By Alex P. Vidal
“And they were not ashamed.” —Genesis
WE are always ashamed since time immemorial. For instance, we are ashamed that we have an imperfect constitution, thus we always agitate to amend it every time a new administration takes over—and we always fail to get the nod of the people.
Now that the world knows what’s going on because of impact of the social media and powerful internet technology, we are ashamed if our airport security personnel are caught stealing from outgoing passengers like what happened to a Thai tourist in NAIA recently.
We are ashamed if our police are involved in illegal drugs and other shenanigans and our high ranking officials are caught with their hands in the cookie jars.
Sometimes we are ashamed to speak in front of a crowd or if our age has been revealed in public (especially for the celebrities who want to stay young-looking).
Is it really shame or toxic fear? Meanwhile, these are the “many faces” of shame, according to John Bradshaw, author of the Healing the Shame that Binds you:
- Shame as a healthy human emotion
- Shame as permission to be human
- Shame as a development stage
- Shame as embarrassment and blushing
- Shame as shyness
- Shame as the basic need for community
- Shame as the source of creativity and learning
- Shame as the source of spirituality
- Shame as toxic
- Shame as an identity — internalization of shame
- Shame as self-alienation and isolation
- Shame as false self
- Shame as co-dependency
- Shame as borderline personality
- Shame as the core and fuel of all addiction
Ten years before writing the book in 1988, Bradshaw, a theologian from the University of Toronto, had one of those life-jolting discoveries that significantly changed everything: he named “shame” as the core demon in his life.
“Naming shame means that I became aware of the massive destructive power that shame had exerted in my life. I discovered that I had been bound by shame all my life,” Bradshaw confesses. “It ruled me like an addiction. I acted it out; I covered it up in subtle and not so subtle ways; I transferred it to my family, my clients and the people I taught.”
He reveals: “Shame was the unconscious demon I had never acknowledge. In becoming aware of the dynamics of shame, I came to see that shame is one of the major destructive forces in all human life. In naming shame I began to have power over it.”
Shame, in itself, is not bad, explains Bradshaw. It is a normal human emotion. In fact, he adds, “it is necessary to have the feeling of shame if one is to be truly human. Shame is the emotion which gives us permission to be human. Shame tells us of our limits. Shame keeps us in our human boundaries, letting us know we can and will make mistakes, and that we need help.”
The author says, “Our shame tells us we are not God. Healthy shame is the psychological foundation of humility. It is the source of spirituality.”
Here’s what Bradshaw discovered: shame as healthy human emotion can be transformed into shame 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.
According to the author, 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 which is not defective and flawed. Once one becomes a false self, one ceases to exist psychologically,” writes Bradshaw, a management and consultant and author of the best-selling Bradshaw On: The Family.
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. Toxic shame is the greatest form of learned domestic violence there is. It destroys human life. Toxic shame is the core of most forms of emotional illness.
Gershen Kaufman writes: “Shame is the affect which is the source of many complex and disturbing inner states: depression, alienation, self-doubt, isolating loneliness, paranoid and schizoid phenomena, compulsive disorders, splitting of the self, perfectionism, a deep sense of inferiority, inadequacy or failure, the so-called borderline conditions and disorders of narcissism.”
“Toxic shame so destroys the function of our authentic self that clear syndromes of shame develop out of the false self cover-ups. Each syndrome has its own characteristic pattern,” Bradshaw stresses. “Toxic shame becomes the core of neurosis, character disorders, political violence, wars and criminality. It comes the closest to defining human bondage of all the things I know.”
The Bible describes the shame as the core and consequence of Adam’s fall. In Hebrew, Adam is equivalent to mankind. Adam symbolizes all human beings. The Bible suggests that Adam was not satisfied with his own being. He wanted to be more than he was. He wanted to be more than human. He failed to accept his essential limitations. He lost his healthy shame.
The Bible suggests that the origin of human bondage (original sin) is the desire to be other than who we are…to be more than human. In his toxic shame (pride), Adam wanted a false self. The false self led to his destruction.
After Adam alienated his true being, he went into hiding. “And the Lord God called unto Adam…where art thou?” And Adam said, “I heard thy voice in the garden and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:9-10). Before the fall, the man and the woman were both naked and “were not shamed” (Genesis 2:25). Once they chose to be other than why they were, they became naked and ashamed.
Nakedness symbolized their true and authentic selves. They were who they were and they were okay with it. There was nothing to hide. They could be perfectly and rigorously honest.
This symbolic and metaphorical description of Adam and Eve is a description of the human condition. The unconditional love and acceptance of self seems to be the hardest task for all humankind. Refusing to accept our “real selves”, we try to create more powerful false selves or give up and become less than human.
This results in lifetime of cover-up and secrecy. The secrecy and hiding is the basic cause of suffering for all of us, according to Bradshaw.
“Total self-love and acceptance is the only foundation for happiness and the love for others. Without total self-love and acceptance, we are doomed to enervative task of creating false selves. It takes tons of energy and hard work to live a false self. This may be the symbolic meaning of the Biblical statement that after the fall, the man and the woman would suffer in their natural activities: the woman in childbirth, the man in his work.”
(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two local dailies in Iloilo.—Ed)