The Challenge of Shame
Rabbi Dov Heller, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Shame is poison to the soul. It is the feeling generated from one’s perceptions that one is deficient, bad, or inferior and often leads to self-hate. When someone is thrown into a storm of self-hate, he is like a drowning person whose only concern is survival. Thus, shame is one of the greatest obstacles to personal growth and self-improvement.
Yoni is a student in a Jewish school where the main focus of study is Talmud. Yoni’s Hebrew skills are not so good, and the logic of the Talmud often confuses him. Since Talmud study is what is most valued in the school, Yoni often feels ashamed. He feels stupid and often wonders if there’s something wrong with him. Other boys seem to “get it” so quickly, while he struggles painfully to keep up. He worries constantly about upcoming tests, fearing that they will reveal the truth about his intellectual limitations. This only serves to increase his shame. He feels jealous of his classmates and sometimes even hates the ones who excel. He has become increasingly isolated and depressed, hating himself and his life. His motivation to study has all but disappeared. He is unable to tell anyone how he feels, fearing ridicule and rejection. He feels like quitting altogether.
People who suffer with shame, like Yoni, obsess about their limitations, looking for ways to rid themselves of their inner turmoil. Shame-ridden people live in a self-preservation mode which precludes any true growth, self-development, or creativity because they are constantly preoccupied with their shame. Shame leads to self-absorption and isolation.
Is there any hope for those like Yoni who suffer with shame and self-hate? In theory, there is always a choice between judging one’s limitations as indicators of one’s defectiveness, resulting in feeling shame, or accepting one’s limitations as facts and information about who one is, resulting in feeling at peace and empowered to work on improving oneself. Acceptance is the only way to liberate oneself from this prison of shame and self-hate. If Yoni was able to talk with someone about his shame, it would help him move towards self-acceptance, which would allow him to grow and improve himself.
For Yoni, this is how acceptance might look: He would have to accept the truth that he is not as intellectually gifted as some of the other students and that his language skills are average, at best. By accepting these two limitations as facts rather than as indictments, he would be able to create an approach to learning Talmud that would work for him. By taking ownership of his unique needs, he could create a program of study tailored to who he really is. This would begin to free him from shame. Acceptance puts an end to obsessing, and he would begin to feel empowered, expansive, and creative.
One of the most important exercises a person can do to improve the quality of his or her life is to take a rigorous and honest inventory to identify any aspects of one’s life where he feels shame. Here’s a list of areas to explore:
- Your feelings and moods
- Attitudes, thoughts, desires, fantasies
- Behaviors, character flaws, mistakes, failures, habits
- Bodily blemishes and flaws
- Relationships, family of origin issues, intimacy issues, your past
- Your status in the community, career, money
A good question to ask is: Which behaviors and actions of mine are shame-driven?
If you discover any area in which you feel shame, you need to take responsibility. Face it, explore it, and understand it in order to start moving towards self-acceptance. One of the most powerful ways to transform shame into acceptance is to find the courage to share the shame with someone you trust who can process it with you. The only way to feel at peace with yourself is to transform your shame into self-acceptance.