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Shame is Immature

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This is an insight that may seem a little basic or obvious, but I try not to take anything for granted. Sometimes things I think I’m making obvious people totally miss, and things I think I didn’t make clear enough, people grasp far better than I ever originally hoped.

One such insight I’m not sure if I made clear: Shame is immature.

Remember, shame is the idea that you are fundamentally flawed, and if you do something bad, it proves that you are bad as an entity. Compare this to guilt, which says that if you do something bad, it’s not necessarily evidence that you are bad as an entity. So if a shame-based person tries to hit on a girl and gets rejected, he thinks “I’m am a reject.” If a guilt-based person tries to hit on a girl and gets rejected, he thinks “I’m a regular guy who just happened to get rejected.”

Shame is the root of narcissism and codependence. This is why being narcissists and codependents start avoiding risks and looking for easy ego-boosts, or engage in a lot of self-handicapping, because they feel their very identity is at stake with every rejection. They go into endeavors with built-in excuses ready and always holding something back or obsessed with impression management and self-presentation. Meanwhile, a guilt-based person is less likely to self-sabotage or avoid risks or look for easy ego-boosts, because he doesn’t believe his actions and failures are proof that he is fundamentally defective and inferior. Mistakes and failures are just feedback that he needs to go back to the drawing board.

If you deal with a child, you’ll notice that it’s hard to give them constructive criticism until they’re older. If you tell a kid they’ve done anything badly, they will think they are total failures, are unworthy, or are unlovable. Adults understand this, which is why they tend to over-applaud and over-praise for just about anything the child does.

As the child gets older, however, continuing to do this will stunt the child’s development because it keeps the child in a shame-based mindset. At some point the child has to learn that he can not be perfect or even good at something, and still be worthy of love and still not be defective. The child has to learn that he can be good at some aspects of a craft or task, and can be bad at other aspects of the craft or task, at the same time. Good and bad can coexist in the same entity at the same time. This is called integration.

Shame-based people have a lot of trouble integrating. This is the core of the superhuman/subhuman dichotomy and the suppression-expression paradox. Everything is either-or, all-or-nothing, black or white, one extreme or the other. One mistakes by themselves or others invalidates everything good. You also see this in how kids will tell a parent “I hate you!” when they’re mad at them, and truly believe it. And when their emotions calm down, they love the parent again like nothing ever happened. It’s hard to simultaneously be mad at someone and still love them in that moment, even while still nursing that anger. You find this same tendency in adult Cluster Bs and codependents with the phenomenon of splitting.

With kids, however, because you know you’re dealing with a child, you implicitly understand the shame-based motivations, even if you you’re not explicitly versed in the psychology of shame and use the proper psychological terms. With shame-based adults, however, we tend to assume that they’re are mature adults, and many of them wear the mask of maturity so well that we interact with them on a guilt-based levels and end up getting frustrated or burned as a result.

The point of this post is to train you to start associating shame with maturity and vice-versa. If I write about shame, I’m automatically also writing about immaturity even if I don’t explicitly state that word. And if I’m writing about maturity issues, I’m also implicitly writing about shame issues, even if I don’t use that word.  No matter how well a shame-based person knows how to go through the motions and feign maturity by following rituals and observing social rules, at the core you are dealing with someone who is emotionally a child. And conversely, if someone is immature, you have to realize that it’s not just a cute eccentricity but is also evidence that they probably have a lot of shame-based mindsets, with all the dysfunctions that accompany that.

20 Responses to “Shame is Immature”


  1. Yes, but how do you FIX it? I love your blog posts. I love reading them, I love contemplating the messages, but is there anyway to fix it? Or is it just something us shame-based immature folks have to deal with forever?


  2. One thing I’m curious about that I think you may have hinted at before: is their such a thing as healthy shame? If so, what does it look like; or is it just semantics and “healthy shame” is just a another term for guilt? (as shame and guilt are oftentimes used interchangeably in everyday talk)

    I ask this because I read this statement on another blog, roughly paraphrased:

    “My therapist told me that guilt is when you feel bad for violating your own personal moral code; shame is when you feel bad for violating society’s expectations of you. Thus, if you feel shame about something, you should do the hell out of it.”

