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Shame    by Douglas Eby

Shame can affect anyone’s self-actualization, but may be especially potent for gifted individuals, who often have high sensitivity and other qualities that can support feelings of being an outsider or unworthy.

Shame is connected with one’s identity and sense of acceptance by others, and can disrupt and destabilize esteem and confidence in abilities, leading to a self-diminishing judgment: “If I feel this bad about myself, I must really be inferior.” Self-image may incorporate  deeply held negative evaluations of personal “badness”, or being wrongfully different.

Psychiatrist Michael Lewis, author of the book Shame : The Exposed Self, considers shame to be so powerful because it’s about the perception of having a “defective self.. rotten and no good.” But, he notes, “We don’t want to live in a world in which there is no shame or guilt. We want just enough to help us not do some of the awful things we could do.”

S. King “What I don’t understand, Stevie,” [my high school teacher] said, “is why you’d write junk like this… You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?”… I was ashamed.”

Stephen King goes on to admit [in his book “On Writing”]: “I have spent a good many years since — too many, I think — being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

Even some experiences meant to help strengthen esteem may have a very different effect. Although designed to be a protection of the client, confidentiality and privacy in the context of psychotherapy may sometimes perpetuate an aura of shameful secrecy. Typically experienced by adult women who have been sexually abused in childhood, shame impacts many people, and regardless of origin, often includes features of stigma and self-blame. 

This orientation of blame is often and in many ways directed at women, and at feminine qualities. One of the pioneers in psychosocial approaches to cancer treatment, Rachel Naomi Remen has written that as a society we’ve disavowed the feminine principle “because we couldn’t get approval for it… and we have all made ourselves less whole… Our culture is ashamed of the feminine principle in us, and in our institutions.”  [1] 

As reported in a news story, actress Anne Heche ‘said in an ABC interview… that sexual abuse by her father until she was 12 drove her “insane”… “I had a fantasy world that I escaped to,” Heche said in the interview with Barbara Walters

Heche told Walters that her father abused her sexually from the time she was a toddler until she was 12. “I did a lot of things in my life to get away from what had happened to me,” she said. “I drank, I smoked, I did drugs, I had sex. … I did anything I could to get the shame out of my life.”‘ [2] 

In her counseling work with gifted and talented adults for more than twenty four years, Mary Rocamora has found that shame can have a “crippling effect on the development of the gifted and talented. It is the belief that we are fundamentally flawed or bad, and any attempt to draw attention to ourselves could result in being exposed and shamed. It can prevent us from making any creative effort at all or at the least make us pay by keeping us in emotional pain. 

“Shame can be a contributing factor to the ‘impostor syndrome.’ The fear of being exposed as a fraud feeds a chronic internal tension about showing creative products to others. Freedom to risk is thereby impaired. There is a pervasive feeling that even if something we’ve done is well received, it was a fluke, and that the other shoe is sure to fall next time.” 

Rocamora finds that this feeling “keeps a lid on our level of achievement in life by maintaining an internal climate of fear of recognition. Being creative in anonymity or as a hobby is safer than being known or praised for our work. The objective assessment of the true merit of our abilities can be very difficult. Looking to others for the objective feedback we don’t have means having to bear the expectation of being shamed. 

“Being trapped in this kind of catch-22 is the means by which the pattern of shame preserves itself. The pattern of shame typically posits perfectionism as its ‘resolution.’ That is, if we could be perfect, we could escape the feeling of shame and inherent badness.” 

She points out that shame-driven perfectionism “can often be confused with the innate tendency of most gifted people to be perfectionistic. When shame is the motivator, people are afraid to share their creative endeavors with others unless and until they are ‘perfect.’ (And nothing perfect could ever be created by someone who is fundamentally flawed!) 

“Innate perfectionism feels different — it is an internal desire to hold our work to a very high standard, one we set for ourselves. Both can delay closure on projects, but shame perpetuates a chronic sense of insecurity, low self-esteem and anxiety.” [3] 

Research studies (George Mason University, 1996) indicate that although shame, along with guilt and embarrassment, may typically occur in “public” situations or social contexts, a significant proportion of shame (and guilt) occurs when people are alone. With all three feelings, people are generally their own harshest critics, evaluating themselves even more negatively than they believe others do. 

Shame was clearly related to maladaptive responses to anger, such as malevolent intentions; direct, indirect, and displaced aggression; and self-directed hostility. It may be this latter attitude that is most corrosive, particularly for the gifted, who often tend to be hypercritical and hypersensitive. 

