being sick. The same goes for people who passively-aggressively attribute guilt to being sick, as if you chose to be. Of course, when such people are inevitably ill themselves, they then feel huge guilt and disccomfort at the idea of what people will surely think! Taken to chronic levels, this can contribute to emetophobia – the fear of vomiting.

Being successful – similar to the idea of being confident, success can be very threatening to someone who feels inadequate, not good enough, or fears being flawed. Successful people then become targets for criticism, to be sneered at and mocked. Nothing feels more satisfying to people who have shame-zoned success than watching a successful person suffer some kind of a loss or failure. Its amazing how much success can be automatically attributed to wrong-doing, guilt, greed and suchlike. Of course those things can lead to wealth, but the automatic shame-zoning of success is totally limiting to all kinds of progression in life. People might reach that edge of what feels comfortable, then self-sabotage, jeopardize future development somehow. Hit that brick wall of conflict.  You can read more about the “hidden handbrake” here, and more on how identity can contribute to it here.

Being depressed – depression affects a great many people, but crazily, most don’t even realize it. You might think that sounds ridiculous – because if you don’t know you’re depressed, then you must be ok, right? Why rock the boat? Except the consequences of depression can still be really unhealthy – feeling withdrawn, not enjoying things, disconnecting from hobbies or pursuits of pleasure, feeling unmotivated. People often choose to just adapt to these things instead, because they’ve associated the concept of “feeling depressed” with being shameful, weak, attention seeking – or even being “ungrateful for their lot”. As a specie we seem pretty dreadful at dealing with loss overall – real losses such as deaths, redundancy or relationship breakups, and abstract losses such as the loss of youth, beauty, having options, or good health. Coping with loss is almost a taboo, people aren’t falling over themselves to empathize or support you, because of their own discomfort and repressed depression at dealing with their own losses in life. Its perfectly natural to go through phases of depression – but I know from experience that saying those words “I’m feeling depressed” automatically puts me in the shame zone.

Being attractive or working out – it sounds nuts I know, but this can be shame-zoned by people for its wrong associations to vanity, confidence (see above) or power (a close relative to success, again see above).  Its more something that would get absorbed in later life, particularly in your twenties, rather than infancy. In my own experience, I’ve known attractive girls who have said that not only do they not get approached by guys, but they actually attract rude remarks and are made to feel guilt and shame instead. People who are threatened by sexuality, confidence and power may have a tendency to criticize attractive girls as slutty, shallow or superficial – without knowing a single thing about them. The same goes for men.

Being wealthy – similar to success, but whilst success can be applied to other areas such as performance, recognition, respect, wealth is more of a niche shame-zone. It can be associated with greed, vanity and selfishness. A person might not want to be seen as those things, so will feel uncomfortable about talking about or expressing wealth. It then becomes a shame-zone secret, which not only prevents a person from being able to enjoy the rewards of their work, but a source of shame as well.

These are some of the most common ones. Can you think of any more?

A case study example

To put this all into a bit of perspective, here’s a case-study from my therapy days.

A woman came to visit about emetophobia – the fear of vomiting. Fortunately, I knew from study that this wasn’t a simple phobia like spiders, but a complex one (like fear of flying, its a mix of factors and symbols of other fears).

When talking about the idea of throwing up, she made this specific movement, her hand purging from her guts upwards as if coming out of her mouth.

In discussion, she also mentioned how she liked to have a glass of wine, but couldn’t possibly have two, or risk getting drunk. She didn’t want to say the wrong things.

When we explored this, it turned out that she had some repressed thoughts and feelings about her marriage, which she didn’t dare want to talk about with her husband. Interestingly, she made the same hand movement when describing the thought of these things coming out of her – her hand purging something from her guts, out of her mouth.

It turned out that a few things were going on at once here – all from shame-zoned urges.

At a young age, she was taught that masturbation was wrong and shameful, which naturally led to sexual feelings in general.

Linked to this was the idea of expressing herself – something which had been discouraged, she should keep her thoughts to herself and just get on with things. This continued into her marriage, where she became the submissive, mousy partner who wasn’t expected to take pride in herself or develop self-confidence.

So two perfectly natural feelings developed which brought feelings of shame – impulses to be sexually adventurous and exploratory, and an urge to express frustration and resentment toward her husband for her feeling so repressed. The fear of saying these things was threatened by the idea of becoming drunk. The whole thing had been symbolised by vomiting – the idea of of purging something dark, nasty and shameful from within.

Once these awarenesses came to light, and she was allowed to let go of the wrong associations to shame – three things happened. She had much better expressive communication with her husband. She became comfortable with the idea of being sick. I’ll leave the third to your imagination.

Shame identities lead to inner conflict

As you can see in the case-study above, associating shame to perfectly natural urges can lead you into a complete state of conflict. These are the kinds of every-day, repressed conflicts that are shared by everyone, leading to those effects such as energy drain, feeling overwhelmed, or becoming bitchy.

Of course we’re not allowed to talk about such things because doing so makes us weak, attention seeking, and fragile! And that’s even if we were aware of them in the first place.

The whole thing about feelings of shame is that they rely on how you see other people’s perceptions of you. If we’re taught that confidence is bad, then your shame related to confidence will be brought about by imagining that people might see you as bad.

Practice shame-resilience: explore your shame-identities by reading more here.

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