Raw Concepts: The Superhuman/Subhuman Dichotomy of Shame


A great book I read on shame was John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You. I’ve read better when it comes to getting into the hardcore psychodynamics behind shame, like Leon Wurmser’s books, but those books can be very intimidating, dense, and jargon-filled.

Bradshaw’s book, though, is great for laypeople, and has a lot of heart. Mark Manson over at Postmasculine wasn’t crazy about this book, and I can respect his reasons for disliking it. Bradshaw talks about Christianity a lot, which turns some people off. Although I’m not especially religious, the religious aspects of the book didn’t bother me much. I honestly don’t remember them being as intrusive as Mark recalls them being.

But the main reason I love Bradshaw’s book, and why I would recommend it even if I didn’t like the rest of the book, is that it’s the only book on shame I’ve found so far that really touches on how shame-based people can only view themselves in extremes, as either being superhuman or as being subhuman.


From the book (emphasis added by me):

As a state of being, shame takes over one’s whole identity. To have shame as an identity is to believe that one’s being is flawed, that one is defective as a human being. Once shame is transformed into an identity, it becomes toxic and dehumanizing.

Toxic shame is unbearable and always necessitates a cover-up, a false self. Since one feels his true self is defective and flawed, one needs a false self that is not defective and flawed. Once one becomes a false self, one ceases to exist psychologically. To be a false self is to cease being an authentic human being. The process of false self formation is what Alice Miller calls “soul murder.” As a false self, one tries to be more than human or less than human.

Later in the book Bradshaw expands on this (emphasis appears in original text):

Because the exposure of self to self lies at the heart of neurotic shame, escape from the self is necessary. The escape from self is accomplished by creating a false self. The false self is always more than human. The false self may be a perfectionist or a slob, a family Hero or a family Scapegoat. As the false self is formed, the authentic self goes into hiding. Years later the layers of defense and pretense are so intense that one loses all conscious awareness of who one really is…

It is crucial to see that the false self may be as polar opposite as a super-achieving perfectionist or an addict in an alley. Both are driven to cover up their deep sense of self-rupture, the hole in their soul. They may cover up in ways that look the polar opposite, but each is still driven by neurotic shame. In fact, the most paradoxical aspect of neurotic shame is that it is the core motivator of the superachieved and the underachieved, the star and the scapegoat, the righteous and the wretched, the powerful and the pathetic.

I would also add that shame’s the core motivator of narcissists and codependents also. As I’ve described before, shame is the underside of narcissism and codependence. There are three faulty coping mechanisms humans engage in when dealing with our personal issues: overcompensation, surrender, and avoidance. The narcissist is overcompensating against toxic shame, and masquerading as superhuman and grasping for anything that can fuel his grandiosity. The codependent alternates between surrendering to and avoiding his shame, and he masquerades as subhuman.

Why such extremes? I think there are several reasons, and I don’t claim to know and understand them all. One reason, I believe, is that shame-based people take their own feelings and their actions to be reflections of their very identity. Since being shame-filled causes wildly oscillating feelings and actions in themselves, as well as wildly oscillating extreme feelings and reactions in others who they interact with, their identities end up fluctuating to the same extremes as the feelings and actions of themselves and others.

For example, if a person who isn’t shame-based hits on a girl, and she rejects him, he may say, “Oh, I failed.” He doesn’t think he’s a better or worse person than he was before the rejection. If before he thought he was a cool guy, not he just thinks of himself as a cool guy who just happened to fail at something. However if a shame-based person hits on a girl, and she rejects him, that guy would say, “Oh no, I’m a failure.” To shame-based people, everything they do or that happens to them is a commentary on their very identity and self-worth, and now views himself as a worse person than before he attempted. So now he feels subhuman.

He may choose to just surrender to this feeling and stay subhuman and stop trying. Or he may overcompensate by trying extra hard until he gets laid, and now he thinks he’s a stallion, a real Don Juan. Now he’s superhuman. Since the success of our actions and the state of our emotions can fluctuate wildly from one extreme to another over the course of the day, when we tie our identity to those things, our identity can fluctuate wildly as well.

Another thing I notice about shame-based people is that they tend to elicit very strong reactions and emotions from other people, whether favorable or negative, especially people with their own damage and shame issues. This is why narcissists and codependents often have such chemistry. Since shame-based people also like to tie how they view themselves to how other people feel about and react to them at any given moment, the fact that they elicit more extreme, polarizing feelings and reactions from others than the average person does also contributes to them developing more extreme, polarizing views of themselves than the average person does.

To put it more simply, the more your self-esteem and self-image are generated internally, the more stable it’s likely to be, because your internal world is easier to keep consistent. The more your self-esteem and self-image are generated externally, the more extreme and volatile they’re likely to be, because the external world is very unpredictable and full of extreme highs and lows.

