Angry & annoyed? Sick of everything and everyone? Getting abusive to others??
Recover Dignity & Peace of Mind
Strength in pride
Abuse and selfishness from others affect us all, in all sorts of ways, including offending our sense of pride and dignity. The feelings we could experience at these times include: feeling awkward, accused, crushed, criticized, defeated, dirty, disappointed, discouraged, disrespected, embarrassed, hurt, helpless, ignored, jealous, labelled, like a loser, offended, rejected, self-doubting, shamed, sick of everything, slandered, stupid, uncool, weak. All these words indicate that something or someone has questioned our worthwhileness e.g. our competence, integrity, etc.
How do we respond in these situations? We could decide that we haven’t done anything wrong (at all or in comparison to others’ abuses) and exercise discipline to think of it no more – and sometimes this may be the best thing to do. Or we could allow ourselves to think of it, but try to block out painful feelings and any pangs of conscience. This may involve a deliberate swelling of our sense of pride and self (including anger directed inwardly or outwardly) in order to help us redouble our efforts or stand up to opposition.
However, using pride to stir inner strength has some pitfalls that need to be avoided. After all even if we are right and fair in our decisions most of the time, sometimes we’ll get it wrong… Are we able to eat humble-pie and put things right then? In a state of aroused pride, how do we avoid arrogance, which is bound to put us off-side with others? How do we not let our pride fuel excessive ambition, or violence? There is strength in pride but there are also weaknesses that we need to manage.
One way of thinking about this is the idea that our pride can over-reach itself and become individualistic and “egotistical.” If individualistic and egotistical pride sometimes takes over in you, it is probably other people who notice most! On the other hand, if you are like me, your individualism / egoism will sometimes create problems for yourself as well! For example, after a traumatic event, or when you have built up resentment upon resentment over time, you may, like I have on horrible occasion, feel sick of your lot….
Perhaps at these times, you can’t seem to stop thinking about the big mess you think your life is in at the moment ….but you feel disgustingly awful when you do think about it! You may feel angry with how others have treated you. You may feel angry with some aspects of your own performance. Perhaps, you can’t bear to expose your thoughts completely to any living person – so no-one understands what you are going through. Maybe you don’t like to talk about it because you don’t like how your thoughts and the situation reflect on you! You may feel great sorrow, loneliness and fear all mixed in together. One way or another, you feel stuck or at a loss of what to do! Your pride may be giving you strength but it may also be what’s sealing off other avenues of escape and help!!
Such experiences can stir our feelings of “indignity”, “shame”, “bruised ego”, “feeling like shit” “hurt pride” or a hundred other descriptions for this experience. I suspect we’ve all been there. This article is a suggestion about how such feelings can not only be managed and dissolved, but actually channelled into motivation for real change!
The ideas in this essay are based on the writings of Donald Nathanson, who built on the work of Silvan Tomkins. Back in the 1950’s, Tomkins identified shame/pride as a basic emotional building block (an “affect”). His model of human emotion is called Affect Theory. In the 1990’s Nathanson picked up on Affect Theory with a book called, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self (1992). Both Tomkins and Nathanson use a specialised sense of the word “shame”, which differs somewhat from our every day use of it, and can be hard to relate to. I therefore sometimes use the words “indignity” or “hurt pride” instead. In this essay I’ll also use the hyphenated term “shame–or–hurt-pride”. It may be useful for you to decide/become aware of what are your own usual words for the feeling you experience when your pride threatened or your sense of dignity eroded. Note I am talking about a feeling that is present before any secondary anger arousal. (I believe anger is always a secondary emotion whereas shame-or-hurt-pride is a primary emotion – perhaps the most potent primary emotion in terms of stirring up anger!)
According to Tomkin’s Affect Theory the very start of shame–or–hurt-pride is a slight perception that things are not going well for us in some way. Perhaps I am not feeling as relaxed and comfortable as usual. Maybe I am not enjoying an interpersonal interaction or maybe I’m not enjoying the thoughts I am having about something I did or something that happened to me. According to Affect Theory as soon as we have this perception, a chemical reaction occurs in our brains which we feel as “shame affect.” This gives a feeling of being slightly shamed – the feeling of our sense of dignity or pride being rubbed the wrong way. This feeling makes it harder to enjoy the present moment, and so we become motivated to focus our attention on whatever triggered this unpleasant feeling.