    Something about that mentality, in relation to societal shame, bothers me on a gut level that I cannot put my finger on. Do you know what I mean?


  3. Nick: It’s not about “fixing” yourself. That mindset just perpetuates the problem. The idea that you’re not fine the way you are. That’s why I say “You’re fine the way you are, and there’s always room for improvement.” The question about how to fix yourself comes from the same mindset that created the problem in the first place. You can’t solve a problem using the same level of awareness or type of thinking that created the problem. There’s a difference between improving and fixing. Something can be totally fine, but I wouldn’t mind improving it. But fixing automatically implies that the thing is broken.

    Also, just being aware of your own ego and shame issues especially while you’re experiencing them really goes a long way toward improving your life. This is why so many therapists are currently ga-ga over the concept of mindfulness. Knowing what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling it, and what defenses and forms of self-sabotaging you’re engaging in, especially while you’re doing it, usually leads to instant self-correction.


  4. Nick – I completely agree with you. How does one escape? I think maybe the first step is to read that book that T has recommended, by John Bradshaw called “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” Also, maybe “The Denial of Death” would be good. Right now I’m reading Becker’s “Escape from Evil” though I’m not sure if that’s going to be helpful in this regard.

    T – I was wondering if you had any thoughts on CBT (Cognative Behavioral Therapy) for shame management? I always wonder how much the self-talk etc. can do for those of us who are extremely critical (aka negative) thinkers.

    RX-87 Alex – I think that fighting societal stigmas may come with embarrassment, but the shame itself is an internal thing. The solution to societal shame is not to deny yourself harmful activities simply because they are stigmatized. The solution is being ok with your own desires. But I think more damaging is the internally based shame that T is mentioning here, the belief that one is fundamentally flawed (which is true to an extent) that clouds all else. That is what we should aim to diminish.


  5. Alex, there are a few things I would say in response to that. Guilt is definitely healthier than shame, but that doesn’t mean that guilt is always good either. Excessive guilt can be very neurotic and counterproductive. I just want to clarify that because I worry that many people will view guilt as being something that’s always good, the kind of thing you can never have too much of.

    Anyway, I know a lot of people like to use the term “healthy shame,” similar to how people use the term “healthy narcissism,” but I don’t really like to use those terms because I think they confuse things and give people new ways to excuse their own issues. I’ve seen several narcissists use the term “healthy narcissism” to label their own behavior as healthy and use it as an excuse not to change. “I’m narcissistic but it’s healthy narcissism.” I feel like labeling things “healthy shame” could lead to the same type of behavior in regards to shame, that people will start calling their shame issues “healthy shame” as an excuse not to change.

    I think the healthy relative of narcissism should simply be called self-esteem (the real kind, not the phony, exterior kind.” I think the healthiest form of shame is humility (like shame, humility deals more with what you are than what you do). The healthiest form of guilt is conscience (like guilt, conscience is more concerned with what you do rather than what you are).

    On the other hand, I do believe in “age appropriate narcissism” and “age appropriate shame.” Before a child is sophisticated enough to grasp nuance, moderation, or gain emotional maturity, they have to start off navigating the world with a certain amount of expected narcissism and shame. As they mature, we hope these primitive, immature mindsets get replaced with humility, conscience, guilt, and self-esteem.

    Like you, I’m not a fan of the “societal” quote you gave. First off, a society can either be a guilt society or a shame society, so I think that advice doesn’t always apply the same everywhere. If you are in a guilt society, then doing what that society expects of you may not be a perpetuation of shame. Another thing about that quote is, it seems to say that doing the opposite of what society expects from you is automatically good and somehow works against shame. This to me is silly. Blindly rebelling against everything society tells you to do is as lemminglike and unthinking as blindly following everything society tells you to do. One is surrendering fueled by shame, and the other is overcompensation fueled by shame. Sometimes society is right, sometimes it’s wrong. You have to evaluate for yourself in each instance whether what society says is the right action or wrong action, test different options for yourself (“reality testing”), see if they feel right and agree with your values, and draw your own conclusions.