This explains why someone who was a total nerd and never got laid in high school can become the biggest sociopathic asshole player when older and accomplished. Or why a fat frumpy girl who used to act meek and mousy can sometimes become a total arrogant bitch after losing a lot of weight, getting a makeover, and becoming hot. They’ve gone from surrendering to the shame to overcompensating against it. Sometimes the guy who was a nerd in high school and never got laid becomes older and accomplished and better looking but still acts like the nerd in high school who never got laid. Or the formerly fat girl who is now hot still acts meek and mousy and still thinks of herself as that fat girl. They’ve gotten so used to surrendering to the shame they don’t know any other way to deal with it.

Either way, as long as someone retains the shame and never heals it, no matter how they change their externals they will still always be stuck in either a superhuman or a subhuman mode, rather than ever just becoming human.

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24 Responses to “Raw Concepts: The Superhuman/Subhuman Dichotomy of Shame”

  1. Yeah, those are great passages. This is an area I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. What I’m kind of curious about is what determines if someone over-compensates veruss surrenders/avoids? Like, why do some people end up narcissists and some end up codependent.

    I think part of has to do with developmental psychology and people’s ability to hold their own feelings and someone else’s in their minds simultaneously. My guess is narcissists aren’t able to do this whereas codependents are.

    As for Bradshaw’s book. I was a tad harsh on it in my review. I remember loving his theory and hating his implementations. So it’d be 10-20 pages of great theoretical content followed by 10-20 pages of crappy advice.

  2. Also, a follow up question for you. Do you see “toxic shame” and low implicit self-esteem as more or less the same thing?

    That’s kind of the conclusion I’ve come to.

  3. I’ve looked at shame/humiliation for a few years. James Gilligan found murderers were always unbearably humiliated and murdered people to replace shame with pride. The Greeks called it Hubris (humiliating people in public) followed by Nemesis (revenge). Then there was Cain and Abel, when a humiliated Cain murdered his innocent brother. The problem looks to be getting worse, hence all the attention paid to it today.

  4. You say Cain and Abel, but I’d take it back even further to Adam and Eve. The first thing they did when eating the apple is to cover up their privates. Many psychological interpretations of the bible call that humanity’s first instance of shame.

  5. @Bob: That’s really interesting and makes sense. Although, as far as I know, violent crime and murder is at the lowest it’s been in a long, long time.

  6. If actions and feelings are not reflections of one’s identity, what do you propose one’s identity IS based on? I doubt you would “say the opinions of others”, since that leads to narcissism.

  7. Well, I think that may not be the right question. I think some possible question to ask instead are, do you need an identity to attach to at all? Is your identity the same as you, or is it just a label, a fiction? If so, who are you without your identity?

  8. Yeah, those are great passages. This is an area I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. What I’m kind of curious about is what determines if someone over-compensates veruss surrenders/avoids? Like, why do some people end up narcissists and some end up codependent.

    I think part of has to do with developmental psychology and people’s ability to hold their own feelings and someone else’s in their minds simultaneously. My guess is narcissists aren’t able to do this whereas codependents are.

    Good question, tough to answer in a single comment (especially because I don’t know the answer lol)

    I think some of it comes from genetics and a major answer comes from the learned helplessness research by Martin Seligmann.

    What you describe about being able to hold their own and other people’s feeling simultaneously, that’s some pretty advanced stuff. Have you been reading object relations and self psychology? It touches on a lot of what you’re describing. It relates to a concept called object permanence. I do think you’re on the right track, although my views on codependents are starting to change some, as you’ll see in the next few posts b

  9. Also, a follow up question for you. Do you see “toxic shame” and low implicit self-esteem as more or less the same thing?

    That’s kind of the conclusion I’ve come to.

    I agree on the idea that low implicit self esteem and shame are the same thing, but didn’t we discuss this already during the podcast? I could be wrong, but I thought in our implicit self-esteem discussion when I was talking about how there are a lack of agreed upon definitions in psychology I mentioned low implicit self esteem and shame as an example of two different schools of research actually discussing the same phenomenon. I could be wrong though, and I’m not sure I want to sit through the whole podcast just to find it lol.

  10. Hahaha, I don’t remember you saying it, and I DID sit through it again.

    But that’s cool. I’ve basically come to the same conclusion.

  11. If you don’t remember it than I probably didnt say it after all and you just came to the same conclusion independently.

  12. What I’m kind of curious about is what determines if someone over-compensates veruss surrenders/avoids? Like, why do some people end up narcissists and some end up codependent.

    You’ve said before, Ricky, that narcissism is the more extreme form of emotional dysfunction. Intuitively, it would seem that it stems from an even more broken childhood environment than the codependent had, in general terms. If you look at the codependent, as you said Mark, he has the greater (although limited) ability to empathize with others. I’m guessing here, but he may have been more likely to have had parents that were able to meet his needs on a semi-consistent basis. Whereas the narcissist may have been raised in an environment so full of fear (of abandonment, criticism, etc.), and with the absence of a stable sense of safety, that the only option left to him is to fend for himself to make sure he even survives until adulthood. He therefore trusts no one, and learns to manipulate and work hard. These traits lead him to a more, externally viewed, successful life, but he is more emotionally dead inside.

