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.
- Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw.
- My Reader Letters #1 series of posts also touches on this issue, especially part 4.