However, the feeling may get worse before it gets better. As we think about what triggered this feeling, we may feel our sense of pride – or shame – being irritated more. In very stressful situations, this feeling could grow to one of two extremes – feeling outraged at what others have done or feeling completely ashamed of myself and what I have done! Both are hard to manage. The first tends to lead to anger and hostility, while the shock value of the second can disorient us for a time such that we feel we have very little of our dignity or self-worth left at all (humiliation). We may automatically act in a self-righteous way as a desperate attempt to avoid any sense of humiliation!
Destructive Responses To Shame–or–Hurt-Pride
Shame–or–hurt-pride ranges in strength from very mild to excruciating. It can come out in our behaviour in lots of minor ways we don’t even consciously notice, all the way to serious crimes against humanity. Sometimes we are victims of prejudice and meanness from others. Sometimes, we are the victimizers of others, who we think deserve the mistreatment (“punishment”) we dish out. Sometimes we may automatically avoid taking responsibility for bad behaviour while at other times this becomes a freshly-calculated choice. Sometimes, even though we are being victimized and are suffering through no fault of our own, we may mysteriously still feel shame–or–hurt-pride – as though we are somehow to blame!
Experiencing shame and indignity are distressing experiences, and to complicate matters further, if we fear these feelings, we may be deeply tempted to take desperate measures to avoid them. These desperate measures can include suicide, becoming a loner, getting wasted or high on alcohol and other drugs; trying to compensate by obsessively becoming extremely ambitious in another area; and by just accepting low self-esteem and bad treatment from others.
However, these strategies are usually not as destructive in the wider community as another response – that of extreme violence and revenge against perceived shaming. Much conflict within families, communities, societies and internationally has shame/revenge components. The central role of blame, rejection and humiliation has become increasingly clear in these areas: domestic violence, oppositional “student vs teacher” mentality in high schools, and workplace bullying, to “police versus crims” mentality on the streets, increasingly severe court outcomes alongside increasing crime rates, civilian massacres in revenge for years of feeling rejected and humiliated, unrest between ethnic groups formerly subjected to colonial divide-and-rule tactics, and overwhelming military responses after acts terrorism, with each side outraged by the oppression of their own people and claiming the high moral ground (e.g. WWII as revenge for WWI humiliation), and the list could go on. I believe the way to promote better management of victimhood and to stop escalating revenge cycles, involves us identifying the dynamics of pride and shame in ourselves.
It seems to me that for revenge to get a strong grip in our hearts, we must have decided that we need to be strongly committed to self-interest above all else. This indeed is the dominant non-verbal message of human society – in perceived life and death situations it can be a case of “everyone for themselves.” I suspect this can lead to an attitude of mind, where we automatically tell ourselves “I can’t be wrong about this – it must be someone else’s fault!” “People are always blaming me; they think I’m an easy target; but I won’t listen!” Of course, other people are often wrong – and they can be selfish, uncaring and ready to abuse us for their own advantage. But it is a grave mistake to over look our own tendency to do the same at times!
The attitude of “I’m not to blame” can lead us to desperately try to place blame elsewhere. The (illogical) reasoning might be “I’m feeling bad when I wasn’t before – you must have caused it!” This leads to “So you fix it – now!” and to “Because if you don’t I’m going to get very angry..!” Our justifications for our angry and violent responses can include:
- I am feeling hurt and vulnerable
- I don’t like this power you seem to have over me to affect me like this
- I don’t think its fair of you to do this to me
- I want to even up the power imbalance here
- If you refuse to stop hurting me, then I will be justified in hurting you back
- Hurting you back will be a form of self-protection for me
- Even if I get more hurt while seeking revenge, at least I have will have struck back
- Revenge will let me salvage some pride and help me feel more powerful, instead of weak
- If I don’t strike back both of us will see me as a wimp and as an easy target in future
- I know from past experience that I’ll calm down again after I have ‘exploded.’