  6. I think this quote by Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth says it all:

    See if you can catch, that is to say, notice, the voice in the head, perhaps in the very moment it complains about something, and recognize it for what it is: the voice of the ego, no more than a conditioned mind-pattern, a thought. Whenever you notice that voice, you will also realize that you are not the voice, but the one who is aware of it. In fact, you are the awareness that is aware of the voice. In the background, there is the awareness. In the foreground, there is the voice, the thinker. In this way you are becoming free of the ego, free of the unobserved mind. The moment you become aware of the ego in you, it is strictly speaking no longer the ego, but just an old, conditioned mind-pattern. Ego implies unawareness. Awareness and ego cannot coexist. The old mind-pattern or mental habit may still survive and reoccur for a while because it has the momentum of thousands of years of collective human unconsciousness behind it, but every time it is recognized, it is weakened.

    This is why I place such an emphasis on becoming more aware of the different shapes shame and narcissism can take. The better you become at being aware of how these things manifest in your life and behavior, the harder it is to keep falling into the same traps.


  7. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on CBT (Cognative Behavioral Therapy) for shame management? I always wonder how much the self-talk etc. can do for those of us who are extremely critical (aka negative) thinkers.

    I’m not trained in therapy, and I’ve never been to a therapist, so I feel it would be kind of irresponsible to say what types of therapy would be good or bad. I have read different books from different schools of therapy however, and one that looks appealing to me is the Schema Therapy school of therapy, created by Jeffrey Young. It’s halfway between CBT and psychodynamic therapy. It is not as in-depth and intensive as psychoanalysis, which is the deepest and most time-consuming of the depth psychologies but also considered to get the slowest results, but it’s not as “light” and surface-level as CBT, which is known to get the quickest results. It seems to be the best of both worlds.

    I think that fighting societal stigmas may come with embarrassment, but the shame itself is an internal thing. The solution to societal shame is not to deny yourself harmful activities simply because they are stigmatized. The solution is being ok with your own desires. But I think more damaging is the internally based shame that T is mentioning here, the belief that one is fundamentally flawed (which is true to an extent) that clouds all else. That is what we should aim to diminish.

    I think the best way to put it is “trying to solve an internal, “permanent” problem, the belief that one is fundamentally flawed, with an external, temporary solution, be it ego boosts, drugs, exercise, shopping for material goods, thrillseeking, plastic surgery, or whatever your personal mood-changer of choice is.


  8. T – Thanks for the insight, I’ll have to do some research on Schema therapy. It sounds like a good balance.

    I like your concise way of putting it :)


  9. I appreciate the response.

    I never thought about it from that perspective. I guess daily improvement is the name of the game. I recently finished a book called “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. I was planning on using it to fix some of the self-destructive habits I’ve found myself using over and over again.

    As for mindfulness, it has only been recently that I’ve noticed myself falling into “shame-based”, narcissistic patterns. Hopefully I can use that awareness, but I guess time will tell.


  10. “If you tell a kid they’ve done anything badly, they will think they are total failures, are unworthy, or are unlovable. Adults understand this, which is why they tend to over-applaud and over-praise for just about anything the child does.”

    This made me think of your post on female immaturity. Women tend to take criticism very personal and as an attack on them and a rejection even when it is not. And they get and to a large extent demand overpraise. Certainly in our time this has spun completely out of control with women on Oprah confessing and explaining why they did not actually do anything wrong at all and they are proud of the bad stuff they did and they should be applauded etc. And the excessive tendency for women to applaud each other and demand applause for minute victories.


  11. Sherlock, I agree with much of what you say but would limit it to modern North American women, or more broadly the Anglosphere. For example there are many parts of the world where women do backbreaking manual work and also do a shitload do housework in a household with no maid or nanny and don’t expect to have their virtues praised nonstop. And there are previous generations of American women who were different too.


  12. Great post, I can’t resist using this as an opportunity to demonstrate some enlightened superiority over an obnoxious coworker of mine. I knew this guy was a narcissist and didn’t like him for various reasons. But we were chilling and talking during our break. I was discussing about how I felt I was really immature when I was 20-22, and couldn’t really connect with some of the other workers because I was 5-7 years older and felt I was more mature than them.

