Robert Augustus Masters

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Healthy and Unhealthy Expressions of Shame

  • February 9, 2016
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It is easy to trash shame, as if it is nothing more than a negative or unwholesome state, something to condemn or eradicate. However, unhealthy shame — commonly known in its extreme as toxic shame — is not an innate emotion but rather something that is done with shame, something that dehumanizes. To make wise use of shame, it’s crucial to recognize the differences between its healthy and unhealthy forms:

Healthy shame is directed at a specific action, but unhealthy shame is directed at the doer of that action. (If, for example, I’ve broken an agreement with you, you can be critical of what I’ve done so without degrading me — perhaps catalyzing my remorse — or you can degrade me for what I did, emphatically putting me down, catalyzing not my remorse but my desire to get as far away from you as I can.)

Healthy shame triggers our conscience, but unhealthy shame triggers our inner critic (which often masquerades as our conscience).

Healthy shame includes remorse and at least some degree of atonement for any harm that’s been done, but unhealthy shame does not.

Healthy shame mobilizes us, but unhealthy shame immobilizes us (that is, in healthy shame we are stirred to set things right, but in unhealthy shame, we tend to freeze, making ourselves all but incapable of taking fitting action).

Healthy shame opens our heart — after initially closing it — but unhealthy shame closes our heart and keeps it shut.

In healthy shame, we feel for whomever we’ve hurt, but in unhealthy shame we don’t (putting all our energy into self-constriction or beating ourselves up).

Healthy shame features humility, unhealthy shame humiliation.

Healthy shame can coexist with compassion, but unhealthy shame cannot, since our empathy has been shut off — and without empathy, there’s no compassion.