This sort of “pro-violent” thinking may, for example, be triggered in some circumstances by another person just looking askance or disapprovingly at us, or calling us a name, or telling a lie about us, or criticising us. In these cases, there is almost always no real threat to our safety. Yet, even where our safety is threatened, experience and reason tell us that the most lasting peace comes by peace-making not by making war, not by punishing harshly. However, it seems to be a hyper-common human fault (but not a foregone conclusion) that our shame/pride feelings lead us to react aggressively. Such thoughts and reactions are made much more likely, I believe, if a person is afraid to feel shame, and/or if a person has a long history of guarding their own self-esteem and “saving face” dismissive of other, perhaps more objective, sources of truth and fairness for everyone.
People who were blamed and shamed, abused and degraded in childhood are, I believe, much more likely (understandably) to have developed a hatred of and hypersensitivity to blame, and they may need much understanding, goodwill and assistance with this, rather than impatience and more blame. For all of us, no matter what our past experience, the way to a happier and healthier outlook will probably involve us sitting with our feelings without reacting, except to use our intellect and intelligence to address the problems that are triggering the feelings. For some this will be harder than for others; however those less used to doing this will be the ones who stand to gain the most when they begin to do it (in terms of real changes in personality and lifestyle)!
Who is to blame?
You may have noticed that I have referred two kinds of situations so far: situations where others are being selfish and abusive to you, as well as situations where you have been selfish and abusive to others. Often in real life, it is not objectively obvious who has been selfish and abusive to whom and who has been the main victim. Conflicting parties both feel bad and in an effort to divert blame, each side points the finger and tries to build a case against the other. Often some fault lies on both sides… and then the argument may continue over who started it or over who is more at fault!
“Who is to blame?” is an important question, because whoever is to blame should shoulder a proportionate amount of responsibility for putting things right again. Unfortunately, along with this important role (of fixing things), the person may experience some stigmatising and distrust from others for what they are believed to have done. Also, if we do admit to doing the wrong thing, unless we manage the shame/guilt feelings well, we may still not have the motivation to fix things or any confidence regarding significant personal change. The easy way out can appear to be to just deny all responsibility.
Sometimes the problem is the opposite one – we really are innocent and are being blamed in error. Perhaps no amount of denial or explanation seems to get through to others that “it was not me!” Then we might feel we are being shamed through no-one believing us or trusting us! In just this manner, victims of crime can carry a lot of undeserved blame and shame. Others can believe the victim may have “asked for it”. The victim themselves can wonder if they brought it upon themselves in some way, made themselves vulnerable, whether they “should have known better” or whether they are to blame for reacting foolishly in a moment of crisis. Moreover, victims who are left with nightmares, flashbacks and fearfulness, can think of themselves as weak and cowardly for not being able to “forget it” and get back to normal.
When the victim is a child who has been abused and the abusers have told the child, he or she is naughty (to blame) (and even without being told children will typically assume they contributed in some significant way), the child will experience these shame feelings while having very little knowledge or capacity to begin to resolve the feelings – or to stop the abuse. The child may conclude all kinds of negative things about themselves and others, and those conclusion (attitudes and beliefs) can be carried far into adulthood, perhaps perpetuating irrational shame problems, and perhaps making the adult hyper-sensitive to any hint of their pride being slighted, or to any small feeling of shame for mistakes they make.
Like a string knot that is too tight and too complicated to unravel, many survivors of childhood abuse struggle to indentify and discard their childish, self-condemning conclusions, and a fear of disclosing secrets of past abuse can keep them isolated and stuck. We can’t change the past, but we can make peace with the past by updating what meanings we take from the past. One meaning that is often present and needs to change is the victim’s belief that they were significantly to blame for the abuse, and professional and confidential counselling often focuses on helping the client re-evaluate this point. However, with or without such counselling, relief and real change can, I believe, be surprisingly close at hand when we use the help offered to us by our emotions themselves.
Our Emotions Are There To Help
Are shame, fear, sadness, anger, nervousness, boredom, etc. our “enemies within”? Are we wise to do absolutely anything to get rid of them? Could there possibly be any advantage at all for us in these unpleasant feelings? These are questions from the “emotional mind” – the mind overly-influenced by the emotions themselves. To the more objective “logical mind”, it is self-evident that people’s feelings are natural and normal parts of their humanity. Our unpleasant feelings are there for a constructive purpose, there to help us live as complex and balanced human beings.