    I would also guess that the way specific emotions were repressed in childhood, might be a good indicator of what life path/script is later chosen. For example, the helplessness that comes from suppressed anger in childhood would lead to a different emotional landscape than if a child was never able to express joy. Back to the point with the narcissist vs. codependent, I would say that the codependent turns his emotional confusion into helplessness, whereas the narcissist thinks there is greater stability in using anger to manipulate and being superior to others. One gives into the fear and maintains the ability to trust others, the other totally blocks out the fear, thrives on his anger and lives practically in emotional isolation.

    I would also be curious about the different effects on the genders and different cultures this concept has. In the Rearden series, T, you brought up the fact that women tend to be more passive aggressive because social norms dictate that overt aggression from females is unacceptable, and therefore the emotion is suppressed. It seems that the male equivalent is, for one, the way that it’s unconventional for men to talk about their fears and insecurities. Something that you’ve touched on, Mark.

  13. As long as my memory doesn’t betray me, I recall that Bradshaw’s advice is truly deficient. Apart from the annoying christianity concepts that he implements, his coping advice can be weak and/or passive-aggresive at times, being shameful on its own.

    In top of that, his notion that people have hard limits bothered me deeply as well. I can tell that he says that from the position of ‘don’t try to be above human in a narcissistic way’ but people can actually improve, mostly always improve on virtually anything.

    That’s why ballet dancers do simple pliets for ever. It can be maladaptive, but it might be the reason you are the best on what you are truly passionate about.

    Having said that, his core message is what matters. And it’s a good one. It can really help shame-based people.

  14. As for Mark’s question:

    What I’m kind of curious about is what determines if someone over-compensates veruss surrenders/avoids? Like, why do some people end up narcissists and some end up codependent.

    A TLP post is a good answer to start with:


  15. I just started reading the TLP post. The “character” versus “actress” dynamic is brilliant, but he then messes it up by saying most narcissists are men, most borderlines are women, which I strongly disagree with.

  16. Yes, he probably is wrong about today’s situation. He might have taken that from earlier times. I know I can identify with both. But his character/actress and island analogies are amazing!

  17. A bit of a tangent, but I’d add that the superhuman/subhuman concept has become a pathetically abundant trademark of our culture at large, part of the meritocratic value system. People are idolized based on their external values. I think our society also reinforces the belief of a zero-sum game where, if someone else is better than you at something, you might as well give up. Because there’s no point in doing something you can’t be glorified for being the best at.

  18. Yes Oli, I totally agree. There is a book by Carol Dweck called Mindset that I love to recommend, and it talks about something called the fixed mindset. I think the fixed mindset is the same as shame, and the book discusses many of the same things you just mentioned in your comment.

  19. Hey T,

    I liked the examples you used in the article. They illustrated the points you made very well.

    How can one go from shame to having no shame or being a healthy person? Any thoughts? The books I’ve read so far told me that shame can’t be healt directly. What do you think about it?

  20. @t: i’d love to hear more about the link between the fixed mindset and shame. my take guess would be that in a fixed mindset, because because you views your abilities as innate, if you’re unable to cope with a situation then you feel an inherent shame because you see this failure as a reflection on you.

    @martin: yes, agreed. that’s very hard and i’d love to know more about how.

  21. I have to say I notice the super/sub-human dichotomy at play in tons of commercials in Canada, whereas in Germany I never really saw ones like that. The whole self-deprecation or cool guy and loser type scenes they have here would never fly in certain cultures. T, do you think the shame-based culture in English speaking cultures stems mostly from the religious background of the Anglo world, or is related to the roommate-context culture you talk about, amongst other things? (Btw, did you come up with the roommate-context idea?)

  22. That’s awesome you mentioned the Fixed Growth mindset connection to shame. I have been re-reading parts of Healing the Shame that Binds You (mainly when I feel the “crappy feels” that I believe to be what shame feels like)…and I also am going through Mindset on my audiobook.

    It seems they’re the same thing but I think my conclusion is that shame is a more deeply embedded core belief (emotionally) whereas Fixed vs Growth Mindset seems to be more cognitive, at the level of thoughts, and would be more of a result of the belief of shame. Then again, I’m not too far into the book so maybe she talks about “changing the belief emotionally”?

    Like, in terms of talking to girls, my understanding is that shame causes a guy to avoid going up to the girl, or to go up to the girl with an overly compensating “false self”…and if THIS GUY applied the idea of “I’m going to use the fixed mindset” he might be “slowly improving his player persona game with the girls” (still a “fixed mindset” but still “shame-based”) but switching over to communicating more “authentically” (true self) would be a deeper level paradigm shift.

  23. I am somewhat scared at this point. I have lived my life as a false self, being more or less than human at times. Once I get rid of the shame, which I believe I have, who am I? I am 29 and am in a weird place…Would I identify with what my profession is? Should I get in to TV shows and sports and affiliate my identity with that? Or maybe my ethnic/religious group?

  24. @Rohit: You will be the one you are if you answer the question “who am I” by feeling, rather than thinking.

    Btw. I believe the approach of allowing a thought to rise, from a place of openness rather than fear, will heal all wounds. In other words allow it to arise without saying yes or no to it.
    check out http://www.calmdownmind.com/the-power-of-allowing/ for more

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