    (obviously this statement could have been taken as a brag, and maybe it was, but I was merely being honest, I’ve always felt comfortable around people who were older than me, especially since I became so obnoxious about all this self-improvement stuff)

    I didn’t realise it but this narcissistic guy was himself only 21:

    He’s like “you know I’m only 21 right?” * really annoyed, angry actually, challenging me to back down*
    Me: (stubbornly) “yes” *not willing to apologize or back down from my statement*

    He basically started acting-out and attacked me for my statement (reaction-formation). I don’t know why but I had to tell that story maybe because B reminds me of myself now (to some degree) and of my past self (to a larger degree). And it was ironic that he exhibited such a shame based and immature response in retaliation of being called (although actually not) immature.


  13. I have a friend who always try to be superior. Those around him seem to get very frustrated by his narcissism. I, against my better judgement, adore him (he seems so lost and I’m a bit of a florence nightingale type woman).

    His dad criticised him and his siblings to much that I can’t bare to hear the stories. I’m also careful to remind my own daughter that I love her no matter what she does because of the effects this guys dad had on him.

    I recently got into a small conflict with this friends friend over a business transaction and my friends response was one of threatening my husband if any fight was to come about. He was obviously showing his loyalty to his friend but did his shame cause him to act so immature and violent?


  14. I think if he’s threatening your husband like that, it doesn’t really matter why he’s doing it. That just seems really uncool.


  15. You might get a lot out of Walter Kaufmann’s Without Guilt & Justice. He addresses the flaws of both guilt and shame, explaining how they both stand in the way of an autonomous existence.

    It’s available online here, if you can’t get hold of the hard copy.


  16. So let’s say you have to interact with a person like this on a daily basis, how would you suggest to act? Say a co-worker or something. Should you keep at the back of your mind that they respond well to the same dynamics that are suitable for a child, and frame the interaction accordingly implicitly (obviously despite explicitly giving the interaction an “adult” context)? Or is that inappropriate or a self-destructive trap?


  17. T, iconoclasm:

    Thanks for the responses.

    So “healthy shame” or humility, has nothing to do with societal expectations, but rather is basically having a realistic conception of one’s core self? (I.e. neither the subhumanism of toxic shame, nor the “human god” image of over-compensatory narcissism)

    This theory also seems to align with this one article I read recently…

    http://www.afterpsychotherapy......ate-shame/

    … that seems to advocate appropriate shame being rooted in humility in regard to one’s baser/animalistic nature.

    iconoclasm:

    The solution to societal shame is not to deny yourself harmful activities simply because they are stigmatized. The solution is being ok with your own desires.

    I agree with the rest of what you wrote; but the above cited quote troubles me because sometimes one can have desires that are worthy of shame, and society sometimes stigmatizes certain behaviors for a good reason.


  18. I am still kind of confused. On the one hand toxic shame is immature but on the other hand it seems to me that an important part of maturing and growing up is seeing certain things brutally, candidly and bluntly. Our favorite critic Alan Sepinwall is like this in particular and its part of the reason he is so good, he doesn’t pussyfoot around. Say we take the example of Lois the secretary from Mad Men. She runs over Guys leg in season two with a lawn tractor and Alan writes “Of course it was Lois at the wheel. Is there anything she doesn’t manage to massively screw up?” He writes similar things about Harry Crane and underlines many times how stupid and inept he is in social situations.

    Now what I’m trying to sort out is what would be a healthy way for Lois to feel? Should she look at her mishaps and think I’m not a failure I just happened to fuck up so many times? What should she do next? What would be “healthy”? Should she keep trying as a secretary? Should she cut her losses and find a lower paying, less demanding job? Should she look on the bright side and think well at least I’m not terrible looking? It almost seems to me that shamefully feeling like a complete failure would be best for her and everyone around her.

    I’m having the most trouble combining shame/guilt theory with practical real world individuals and their actions and situations

  19. flashesofalpha on May 29th, 2013 at 10:42 AM

    Interesting article, however, it was littered with pernicious grammatical and spelling errors, especially near the end.


  20. If you tell a kid they’ve done anything badly, they will think they are total failures, are unworthy, or are unlovable. Adults understand this, which is why they tend to over-applaud and over-praise for just about anything the child does.

    I’d be very hesitant with assertions regarding what adults understand and don’t. For example, do you understand why you wear clothes?

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