Those staring eyes… that bushy moustache… that accusatory finger. It’s one of the most iconic posters in history. With the caption Your Country Needs You, this poster encouraged thousands of young men to join the British Army in World War I. The poster works for a very simple reason: it triggers a deeply unpleasant sense of shame.
During World War I, the poster’s unconscious message was: “You’re not brave enough to fight”. Petrified by this fear – and the even greater fear of being exposed, epitomised by the pointing finger – young men flocked in their thousands to fight and die in the most appalling war in history.
A century later, that same fear of being exposed before our peers for not being good enough still lurks in the basement of pretty much everyone’s psyche. However, if you ask people whether they have any shame, the reply is very often “no.” This is accurate – to a point. We may not be conscious of any sense of shame. And yet it is there, unconsciously affecting every moment of our lives.
Shame centres on the emotions, the body and sexuality. It underlies all abuse and sexual dysfunction as well as a whole family of self-destructive emotional disorders including anxiety, panic attacks, self-harm, comfort eating and pornography addiction. Patriarchal societies use unconscious shame to perpetuate their anti-emotional and anti-sexual biases. (This is explored further in other posts.)
No one likes to acknowledge our collective unconscious shame because to do so requires acknowledging our individual shame, which can be traumatic. But as long as we avoid recognising our own personal shame we contribute to society’s collective shame. We perpetuate the out-dated belief that our emotions and sexuality must be repressed. Can you acknowledge your unconscious shame? You can do that by taking this self-test and being honest with yourself. Here are some of the ways in which unconscious shame manifests:
- You dislike public speaking
- You dislike having your photograph taken
- You have difficulty making decisions
- You have difficulty acquiring skills
- You have a fear of authority
- You are a perfectionist (the shame of getting anything wrong)
- You avoid opportunities for failure, e.g. exams, job interviews, being late
- You avoid responsibility
- You say you will do things but fail to follow through
- You practice some form of self-harm (in the wider sense of the term)
- You stare at the ground while walking
- You feel that you cannot cope
- You experience significant stress or anxiety
- You have difficulty handling change or confrontation
- You feel like you are sometimes invisible to others
- You feel like a loser, a loner, an outsider or a ‘black sheep’
- You dislike the way your body looks
- You feel squeamish at the sight of blood
- You feel embarrassed at being seen in the toilet
- You keep your genitals away from others when you hug
- You have issues with anorexia, bulimia or comfort eating
- You never go about naked
- You lack sexual confidence
- You think or feel that sex is somehow ‘dirty’
- You regard sex as only for procreation
- You get little pleasure from sex
- You don’t experiment with sex
- You suffer from erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation
- You want to avoid your partner immediately after sex
- You have difficulty discussing sex with your partner
- You have a preoccupation with sex or pornography
This is a very brief checklist of behavioural patterns that are widely considered normal but are often indicators of unconscious shame. The more boxes you tick, the greater the extent to which your life is being negatively affected by unconscious shame.
The purpose of this test is not to make you feel bad. It’s purpose is to show you that aspects of your personality you may have thought were just ‘who you are’ are in fact ‘who you have been conditioned to be’. Once you understand that, you move into a position to change them – if you so choose.
The ability to notice the inter-relationship of our thoughts, feelings and actions whenever something disempowering occurs in our lives is a vital skill to develop on the journey from a shame and anxiety-based life to one based on clear thoughts, positive feelings and empowered actions.