The Roots of Shame
Very often when we explore the roots of work difficulties, the emotion of shame comes up. What is shame, exactly? Here is a dictionary definition:
"the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another: For example, 'she was overcome with shame. '"
I'd go along with this definition except for the "consciousness" part. I believe that unconscious shame is often at the root of unfinishing difficulties, including the behaviors listed in the previous section of this website.
Shame can be based on feelings that we are inadequate or powerless, especially when those feelings are suddenly exposed by someone(s) more powerful. Shame often comes up when we are "caught" doing, thinking, or feeling something that we (and those others) find objectionable. One basis for shame that we might, at first glance, find odd is feeling especially powerful — for example, someone might feel ashamed if caught in a reverie of becoming a famous dancer or President of the United States. The shame is connected to the thought,"Who do you think you ARE, anyway?"
There are also basic feelings of shame that arise from our most early and primitive experiences, such as being told that we were dirty, messy, and unable to control ourselves — particularly our bodily functions and reactions — but also our emotions in general.
(Even now, when I see a new parent exclaim "Ick!" during the changing of a diaper, I cringe — not in response to the ickiness, but because I believe that, over time, you can damage a child by repeatedly telling her that she is dirty.)
What the two positions — thinking too "high" and acting too "low" — have in common is that they both represent being out of control in some way. Wanting to be President may be seen as "getting carried away" with yourself, and being dirty or messy can be viewed as being out of control physically.
Some of you are probably now thinking, "Are we really all such hothouse flowers? If our psyches can be crushed so easily, isn't something wrong with this picture? I know (fill in name of friend, associate, or celebrity) who was raised by crack addicts and abused daily, and yet he/she is the (name of fabulous job)."
It's true that people are affected differently by things. However, how surprised are we when we learn that (name of successful/famous person) is now in rehab? Or maybe they aren't addicted to substances, but instead they have developed into individuals who seem to be impervious to the input of other people, and wield their power in rigid ways that appear to overcompensate for what we see clearly is their inadequacy. So maybe we can say that, while feeling shamed is a life-crusher — not feeling shame, that is, when shame remains in our unconscious, acting upon us in unfelt ways — is even worse.
But how does shame adversely affect our work? Perhaps, when we attempt an activity, old feelings that we are inadequate may come up. But even more insidiously, when we begin our project — even the thought of it — at first we might feel GREAT. We might think, this is the greatest idea I've ever thought of — in fact, maybe this is even a unique idea. If I follow through here, my advisors will think I'm the smartest student they've ever had! Or, if I finish these songs, I'll perform them in clubs, and I'll be the next great musical thing! I'll be famous! Probably rich, too.
And then...in response to these feelings of greatness, something else begins to happen. It could be very subtle. A slight tension, a vague feeling of anxiety. You try to ignore it, but you can't. So you decide "to take a little break." You figure, you'll get back to your work later. But — you don't. And then you remember that it's time to get ready to go to your job. And then make dinner. And then maybe see a friend.
And time passes. And you've never followed through. Then the rationalizations come. Maybe the songs weren't that great. Or maybe they were, and you'll certainly get to them...later. Some time.
Except — you don't. If you let yourself think back, to analyze a bit the sequence of events that has happened, you may find that, at first, you let yourself have some pretty big thoughts about what you are capable of. But then you had to — subtlely, sometimes; sometimes more obviously — shut them down. If this happens to you, it's quite possible that unconscious shame is at work.
Well, what if that's true? Then what? What can you do about this?