Strong emotional responses, including maladaptive ones, may be based in neurochemical “wiring”, as noted by Daniel Goleman (“Emotional Intelligence”) and others: a recently discovered neuron bypasses the neocortex, where rational decisions are made, and goes straight to the amygdala, which is responsible for quicker, more primitive “fight or flight” responses. 

The more that emotional memories involving temper, frustration, anxiety, depression, impulse and fear pile up in early adolescence, the more the amygdala can “hijack the rest of the brain” as Goleman says, “by flooding it with strong and inappropriate emotions, causing us to wonder later, ‘Why did I overreact?'” 

The Theory of Emotional Development (developed by psychologists Kazimierz Dabrowski and Michael Piechowski) describes a model of development that seems particularly fitting for gifted individuals, and describes the potential value of inner conflict, often identified as neurosis or some other dysfunction. 

Dr. Linda Silverman notes that the third level of development articulated in this model includes guilt, shame, and dissatisfaction with oneself. 

“Individuals at this third level are often seen as ‘maladjusted’, but Dabrowski calls this ‘positive maladjustment’ since their development is progressing beyond the weaker, external views of the peer group into deeper, inner-directed values,” Silverman wrote.

“People at this stage are often seen as a threat to society since they are less tractable than less-evolved individuals. It is interesting to note that current research on the theory has found more women than men entering this level of development.” [4] 

The impact of shame can be pervasive. Famed for his alcoholism recovery work, John Bradshaw has written: “As a formerly shame-based person, I have to work hard at total self-acceptance. Part of the work… involves the integration of our shame-bound feelings, needs and wants. Most shame-based people feel ashamed when they need help; when they feel angry, sad, fearful or joyous; and when they are sexual or assertive. These essential elements of us have been split off.” [5]

In his article “Shame and the Tragic Situation” [6] — an excerpt from his book Disappearing Persons — psychoanalyst Benjamin Kilborne writes about hiding our shames by hiding aspects of our selves, relying “upon someone else not to see what one does not want to acknowledge. 

“Seen in this light, the emphasis on appearance in our culture serves to nourish the illusion that we can really control what others see and do not see of us… to prevent others from seeing bits of us of which we are not aware, to disown and avoid what we do not see in ourselves, what others would not want to have us be, and what we cannot tolerate being.”

He notes there may severe consequences to this: “By disavowing what is shameful, our contemporary emphasis on appearance creates a void, which must be concealed all the more desperately, thereby doing profound violence to our confidence in who we are, and to our ability to see and to bear the pain and suffering inherent in the human condition.”

One way to defuse shame seems to be simply revealing it, rather than further hiding or disguising it.

In their book “The Courage to Heal” Laura Davis and Ellen Bass write that one of the most powerful ways to overcome shame associated with various forms of abuse is to talk about the abuse: “Shame exists in an environment of secrecy. When you begin to freely speak the truth about your life, your sense of shame will diminish.” 

Counselors have found that identifying and modifying emotional and thought patterns that accompany shame can significantly reduce its power to control one’s life. Making conscious the inner critical voices that help sustain shame can bring about new options, such as “answering” the critic with information and perspective about what really is going on, not what shame makes it seem. 


[1] “The Eye of an Eagle, The Heart of a Lion, The Hand of a Woman”, Noetic Sciences Review, Winter, 1992.

[2] Reuters news story, September 4 2001

[3] Mary Rocamora is Director of The Rocamora School, Los Angeles

[4] “Giftedness and the Development of the Feminine” by Linda Silverman, PhD, Advanced Development Journal, Jan., 1993

[5] “Taming the Shameful Inner Voice” by John Bradshaw, in book: Meeting The Shadow by Connie Zweig

[6]  Shame and the Tragic Situation by Benjamin Kilborne

Books: Joseph Adamson and Hilary Clark. Scenes of Shame: Psychoanalysis, Shame, and Writing

Ellen Bass, Laura Davis. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse

John Bradshaw.  Healing the Shame That Binds You

Paul Gilbert and Bernice Andrews. Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology, and Culture

Daniel Goleman   Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ for Character, Health and Lifelong Achievement

Anne Heche. [autobiography]Call Me Crazy

Benjamin Kilborne. Disappearing Persons: Shame and Appearance

Stephen King.  On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Michael Lewis. Shame: The Exposed Self

Stephen Pattison.  Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader

Connie Zweig, Steve Wolf. Romancing the Shadow: Illuminating the Dark Side of the Soul   [ review:] “Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore, but which can erupt in hurtful ways. … the shadow can actually be a source of emotional richness and vitality, and acknowledging it can be a pathway to healing and an authentic life.”

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