Contrary to this, if I act on a day-to-day basis as though my unpleasant feelings are my enemy, then I am treating a major part of myself as an enemy! How then can I ever hope to be fully integrated as a person? And how boring my life will be if I dismiss my feelings (my inner emotional world and my subconscious) so quickly! Indeed, if I regard my feelings as my enemies – never trusting or listening to them, but plotting and fighting against them – I may be creating for myself the biggest obstacle of all to a very full and satisfying life!
Let’s say though that as I get older and more mature, I realise I need to pay serious attention to my emotions, including painful emotions, and accept them as a normal and healthy part of myself. My next issue becomes how to manage those feelings?! How can I use my feelings (especially the painful ones) to help transform my life to become genuinely more enjoyable? It will help if we have a good, in-principle explanation of what feelings do, and according to Tomkins’ Affect Theory, the basic function of our feelings is to draw our attention to things. Following on from this, we can see that the basic function of the painful feelings is to draw our attention to the problems we need to resolve.
As we all know, the unpleasant feelings go away by themselves once the triggering problem is resolved. Sometimes the resolution is as simple as accepting (willingly embracing) a situation. This means reckoning that some situation, which I once reckoned a problem, as being a problem no longer. Or in other words, to view as genuinely acceptable what I once deemed unacceptable. The other type of resolution when faced with unpleasant feelings is for me to think through the problem which is stirring up the feelings and appropriately adjust my behaviour to avoid, prevent, or recover from the problem. Either type of resolution (accepting a situation, or making strategic changes) will result in the unpleasant feelings ceasing naturally.
Different problems require one or other of these two types of resolution. Each type of resolution involves different types of personal challenges, and we must decide which type of resolution to try for each problem. The so called Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”) encapsulates the two types of resolution and the importance of categorising our problems wisely!
In contrast to these two resolution options, the worst thing we can do is to regard the emotion itself as the problem. In that case, we neither accept a situation we cannot change, nor do we change what we could. Instead our energy goes into trying to drown out the feeling that something is wrong. Given that we don’t consciously choose or select any of our emotions, blocking out a particular emotion can only occur if we can block out (or become insensitive to) all our emotions. Further more, since none of our emotions will actually cease, we will find out that our inner emotional pressure will increase, and our emotions will be expressed in less than fully conscious ways. They may be expressed in strange or angry behaviour, and in stress-induced illness, both physical and mental ill health. This will not only increase our distress, but the original problem, the one that triggered the emotion in the first place, is likely to get worse through our deliberate neglect of it.
It is true that on rare occasions, our emotional system gets out of balance e.g. if we suffer from irrational fears (phobias). But even then, the solution still requires us to tolerate and understand our emotions and to make some intelligent decision about how to react – instead of trying to ignore the problem.
Whilst different people may find some emotions more troublesome than others, shame–or–hurt-pride is one that is commonly difficult to manage, especially for westerners and for males. However, success in working through shame–or–hurt-pride can bring some big pay offs. And it starts with not running away from shame–or–hurt-pride.
Don’t Run From Shame or Hurt Pride
Our emotional system generally does not bother (has no need and no mechanism) to report on a positive sense of pride and dignity whenever everything is going well. Rather we become aware of our pride and dignity only when it is threatened or compromised – at those times we experience indignity, disrespect, or shame. That’s the time we need to listen to our feelings and not run from them.
There are a number of advantages of not running away from shame. Firstly, because shame is the great motivator, there will be lots of energy available down the track to be directed to real change if needed. Secondly, and following on from whatever real changes we make, there will a sense of dignity and worth-whileness in the place of shame. Thirdly, maintaining our pride and dignity without resorting to violence and revenge, will mean problems get sorted out without us badly hurting anyone, overstressing relationships or traumatising children and others.
In contrast, “shame-displacement” strategies may artificially and temporarily make our distress go away, but only at the cost of making the distress worse down the track – for ourselves and/or for others. Shame displacement strategies involve running-away from the feelings by such strategies as getting wasted or high on drugs, accumulating irrelevant successes, or committing suicide. These behaviours are mere distractions from the root problem, of course. The whole point of these behaviours is to draw our attention away from our feelings and away from addressing the underlying problem/s. Given that the purpose of my feelings is to draw my attention to certain problems, we can say that these behaviours are designed in fact do the exact opposite of our feelings!
