Shame and the secret self

An oft-told story in meditation circles tells of the time the Dalai Lama was asked by an American about the phenomenon of self-hatred. The Dalai Lama was genuinely confused; he’d never encountered the notion. His ideology held that all people, no matter who they are, at their core contain what he would call “Buddha nature”: the seed of something powerful, perfect, and above all worthy of respect.

As a clinical psychologist I often encounter people who are quite afraid of what they will find at their core, afraid not only of the repressed feelings that once uncovered might be unpleasant or disruptive to the narratives with which they’ve organized their lives, but afraid more deeply of discovering something within themselves that is ugly or even rotten, something that will render them unlovable; something that will reveal as utterly fraudulent their self-presentation as someone worthy of goodness.

Many people in our culture try with great difficulty to move through their days secretly feeling exactly that, believing in some largely unarticulated way that indeed there is something within them so ugly and so horrible that they have forfeited their right to claim the worthiness afforded to any newborn baby. Somewhere along the way such people sense that they have been corrupted by their own foulness.

Of course like just about any other emotional/psychic phenomenon, this one exists on a continuum. There are those, more in number than many would imagine, who have been so lost to such a self-contemptuous notion that they believe themselves worthy of actual physical self-punishment or degradation. And then there are the untold millions commuting to work each morning who move through the world with effectiveness and moments of happiness but on some private level believe that if others knew who they really were they would be cast out. At the least many of us believe that those who know us best would be shocked by what lies within our inner shadow.

Why? When no one is immune to the complexities of being human, when each of us contains both light and dark, when we’ve all experienced insecurity and humiliation and aggression and lust and covetousness and hopelessness and fear, why is there such an epidemic of shame in our culture? Why are we so ashamed of the harder parts of ourselves that are so inextricably woven into what it is to be a person? Why is the more complicated third dimension of what it is to be a human being, the places of insecurity and animal instinct and deep longing, so often kept such a secret, commonly even from ourselves?

My years of clinical work have oriented me to two primary sources of this concealment and shame: our families of origin and our culture at large.

Invariably, those of us who experience the deepest, most intractable, at times most dangerous degrees of shame have been raised in families that taught the child that she wasn’t good enough for the love we are all born craving. The child comes into the world and is entirely dependent on her caretakers to teach her who she is and, above all, what kind of treatment she is worth. This worth is communicated to her not in the best moments but in the aggregate of all the moments, the thousands upon thousands of interactions that felt a certain way for the child, where the child came to “know” exactly what lay at her core through the reflections mirrored by her caretakers’ actions and attitudes. All too often those reflections are enormously distorted by the particular struggles of the caretakers: perhaps their own mental health issues, or the largely joyless grind that is their own life, or an acting out of their own ambivalence around ever having become parents in the first place.

A child does not possess the capacity to identify that the reflections offered back to her are distorted, passed through the prism of her parents’ unique otherness. An adult can come to understand, often through considerable effort, that the way in which she essentially “knows” herself is an echo of this initial reflection, and is largely arbitrary in that it rests far less upon her own relative worthiness than upon the particularities of the family system into which she was unwittingly thrown. This understanding can be hugely soothing, and useful: at its most liberating, this insight (if not just “understood” but actually deeply felt) can serve as the basis for a transformative degree of self-compassion, a loving resetting of the way in which the self is held, a challenge to the notion that the love that is sought is so contingent on personal perfection.

And then there is our culture at large, which has the power to encourage even those of us who were well-loved in our most vulnerable years to conceal our more complicated, most pained inner spaces. Every day in my practice I sit with such deeply lovely and, often, outwardly outrageously successful people who can’t shake the nagging, painful, secret sense of their own inadequacy, their own fraudulence. Such folks often feel utterly alone with the darker parts of themselves they know or perhaps even suspect to be true, parts that they fear they must keep hidden from even those who love them best: their desire, their envy, their self doubt, their loneliness. There is true suffering in this imagined imperative to hide the self that we find most difficult to be, and in the lengths to which so many people go to prove to the world that they are indeed as “pure” and “good” as they believe the world demands them to be.

The fire of this shame is fueled by many macro sources: our capitalist system, in which true satisfaction and personal enough-ness are the obstacles of many a marketing campaign; society’s demand for the presentation of self in everyday life (to borrow a phrase from Erving Goffman), in which impressions are managed and controlled as an actor controls a scene on the stage; and of course the explosion of social media, in which (alongside its facilitation of certain kinds of relationships and the flow of culture) the presentation of self is too often a volley in an unnamed competition for who is living the more “successful” life, which in large part is implicitly defined by the consistency and degree of pleasant emotions on display. Such an unwinnable game deepens even further the gap between what is shown to the world and the self as it is privately, essentially, often ambivalently experienced, sending the latter deeper into the shadows, where secrecy breads shame.

I urge us as I urge myself, to move towards true self-compassion. Co-passion: being with feeling, being with what is human; self co-passion: being with what is human within ourselves. That humanness is by definition and inescapably so many things we do not permit ourselves to be on the larger stage of society, and perhaps so many things that were punished in ways large or small in our early life. And yet what but human, tender fleshed, what but filled with both light and shadow, could we ever hope to be?