PRECONCEPTION 1: SHAME IS BAD
Most of us find it difficult to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we feel shame. The very word makes most people uncomfortable, as John Bradshaw, among many other researchers, has noted: There is shame about shame. People will readily admit guilt, hurt or fear before they will admit shame.2 Especially today, in our narcissistic age, when so many people feel compelled to come across as social media winners, if you admit to feeling shame, you run the risk of becoming a contemptible loser. In my experience most people feel uneasy about acknowledging their own feelings of shame and prefer to keep them at a distance, by denying their existence or referring to them with a word that doesnt carry such a strong negative charge. As the shame researcher Michael Lewis has noted, We often use the term embarrassing to avoid acknowledging shame.3
For this reason you may find yourself resisting the central message of this bookthat shame is a pervasive and common experience in daily life. You might readily admit to feeling embarrassed about making a mistake in public, but youll object when I describe it as a type of shame. Everybody makes mistakes so whats the big deal? Theres nothing to feel ashamed about. At those moments try to remember the distinction between SHAME as a toxic, largely destructive, experience and shame as an entire family of emotions, many of them mild and fleeting, an unavoidable part of everyday life.
PRECONCEPTION 2: SHAME IS THE ENEMY
Since John Bradshaw published his groundbreaking work in 1988, the psychologically minded public has come to view shame as virtually synonymous with his concept of toxic shamedestructive messaging inflicted by parents, educators, and other significant adults in a childs life that leaves the youth with a sense of being defective and unworthy of love. Bren Browns writings on unattainable (and ultimately shaming) ideals that society imposes on women, largely through advertising and conflicting role expectations, have contributed to this view of shame as the product of noxious external influences.
If you, like most people, have adopted this view, you may see shame as the enemy. You might believe that shame is a uniformly negative experience imposed from withoutby society, by hurtful parents, or by advertisers who want to make you doubt yourself so youll buy their product. If you believe that resisting shame and throwing off its shackles are necessary, you will find it difficult to accept my view that shame is an unavoidable aspect of everyday life. While some forms of shame are undoubtedly toxic (and Ill be discussing those, too, in the pages that follow), try to open your mind to the possibility that other varieties dont pose such a threat and might even be useful or instructive.
I believe that a shame experience sometimes contains an important lesson about who we are or the person wed like to become; if we dismiss or resist it, we lose an opportunity to grow.
PRECONCEPTION 3: SHAME IS THE OPPOSITE OF SELF-ESTEEM
If you view shame as synonymous with toxic shame, then of course youll see it as inimical to strong feelings of self-worth. How can people who feel defective and unworthy of love simultaneously feel good about themselves? Most popular titles in the field of self-esteem share this view, offering techniques for developing self-love through affirmations, radical self-acceptance, and resistance to the shame-based messaging that pervades our society.
Once you understand shame as an inevitable part of daily life, not necessarily a toxic experience imposed from outside, shame and self-esteem dont seem like such clear opposites. In fact, as Ill show, the emergence of shame (not SHAME) during the second year of life plays a crucial role in the development of authentic self-esteem. In my view self-esteem and shame are not opposites but rather are interrelated experiences that depend upon and influence each other.