Similarly, attacking-the-perceived-source-of-indignity sort of behaviours (using violence to seek “revenge” is the classic case) won’t help the root problem either. In fact it is likely to make things worse. Any solution to interpersonal problems is going to require information exchange. The basis of empathy and co-operation is communication. Although violence is itself communication, it is very vague communication. Violence communicates that I am very angry and am blaming others for something, but little more. If others have impacted me it is likely they don’t understand the nature or extent of the impact on me unless I tell them. If others don’t care about me and just want to make me out to be the problem, without having to understand my experience or point of view, their attitude has little chance of changing unless I can communicate my experience (without being shaming or threatening towards them). The main reason, I suggest, that we choose violence to get back at another is to bolster our sense of control and pride. We must take moral responsibility for all our acts of violence, because fundamentally, violence is a choice – not something the other person “made me do”. Even when we automatically fly into violence – it is we ourselves who have trained ourselves to do that. We cannot legitimately blame others, since no-one other than our individual selves has direct power over our own feelings, our own thoughts and our own actions (except by proxy, to the degree that I mistakenly believe – or deceive myself – that they do)!
Similarly, accepting low esteem – and engaging in getting-accepted-at-any-cost behaviours – also doesn’t help the root problem because in these strategies my attention is focused on the issue of continued social acceptance, not on the root problem. Granted that we all need some social acceptance, resolving the real problem/s triggering the shame is the more direct and logical way to feel better, and to enjoy a better life.
The degree of distress caused to others by poor pride/shame management is enormous when one considers all the distress to others world-wide associated in particular with violence, exaggerated ambition, drug abuse, and withdrawal (as in abdication of responsibility). I believe that better pride/shame management holds much promise both for individuals and for the state of the world as a whole. However, I think, better pride/shame management relies in turn on us doing something about our individualistic egos. Before we look at the problem of individualism, a word on shame versus guilt.
Shame vs. Guilt
Currently, in the psychological literature there is a discussion about the advantages of guilt over shame. I suspect that this is a false dichotomy. Instead I suggest that guilt should be understood as a secondary phase of shame. According to Affect Theory the initial part of shame emotion – shame affect – has a disorienting and disrupting function. We feel humiliated, worthless, base, good-for-nothing, stigmatised, rejected. The sudden experience of feeling ashamed interrupts our bad behaviour. The very human capacity for shame is very important in us learning right from wrong, in developing a conscience, in learning socially appropriate behaviour, and in motivating us to live respectfully of others (these are all referring to very similar things). However, being stuck in this phase is really not helpful and tends to be associated with hostility and anger, as psychological research has shown. By comparison, it is also very detrimental to be stuck in any negative emotional state (e.g. fearfulness). However such arrested emotional conditions should not be interpreted to mean that the core emotion, whether fear, shame or something else is unhealthy or aberrant.
A second phase of shame occurs, I think, when we have stopped acting up, and are thinking afterwards about what we have done. In the second phase of shame, we hopefully realise that it is not we ourselves that are unacceptable, but the particular behaviours we committed (and the attitudes and beliefs they stemmed from). This second phase of shame is I believe what some psychologists refer to as “guilt (feelings)” and/or “remorse.” At this stage the person has regained his/her perspective, distinguished between his/her identity versus their unacceptable behaviour, and has become committed to track down where he/she went wrong (which attitudes and beliefs led down the wrong path), how he/she can make amends and ensure he/she doesn’t reoffend.
We all have a memory about what things are fairly constant and unchanging about ourselves – what we like and dislike, how we tend to react in different situations, our appearance, etc, etc. This is often called our sense of self or our identity as a person. How we protect our sense of pride and dignity as human beings comes into it too. As referred to earlier, many of us have experienced pride strengthening us to cope with the blows of life, and we don’t want to give that up. There is, I believe, a health sense of dignity and pride that we all need – and I’m not talking about giving that up. The stronger and more healthy our sense of worth and dignity, the more resilient we are likely to be in dealing with shame affect, in taking responsibility, in learning from our mistakes and in living better lives.
