The issues listed here as shame-based may seem many and unrelated. Yet in reality they are both linked and governed by a small set of common denominators.
Underlying all shame-based dysfunctions lies a painful pressure. This is the dysfunction trying to communicate with our conscious mind so it can be recognised, accepted and healed. This pressure can vary in intensity from unconscious to semi-conscious to, at times, acutely conscious. The urge to self-harm to release this pressure is an example of the latter.
However, because we do not understand this communication correctly, instead of listening to it we seek to silence it either through making it go away (temporarily releasing the pressure) or obliterating it with a more intense life experience. Either way, these are coping mechanisms to deal with the pressure that ultimately fail to address the underlying shame.
Sometimes the pressure comes from within – e.g. feelings of low self-worth – while sometimes it is triggered by external events – e.g. cases of honour-based violence where a traditionally-minded parent becomes upset at their daughter’s Westernised sexual behaviour.
Shame-based issues thus fall into a range of categories. Some issues span multiple categories:
- Avoidance strategies – depersonalisation disorder, porn addiction, sexual dysfunction (e.g. asexuality or limited sexual expression)
- Attacks upon the self – self-harm, sexual dysfunction (e.g. masochistic practices), body dysmorphia
- Attacks upon others – sexual dysfunction (e.g. sadistic practices), honour-based violence, radicalisation
The shame cycle
Where shame-based issues stem from internal pressure, this often surfaces on a cyclical basis which in turn gives rise to a cyclical coping mechanism: the shame cycle.
This cycle of behaviour applies to a variety of issues such as self-harm, panic attacks, porn addiction, drugs, eating disorders and binge drinking. Regardless of how it manifests, the harmful act is a way of coping with distressing feelings originating in a shame of the emotions, the body and sexuality.
In September 2014, 15-year-old Josie Herniman was found hanged in the woods near her home. She had friends and a loving family. A Facebook photo shows a smiling teenager snapping a selfie. There were allegations of bullying and “unwarranted sexual advances” that the police were unable to substantiate. On the basis of a lack of evidence, the coroner ruled that Josie did not intend to kill herself.
Yet the evidence is there: Josie told a friend that she had tried to take her life a year earlier. Two suicide attempts seem hardly accidental. The unproven allegations centred on emotional abuse and sexuality – the exact sphere of unconscious shame. Was Josie’s death an accident – or the only way out of overwhelming emotional pain?
Josie’s is an extreme case, but our teenagers in particular are increasingly afflicted by the same painful feelings that she was unable to manage. This shame can be understood as a cycle of behaviour shown in this diagram:
In all cases the starting point is a reservoir of deeply entrenched negative self-beliefs – labelled ‘negative emotions’ on the MKSCB diagram – centred on the emotions, the physical body and sexuality. It is no coincidence that the coping mechanisms used to manage these feelings are also focused on the emotions, the body and sexuality.
In the above instances, the harmful behaviour is directed towards the self. However, the painful feelings arising from shame are sometimes directed outwards, at others. Instances of this include honour-based violence and, less obviously, radicalisation.
As long as we fail to recognise the unconscious shame that underlies this epidemic of destructive behaviour and take steps to restructure society accordingly, more and more people will tread the same tragic path as Josie Herniman.