The real difficulties with shame and pride start, I think, when our pride or sense of self over-reaches itself, especially when it becomes over individualised. Some aspects of western culture and of our modern way of living may increase the degree of overly “individualistic” egos (as well as “fragile” or “inflated” egos). While some of us may “over-subscribe to” (“over-believe in”) individualism more than others, this is something we can readily change if we want, once we’ve identified it as a problem for us.
The individualism I am talking about is a view of the self as being (entirely) self-made, self-determining, self-sufficient, and self-important. “I did it my way”, “I’m just like that”, “I don’t owe anybody anything”, “Look after number one” are examples of the kind of things an individualistic ego believes. So how is this problematic?
The problem, in the writer’s view, is that this view is unrealistic. We are all generally a lot less self-made, self-determining, self-sufficient and self-important than we like to think we are – and more able to change than we think we are too! In the writer’s opinion, it is our individualistic egos that make us rigid and inflexible and not able to easily change our ways. Part of the problem may be that individualistic egos both result from, and lead us to, lack trust in others. Often it is because we have been hurt by others in the past, that we decide we will be better off in future only trusting ourselves. We can kid ourselves that we are individually self-made, self-determining, and self-sufficient – in order to reassure ourselves that all we need to do to get our lives to go better is to trust no-one but our selves!
Another desperate answer to past hurts is to insist on having as much control of everything that affects us as we can get including control of situations, control of other people, and control of one’s own painful emotions and unsettling thoughts! Our individualistic egos like to believe this level of control is possible and that our tactics for wresting control from others are justifiable. I think this is especially likely for people who experience recurring neurological fear reactions (e.g. panic attacks), which in turn may be partly related to unresolved (and sometimes repressed) trauma. Individualistic egos, with their paranoid desire for control and their selfish ways, might seem to give us strength but they very easily stifle and deaden not only those around us but our own inner vitality. One alternative to an individualistic ego is what I call a “spoke” ego.
The long thin spokes in a bicycle wheel have an important function connecting rims to hubs. One individual spoke is not the centre of the wheel and it is not the most outstanding component or the star player. It is a part of a team of spokes. And whilst, none of the spokes are “the main component” of the bike, each and every spoke does play a worthwhile and needed individual role. To see our own selves as a part of a bigger, more important picture – and that we are part of a process greater than we can fathom just now but one we are willing to trust ourselves to – is to move away from an individualistic ego to a “spoke” ego.
This more humble and stable frame of mind can provide us with egos that are strong and adaptable, instead of being fragile or inflated. “Spoke” egos can, I think, manage challenges with more calmness and confidence. Various religious traditions have identified this kind of view as important for recovery and for a life well-lived. One of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Steps emphasises the importance of contributing to a project “bigger than yourself.” Such a view is also implicit, I believe, in the helping professions and in ideas about the social construction of identity.
If we choose to see ourselves as a part of the whole (and not the most important part), we are choosing dignity and our peace of mind rather than individualism. Then rather than think about what is best for me (as opposed to other individuals) in narrow and shallow terms, we recognise that what is best for me (as for all individuals) is actually the harmony and happiness of the whole family, team, community and world. In this way, the question of my own values and how to live in line with them becomes more important than having control over others, control over circumstances or control over what thoughts and feelings come and go through my brain. This is a radically different outlook, and one I believe which can make a huge difference to the quality of our lives.
Nature itself teaches us that inter-dependence is the norm. We know from a study of biology and ecology that when a need exists in the natural world, it has a corresponding answer. For example, some (all?) figs have flowers that don’t open up to the outside world, and which therefore can’t be pollinated by insects in the usual way. But, what do you know! There is a wasp that needs to live most of its life inside the fig fruit, and this wasp which depends on the fig, fertilizes the fig from the inside! The need of the wasp finds a corresponding answer in the need of the fig, and vice versa. This is but one case in millions of stories of inter-dependence. Wherever we look, individual organisms are dependant on an interconnected web of others, of which it has been said “the whole is greater than the sum of the (individual) parts”!
Likewise, since human beings’ exist, it is to only be expected that we are essentially compatible and reciprocal in relation to the rest of the world. We provide something the world/universe needs, and it provides for us in return. Some have suggested that we have over-evolved as a species out of balance with our world, but maybe the real answer is that we are yet to understand how problematic our individualistic egos are and how vital it is we adopt spoke egos!
To speak more practically now, I am suggesting that the way through the excruciating and debilitating feelings listed at the start of this article, may be for the individual to let go of his/her unfulfilled (unrealistic?) expectations, and also of his/her inflated sense of entitlement regarding those expectations! It is our individualistic egos that tenaciously hold onto inflated senses of entitlement and onto bitterness when they can’t get what they want.
I think the individualistic ego can take you to a point where you feel as though your life depends on “fighting for your rights”, “making your point”, “defending your ego”, “making a fuss”, etc… where you worry that if you don’t do these things your mental or social downfall will follow: others might no longer respect you, you might never be able to hold your head up in public again, etc. From the distorted point of view of our individualistic egos, if we are going to have to sit with shame and swallow it’s bitter taste we may as well swallow poison! That’s the problem with our individualistic egos!
The truth is, I have found, that although humble pie is hard to swallow it is actually easy to digest! ‘Eating humble pie’, ‘letting go’, ‘accepting without expecting’, ‘pulling your head in’, ‘taking things one day at a time’, ‘mindulness’, ‘meditation’, etc, etc – whatever we call it – doesn’t poison us but allows us to find rest from painful feelings and troubled minds. If these things feel like a kind of psychological death perhaps what we are feeling is just a “dying to” our individualistic egos. But don’t, after dying to your individualistic ego (and subsequently experiencing a wonderful peace) make the mistake of thinking that that individualistic ego of yours has now died – it won’t have! Experience indicates that individualistic ways of viewing ourselves can return rapidly to cause more problems at any point in the future (and thus a diligent, humble and life-long guarding of ourselves will become necessary).
Perhaps the bottom line when we find ourselves beside ourselves in distress is that… Life is what it is. None of us signed a contract with The Universe about what would be! Instead, we are what we are, no more and no less – and likewise others are what they are. So why shouldn’t we simply accept the good with the bad, and accept ourselves, others and circumstances as they are? If we are open to look at things from a fresh perspective maybe we will find that it is our old, individualistic attitudes and beliefs that have created the majority of our unhappiness. Further, as the Rolling Stones song says we may find that “(though) you can’t always get what you want … if you try sometime you’ll just may find – you get what you need!”
If the experience of a sense of abundance and joy seems to have passed us by, maybe it’s because we have been too busy focused on blaming others or Life in general. The bitterness that is bound to result from that outlook may then act as a self-fulfilling prophecy, making our lives much less fruitful and more difficult than they need to be. Not only so, but blaming others may keep us from seeing that the answer to the bitterness may just be as close and accessible as our own ego and our own management of shame/pride!
I am suggesting that when we are not confining ourselves in solitary, ego-based prisons, the occasional experience of indignity is not so overwhelming. Freed from individualistic egos we can receive feelings of shame–or–hurt-pride as a trusted guides, which bring to our attention the fact that something is inhibiting our enjoyment of normal human life, so that we can think things through, respond wisely and live more functional, enjoyable lives as a result. [We are not controlled by our feelings, since we decide (based on our deeper values and goals) how to respond to the problems highlighted. ] Freed from individualistic egos we can stop feeling and behaving like victims and we can stop feeling and behaving like victimizers!
Ever had a painful massage? Many athletes know the benefit of a rub-down after training. The trainer presses on the sore spots to get the muscles to relax. It hurts at the time, but later it feels much better and the muscles work fine again. But if you don’t stay on the massage table and put up with a bit of pain, your muscles stay sore for longer and you may have stiffness and a higher risk of injury next time you play. Dealing with shame/pride feelings is the same. We’ve got to learn to sit quietly with these feelings and put up with a bit of pain to our egos – and not get sucked into shame-displacement behaviours. Then by using our intelligence we will be able to solve the problems our shame–or–hurt-pride feeling has focused our attention on. (This kind of work is ideally suited to the 100-billion-neuron miracle between your ears!) Then we will find not just resolution of painful feelings, but objectively better ways to live and play as well.
A Practical Action Plan
If you find yourself strongly reacting to your circumstances – running away from situations or attacking someone, desperate for drugs, or getting into extreme behaviours, why not give this a go instead:
1) Try to distance yourself in an inner way from all distressing emotions and thoughts. Let the emotions and thoughts come and go, just don’t take them too seriously; try not to be so preoccupied by them. Use Time Out, meditation, mindfulness, distraction, etc. If it helps to cry, to exercise, to sleep, or to treat yourself, do so with self-compassion. Kindness to oneself is vital for personal change; whereas anger or self-rejection is counterproductive. Be patient and hope for better. Take things one step at a time. Wait for a stronger frame of mind before you think too much about the problem. e.g. wait until you are sober, had a good night’s sleep, got over the initial shock, recovered physically and/or had some medication from the doctor to take the raw edge off your feelings for a while.
2) Try to think about the problem whilst bracing yourself to endure the indignity/shame/hurt-pride feelings without letting them convert to depression, worry or anger. Did you do anything wrong or bad? Did you act selfishly, recklessly, meanly, inappropriately, abusively, deceitfully for any reason? On the other hand, did you do something well or better than usual? (give credit where it’s due!) Talk things over, always staying calm and listening to other people who were also affected by the situation. Why do they think things went wrong? You don’t have to agree with them, but listen and think about what they are saying. Try not to react to the indignity you feel. Instead gather information like a detective, and weigh it carefully. Decide to sit with it quietly with as much dignity as you can muster! Remember, enduring these painful feelings may bring you great benefit later – like letting a trainer massage your calves!
3) Where you decide that you did do some wrong or bad things – work out how you can make amends. It’s hard to own up, apologise, put things right and invent ways to ensure you don’t stuff up again. But not only will doing these things enable you to live better, but since the act of making amends/taking responsibility is honourable and reassuring for others, afterward you will experience dignity and pride and in place of indignity and shame, as well as more social connectedness and harmony!
4) Alternatively to point 3) above, where you have checked and rechecked your involvement as objectively as possible and you have decided that what happened was not at all caused by your decisions and actions, all that remains is to remind yourself as often as you need to that you did nothing wrong. In other words, you will reject all misinformed self-doubts and criticisms of others. While irrational and contrary thoughts and accusations are normal, they need to be understood as just flitting by and having little real meaning. These self-doubts and criticisms won’t have enough psychological weight to be able to stir up (undeserved) indignity/shame in you for long anymore, so long as you don’t let them have the last word in your head – so reaffirm the truth as often as you need to!
As already mentioned, a part of the whole process of recovery after a destructive and upsetting event is talking it over – including with those who see it differently from you. Initially, this would help you scrutinise your actions objectively. Later, when you have decided you definitely are not to blame for the event, you might need to be prepared to defend yourself and tell other people why you think their criticisms are wrong; you will want others to know the truth about what you really did and didn’t do so that they will continue to trust you. Of course, sometimes people are unable or unwilling to believe the truth for a variety of reasons. Then there may be little point in continuing to try to convince them of your innocence – especially if that is making for further conflict, for no benefit.
When relatives, friends, workmates, and community don’t believe you, that is a fresh and significant shaming pressure on you. When that happens, in order to continue to be innocent of wrong-doing, continue to keep your shame–or–hurt-pride in check – still don’t let it go to anger or other displacement behaviour. Review points 1-4 above again, and continue to act respectfully of the dignity of people who are causing you trouble. Hope and trust that those who love you and care for you will soon (or eventually) understand that those criticisms of you are wrong. In the meantime, whilst you may have to find ways to weather the negative opinion and perhaps loneliness, you yourself can nevertheless be free of indignity and hurt pride feelings and enjoy an enhanced sense of personal dignity and worthwhileness!
5) Alternatively to point 3) and 4) above, if your situation boils down to you not being happy with your lot, you may have to accept that some things are beyond your control. Let your unrealistic expectations, your inflated sense of entitlement and your individualistic ego go – these are ingredients for dissatisfaction, not for peace and happiness! Don’t beat yourself and others up over what can’t be changed. If your logical mind says you are safe and worthwhile, believe it and believing it will soon translate into you feeling better also!
6) Lastly, if you are still stuck with your horrible mindset and feelings, swallow your pride and seek professional assistance – perhaps some medication will help take the edge off things for a while and/or perhaps some counseling will help you find new perspectives on your old problems.If you quote from or distribute this article please acknowledge this webpage: http://jub.id.au/practicalities/shamepride-management – Jub, updated 29/10/2011